The artwork of American illustrator Jacqueline Secor is radical and delicately beautiful. Jacqueline makes tiny yet gloriously detailed pictures of the feminine anatomy. More than sex, or depictions of the female sex, these are illustrations of excruciating detail and powerful political syntax.
“Searching for your power and creative voice is a lifelong journey. Embrace your failures. Some of my most powerful works were built upon failures and insecurities.”
Many of us feel that insidious measuring stick of self-worth, a constant evaluation of worth based on physical appearance. When it comes to the depiction of sex, sexuality and even the feminine body, reductionist representation paired with the devaluing and demeaning of the feminine form, and reproductive organs is something we should see as a way of enforcing and securing patriarchal power.
The reasoning perhaps is that if one hides away female anatomy, revealing it mostly to a static form or pornographic visuality, or imagines the vulva, the vagina as something “weak” or repulsive well then in turn the feminine body becomes ugly and powerless.
In my mind, it is patently ridiculous that anyone should tell men and boys they are superior for so many reasons, mostly because it’s an ugly way of looking at the world. Jacqueline sees art as a way to negotiate body politics, and notes that her series Diversity of Nature began as an entirely personal way to cope with her own Body Dysmorphic Disorder, something that developed “from living in an unhealthy environment that led me to become extremely self-critical.”
This series, every piece an abstraction from a live model, honors each body in all of its individuality. It is my hope that in the face of such beauty and power, there will be no room left for comparison.
Jacqueline’s precise work reminds one of the historic scientist artists who sensitive, delicate and lavishly colored studies of insects, flowers, plants, root networks and creatures served not only science but the visual imaginary of people even today. One might recall the extraordinary pictures of the famous botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (active mid – 18th centuries). Close examination of Jacqueline’s work reveals the most intimate of details, she has painstakingly depicted the feminine genitalia, in study after study that seem to be at once scientific in the botanical illustration tradition, but also a celebration of the female form. There is nothing truly explicit here, instead we see a sort of subtle Georgia O’Keefe like sense of line and pattern, paired with the precision of scientific drawing methodology.
Nevertheless, it seems that there is something more radical at heart here, and the story in itself is one of first repression and then liberation. You see, Jacqueline grew up in the Mormon Church, a religious sect notorious for the repression of the rights of women.
In every negative response, I see an attempt to silence women, to invalidate how they look, what they say, and how they exist in the world.
Rosa JH Berland: Tell me about your experiences growing up, the church, your role as a woman…
Jacqueline Secor: I was raised Mormon, but started to question the church as I got older. I remember at twelve not understanding why the boys my age had more authority than girls. At twelve, boys become members of a “lesser priesthood,” and at nineteen become eligible for a “higher priesthood.”
Members of either priesthood are the absolute authority in the church. Women are excluded from the priesthood, which means young men are taught that they have something more. They have the authority to act in God’s name, and this sets them apart from the rest of the world.
As a young woman in the church I was taught to be an auxiliary to the priesthood, to be modest, and that the most important thing I could do is marry a priesthood holder and raise a family. This just was not realistic to me especially with the experience of my dad’s death when I was only 11 and my mother as head of my family.
RB: Polygamy is the most notorious of the church’s practices so I think many people just know about this system, and are less aware of the levels of priesthood.
JS: There are even ceremonies performed in Mormon temples today where men promise to obey God and women promise to obey their husband. The most notorious example of Mormon treatment of women, is the practice of polygamy.
The founder of the church, Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives. Another former prophet of the church, Brigham Young, had 55 wives. A wife of his, Ann Eliza Webb, wrote, “Polygyny was the most hateful thing in the world to her, and she dreaded and abhorred it, but she was afraid to oppose it, lest she be found fighting against the Lord.” This was the main reason so many women accepted polygamy. The elders of the church assured these women that those who refused to practice polygamy would be damned. Because of Mormonism’s systematic oppression of women, I removed my name from church records a few years ago.
RB: There is reductionist and static visuality of female anatomy that informs our expectations of beauty and normality. In opposition to such ideas, I would mention, Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde, Musée d’Orsay. What do you think of these issues and this painting itself?
JS: I saw the painting in 2012, and I do love it, and find it interesting that has escaped “pornographic” status. Some opponents of my art say it is pornographic (especially in Utah). I find this to be somewhat ironic, since the vulvae in porn tend to have one look; whereas, my art shows the diversity of the female form. In 2009, a study showed that Utah had the nation’s highest online porn subscription rate. If men and women only see this one specific version of female genitalia, then they start thinking that there is something wrong with anything that does not conform to that. Increasingly, too, women are getting labiaplasty.
A few years ago there was a study that linked “Toxic Perfectionism” to depression among LDS women ( Utah’s population is 62.2 percent Mormon, “LDS”). Way back in 2007, Forbes ranked Salt Lake City as the “Vainest City in America” based on plastic surgery rates, and there are even more plastic surgeons in Utah today. I feel this is all based in the desperate quest for an arbitrary version of “perfection” having to do with the value placed on superficial beauty in a patriarchal society. These topics were the catalyst for my Diversity of Nature series.
RB: Tell me a little about the subject matter and the often negative reception?
JS: Painting vulvae, which focuses on the parts that are “supposed” to be hidden, does feel like a small act of resistance. This is my way of saying that women do not need to hide. We deserve a place, not just in the art world, but in every sector.
I have been greatly encouraged by the positive responses to my work; however, the negative comments motivated me even more to continue working on this series. This negativity in fact highlights the fact that even in 2017, women’s bodies are a site of conflict.
Female bodies are constantly criticized, critiqued, and commented on, which can result in the most harmful judgement of all: our own.