In 1954, an unknown woman by the name of Pauline Réage unleashed a tale of erotic submission called Story of O. Even though a woman writing about sex was nearly unheard of at the time, it was one of the most widely read contemporary French novels. It would take decades for the author, French journalist Dominique Aury, to come out from behind her pseudonym, and another 20-some years for American artist Natalie Frank to translate the work into a 15-piece exhibit.
The original Story of O takes place in a chateau, where a young woman named O is whipped, tied up, branded, tagged, and sexually assaulted by a cast of savages. She consents in order to prove allegiance to her lover. While Story of O has been rejected by many traditional feminists, Frank sees it as a testament to female empowerment, the nuances of desire, and sex positivity. Frank draws O with rosy cheeks and a deadpan expression. She wears a pink slip and frequents ornate interiors with circus-like characters who abuse, bind, and control her. It looks as if O is allowing herself to be objectified; her humanity and agency is apparent.
Frank recreates the book’s main scenes with gouache, chalk pastel, and mixed media painting, distilling shades of psychosexuality. Frank worked with Marian Bantjes to create wallpaper for the drawings to live on at her current exhibit Natalie Frank: O, which is on view at the Upper East Side’s Half Gallery through June 16. The wallpaper depicts lighter, fairy-like women getting dressed and reading among rainbows and butterflies. There will also be an illustrated book alongside the exhibit that features a conversation between Frank and the author and former New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Weschler.
VICE: What initially fascinated you about Story of O?
Natalie Frank: I knew it was vaguely taboo. I’ve always been drawn to narratives surrounding women and their bodies, sexuality, and violence. Maybe it’s a Southern Gothic sensibility? I started in art looking at the Weimar artists. I think Story of O deals with similar themes (and certainly repression is one tool of totalitarianism).
How would you describe the world your characters live in? How closely does it mimic our world?
I’m interested in where our subconscious, unconscious, and wish-fulfillment meets. The surrealism of everyday life is astounding to me. People and their expressions of power and identity are a type of performance art that runs through everyday life, whether we acknowledge it or not.
How do you understand your work within the greater dialogue regarding sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement?
I hope my work, this body of drawings as well as my past ten years of work, provokes the viewer to question and examine our constructions of gender and identity, sexuality, and hierarchies of power. Consent is foremost. And it’s a fundamental part of Story of O and of all of the positions I put women in in drawings and paintings. What do we submit to? What do we desire? As women, our complexities haven’t been afforded the attention and empathy that men’s have. I want to speak to this. There is a massive gray space which we are just starting to talk about in terms of female sexuality—and the toxic masculinity and abuse of power that women and others have endured in silence for far, far too long. O speaks to the female erotic imagination, and there is power in reclaiming a space that has been denied women.
I know Story of O was written in a style that mimicked pornography. What do you think about how pornography is consumed, talked about, and made?
The style was a parody of pornography. Aury wrote this book to intellectually seduce her lover through an erotic fantasy. I find great humor in this very postmodern gesture.
There’s a storybook-like quality to your work, something you clearly address with your Grimm’s Fairy Tales series. Can you expand on that a little and how fantasy works within Story of O?
O is a contemporary fairy tale. That obviously still provokes. Stories—whether they be personal narratives, biographies, fiction—have a lot of work to do in telling women’s stories, human stories. Storybook, they are not. Fairy tales, in their originals forms, weren’t sanitized. The “happily ever after” ending often came later (to increase sales and pass on codes of conduct). I was drawn to Grimm’s because there were markers of everyday life in the 19th century that resonate in the present: wolves (however they may come); cannibalism (we devour our own); rape and murder. Realities of the cruelty of life. O takes these cruelties and perverts them for her own edification.
I read a recent quote from you that said, “It’s not about sex. It’s about power and sexuality and identity and the imagination.” How do you understand the relationship between eroticism, fantasy, identity, and power?
These are the power structures with which we define ourselves. We all exist in bodies and it takes a lot of imagination to live and age and tell stories, at times believing them, order society with them, and ultimately vanish.
Your depiction of bodies (specifically female) differs from classical romantic depictions of feminine figures. Could you talk a bit about that?
I aim to show women as we are. Not as we are seen.
How does your past experience with sexual harassment in the art world live within your work?
I focus on representations of strong women! More than 80 percent of women are sexually harassed—what do we do with this? This is the way forward: these questions and this change is what I’m interested in. I aim to show women who are powerful, in a variety of definitions of power. For Aury, there was power in consensual and desired subjection. And in domination. O played the spectrum of dominant and submissive in her youth and maturity. Drawing O allowed me similar role-playing. There’s power in the ability to assume many positions along the spectrum, at will.
Is O satisfied with the situations she manipulates?
As much as there is movement and change in this book, as in life, satisfaction would be stasis. This doesn’t seem to be human nature, or the nature of the body itself. I’d say O triumphs in her own quest for meaning and self-definition—the others certainly satisfy her desires.
How would you say your work shows nuances or layers of sexual situations?
I try to portray a spectrum of possibilities. There is no male/female/dominant/submissive/self/other. All of the categories elide. This feels real. Messy, bodily, true.
Your visual language includes ornate interiors, masks, makeup, bondage, and almost ghostly figures. Can you talk a little about how these motifs work?
I want all of the figures, masked or not, to flicker in and out of reality. I want there to be a dream-like nightmarish quality of a fever dream to the spaces that O inhabits. I focus on her face mostly, a bit of body; I’m interested in her psychological morphing and transformations. All of the guises and bondage and makeup and power are tools of transformation.
Have you received any negative critiques of your work, perhaps from "traditional" feminists?
Not outside of the initial dealer who cancelled my exhibition. I’ve received emotional and personal notes from quite a few women and men who believe art should not be legislated, that now is the exact time to be speaking about boundaries, complex desire, and consent. [I’ve gotten] emails and Instagram messages in appreciation that cookie-cutter female sexuality isn’t being portrayed. I’ve been painting representations like this for more than ten years. I’ve been incredibly grateful and buoyed by the support of fellow artists who have come to see the show, curators, art writers, and friends.
Who are some of your favorite feminist artists right now?
Judith Bernstein, Betty Tompkins, Cecily Brown, Judy Chicago, Lorna Simpson, Shirin Neshat, Christina Quarles, Tschabalala Self. Erin Pollock is an exceptional animator I just met at the New York Academy of Art. There are so many exceptional women and men making feminist art now!