JTF (just the facts): A total of 49 color photographs, generally framed in white and unmatted, and hung against colored walls in a series of connected spaces on the 4th floor of the museum. The works were made between 2008 and 2019. No process information was provided, and a few of the images have been enlarged and presented as wall decals. The show also includes an installation of 3 single channel videos with sound, from 2013, 2015, and 2016, as well as a pair of shoes (in a vitrine), a body suit, a breast spray bottle, and a breast lamp, surrounded by custom wallpaper and rug. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: While our current cultural moment is filled with increasingly broad social acceptance of different kinds of personal identities, genders, and sexual orientations, the complexities of how heterosexual relationships can evolve beyond their established norms have largely been left underexplored by photographers, at least until Pixy Liao came along. For more than a decade now, Liao has been crafting carefully staged images made with her partner that upend the traditional gender roles of a heterosexual couple, in particular, rethinking the subtle modes of dominance and submission that are typically aligned with male and female identities. In 2018, she published a well-received photobook entitled Experimental Relationship Vol. 1 (2007-2017) (reviewed here) that gathered together images from many of her early projects, and this museum show (her first in New York) updates and amplifies that survey.
The earliest images in the show find Liao (who is Chinese) and her partner Moro (who is Japanese and a few years younger) working through a series of simple domestic setups where they explore different gender dynamics and feminine/masculine roles. Clothing is often used to subtly signal power relationships, with Moro generally nude, in his underwear, or semi-exposed in some way, and posed body position is similarly employed to make clear who’s in charge (and it’s almost always Liao).
We watch as Liao pushes behind him cupping his chest, stands beside him pinching his nipple, and looks down at him as he shelters underneath her dress, always in a control position. Other memorable scenes find a nude Moro splayed out on the kitchen table with a seductive papaya slice covering his genitals with Liao looking straight at the camera as she prepares to take a bite (literally “eating him for breakfast”), and Moro (once again unclothed) lying over a roll of bed linens, submissively wrapped up like a piece of sushi. The home-based improvisations then continue through setups with the two wearing one shirt (with heads alternately poking out), antics with a clothes steamer, and various setups with her over him – draping her hair over his face, spitting in his mouth, or bending him over her knee for a bare bottomed spanking. The photographs are clearly supportive and collaborative, but still quietly provocative, as they repeatedly challenge our expectations for male/female interaction.
More overtly Japanese settings, like tatami-matted rooms and sculpted gardens, provide the backdrop to another series of images. In these works, both people wear traditional kimonos, but once again Liao is placed in dominant poses, from holding Moro’s face while he looks at her (and she looks at the camera) to pinning him down with her face just above his. In general, these photographs continue the undercurrent of charged sensuality, with Liao alternately in a powerful crouched pose with her arm flexed and more seductively lying down with her bent arm over her forehead, and a vulnerable Moro shown bare backed with his kimono pulled down (in a typically feminine pose) and seated in a corner blindfolded. Out in the gardens, Moro sits on a rock looking small and vulnerable once again, and when Liao joins him, the scene turns Edenic.
A more recent series stages Liao and Moro in matching red and blue wrestling singlets, with Liao almost always in a position of control or dominance. The grappling, head locks, and tangled limbs nearly always end up with Moro underneath, and in one case, Liao straddles above him wearing a fake champion’s belt. But there are also moments of tenderness and intimacy in these pictures, particularly in an enlarged wall decal image of Liao’s face nestled in underneath Moro’s chin.
As a venue, Fotografiska has consistently opted for dramatic installation approaches, and one interior room of Liao’s show delivers a more overtly amplified version of her artistic worldview. The room is anchored by a video screen playing three short but provocative video works – one where Liao uses a breast-shaped spray bottle to shoot milk onto Moro’s face and into his open mouth, a second where she walks down the street wearing a body suit shaped like Moro on her back, and a third where Moro walks in steep high heeled shoes that feature plastic penises as the heels. All of the actual props used in the videos are presented in vitrines or on shelves, surrounded by wallpaper decorated with stylized body parts and genitalia (both male and female) as the repeated graphic elements. A handful of photographs have also been mixed into this busy installation, all of the images cropped down to fingers pinching, poking, or grabbing (one holding a bag of ping pong balls like a penis) or breasts of both genders covered or uncovered by sweaters, shirts, and red-nailed fingertips. And while the effect of all of this initially seems light and fun (there is breast light that flashes on and off, by the way), Liao’s provocative brashness doesn’t really hide her serious approach to actively undermining traditional gender roles.
When we strip away the flashiness of this exhibit presentation, it’s clear that Liao’s work belongs in a continuum of feminist photography that stretches back to the 1970s. Many of the pioneers from that period used themselves and their own bodies as the venue for their experiments and transgressions, and there are undeniably connections to be found between Liao’s images and those of Francesca Woodman, Birgit Jürgenssen, Martha Rosler, and others. Liao’s work interrogates a fluidity in relationships that is new, but many of her central concerns about breaking down the stereotypes of female roles are similar to those of her predecessors.
In the end, it is Liao’s visual clarity that stands out most – each of her images is meticulously controlled, the poses feeling pared back to their essentials. This leads to single compositions that feel almost allegorical in their messaging, each scene boiled down to the gesture or look that cements a stylized point about the interaction of the couple, and in a large survey like this one, each photograph then becomes a variation on the central theme she is exploring. After more than a decade, she’s built up an impressive range of visual evidence, proving that gender relationships between men and women can be far more malleable and adaptable than traditional roles have allowed.
Collector’s POV: Pixy Liao is represented by Chambers Fine Art in New York (here), among others. Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.