Secondary Sex Characteristics (2009 - 12)
In Secondary Sex Characteristics, Caitlin Berrigan lovingly inscribes the flecks, curls, and tangles of her subjects’ chest and nipple hair. The ink on vellum drawings linger perversely within notions of the secondary, the trivial, and the liminal. Unrelated to procreation—the alleged “primary” function of sex—these “secondary” sex characteristics denote seemingly insignificant difference. But might their inconsequence also imply a powerful unreliability and ambiguity? What if gender were defined by the quantity of hair on one’s chest? Its curliness? The shape and weave of one’s thatch?
While some subjects seem definitively male, others are indeterminate. Lifted from their bodies of origin, some drawings of thick chest hair take on the shape of female breasts, whereas those of nipple hair alone appear flat. Rather than deceiving us, these morphologies indicate that the signs of gender are unstable in the first place. They suggest a subversive power that the irrational secondary—usually an afterthought—holds over the dominant and material primary. The curving pathways and random streaks of chest and nipple hair remind us of the play, variation, and intermediacy that biology sprouts on our bodies: a randomness that thwarts our attempts to exclude and taxonomize. By fixating on the “secondary” sex characteristics, the artist moves us into a realm of overlapping and twisted contours of gendered belonging.
Secondary Sex Characteristics are a kind of intimate performance as portraiture that, like other works by Berrigan, leave us with indexical evidence. Roughly scaled to her own chest, the drawings trace relationships of longing. Some subjects have been lovers, while others are queer male artists who have been photographed bare-chested in their own work or for the media. The drawings bear evidence of how gender is not defined on its own, but is negotiated through and against the company we keep. The suggested in-betweenness of bisexuality, for example, disturbs any sense that desire flows from gender, or gender from sex. In homage, the drawings testify to the creative and subversive influence of the queer male art world, but they also point to the institutionalized exclusions within male-male practices of mentorship, brotherhood, and adoration. Haunting the gallery, these tenuous images undo and pluralize the gendered selves and embodied presentations they depict—hopelessly entangling emulation and desire.
. Matt Franks
Managing Editor, GLQ Journal
UC Davis Department of English, PhD Candidate
Proof Gallery, Boston, 2012