My student Maria Romo writing about Rhiannon Aarons’ MFA Printmaking thesis exhibition Rabbit Hole, in the School of Art’s Gatov Gallery West on 26 April 2017.
Artist: Rhiannon Aarons
Exhibition: Rabbit Hole
Gallery: Gatov Gallery West
Media: Printmaking (& Performance Art)
About the Artist
Rhiannon Aarons is an art educator, curator, studio assistant, adult model, dominatrix, and mother. She is a feminist in the way that most women, and the world, don’t want her to be. In the past 30 years, she has faced discrimination for being an artist while having a child. Everything that she does is to feed her practice and put a roof over her head.
In fall of 2015, a video I had done for a small adult production company in 2009 was released on a free site and received over 250,000 views. I was recognized by a bartender near campus. It left me with the intense realization that this part of my life had to be addressed. I deeply believe that the demonization of sex work is rooted in misogyny, but it exists all the same.
— Rhiannon Aarons, MFA Thesis Statement
Rhiannon Aarons is completing her MFA Printmaking at the CSULB School of Art. Rabbit Hole is one of her many works.
There is a large part of this exhibit that I will not be able to talk about as much as I would like to because I was unable to be present when it was performed. Rabbit Hole officially opened on Sunday, April 23, 2016, with a special performance from Sheree Rose, Martin O’Brien, and Aarons herself. They performed a simulated rabbit abortion, where Rose pulled out a bloody rabbit from inside Aarons. (this was the event I was unable to attend) The performance was reminiscent of what Rose and her late partner Bob Flanagan would do in the 1990’s, and in many ways, also acts as an educational opportunity for people interested in medical studies and the BDSM lifestyle. (More from Rose and Flanagan later.)
While Aarons’ work has a lot to do with that of Rose’s and Flannagan’s, her art goes further beyond performance and extends to her prints. Rabbit Hole has a lot to do with the works of Lewis Carroll’s most famous story, Alice in Wonderland. Aarons takes drawings from John Tenniel’s original book illustrations and redraws them through a different lens to show a different meaning.
Multiplication, the first work as you enter the exhibition, is made of a 6 print installation and a hardcover book. The pictures themselves all look the same from far away, but up close you can see the development of a story where Alice is in essence, giving birth to hundreds of rabbits. This is different from the original illustration where Alice is just sitting on a chair with her cat. The pictures are all black and white, paper and ink. They are framed in very simple black frames so as to not divert the attention of the audience. The book that’s part of the piece is titled Curiouser and Curiouser: Multiplication. It includes the full transcript text of the Roe vs Wade US Supreme Court decision, as well as illustrations from Aarons, John Tenniel, and the public domain.
While most of Aarons’ work is print and resembles Tenniel’s art style, she does have some pieces which are quite different and might seem odd at first sight. For example, Bed Redux consists of PVC sheets used in Philosophy in the Bedroom – a collaboration event that occurred in September of last year with Rose, O’Brien, and Aarons, and has bodily fluids from the experience. From what I could see, they just have blood on them. That’s the oddest of the bunch, however, Aarons also includes a business card from the hotel where the event was staged. It symbolizes an important moment in the relationship of the trio.
The reasons why Aarons does this work are complex and hard to talk about. I consider them hard to talk about because they carry the social stigma of taboo topics. Because of this some will feel inadequate to discuss these topics. When talking to Aarons, she tells me that you can tell when a girl is dominant as early as the age of 14. Sexual orientation will help develop how much of a dominant she is but won’t fully blossom until she is much older. In many ways, many women are dominants, but the nature of it never fully develops, and women don’t embrace it because society has made it taboo and represses their nature. This is very much like the Alice that Aarons shows us.
Alice as an overall character is controversial because of Carroll’s original depiction of her. Alice is very much an innocent little girl, but there are sexual connotations behind her character and the world she is from, not to mention all the different interpretations of her that have been made in more recent years. Alice in the original book goes through many body transformations where she is told what to eat to make her body larger or smaller. This is a key factor of the idea that society represses girls because they are afraid of what they will do, and what they will be like if they find out how to use their sexuality and start having sex. You can ask almost any girl if she has ever been seen as an object for someone else and if she has ever been stigmatized if she has tried to have sex. It is an issue that will always present in society. The idea that you’re either a slut, or you’re a prude.
Going on to further that idea, and to show the contrast of it, I think most people see older women (+40) as not sexual beings. Meaning, women of an older age just don’t have sex, they don’t think about sex. That is wrong! This where Sheree comes in. Sheree is a dominatrix that found out she was dominant very early in her life. Over time, society told her that was bad, but it wasn’t until Bob Flanagan came around, and let her fully develop this nature of hers, that she let it take off. Sadly, Flanagan died in 1996 of cystic fibrosis, a condition he had been born with, and the event ultimately caused Sheree to go into retirement. Now Sheree is a 75-year-old woman who has come out of her retirement thanks to Martin O’Brien, who also has CF, to show the world that older women can still get it on.
However, it’s not just older women that aren’t seen as sexual beings. It’s also mothers. This where Aarons is directly affected, because well, she is a mother. As if being discriminated against because she is an artist and a mother wasn’t bad enough, she is also discriminated against because she has sex. Moreover, she is discriminated against because she comes out in an adult film and is dominant. Aarons is no stranger to death threats from people she knows.
I remember watching 50 Shades of Grey fly off the shelves as I received death threats from a co-worker over my personal history. As I started forging new relationships in graduate school I was pained at the prospect of continuing to lie by omission.
— Rhiannon Aarons, MFA Thesis Statement
In many ways all of this comes back to society and its views of women. We can say that it’s mainly the male perspective of the female because in many ways society is male dominated. That’s why Tenniel’s works are relevant for Aarons. She takes illustrations that were created by a man, to show a little girl’s story, and manipulates them to show an underlying story that is not very well accepted. The underlying story is only hinted at because it is so taboo and because people don’t want to associate it with what we see as the overlying story. In essence, Aarons takes Tenniel and puts her own form of feminism on it, but still keeps the original lens intact.
Looking at the exhibit was as much an experience as it was writing about it. I feel somewhat inadequate to talk about such subjects because I am somewhat ignorant and innocent of them. I grew up in a Catholic family, I still live with my parents, and I am an older sister. In many ways this makes me a candidate to fall under the same ideas that Alice did. A young girl, innocent of many things, but because she is a girl, is still objectified as this sexual being whether she knows it or not.
I wanted to write about this, despite’s my lack of knowledge and shyness, because I believe in the things that the exhibit, and everybody involved in it, stand for. For me, it’s feminism. And it’s a very different take on feminism that we don’t often see. To a lot of us, feminism is just women having rights and saying that women are equal to men. To me, feminism is also about acceptance of everyone beyond gender. We are equal because we accept that we are equal, and in many ways, that means that we know who we are. As RuPaul says
How in the hell you gonna love somebody else if you can’t love yourself?
It’s true! How are you ever going to accept someone else, if you don’t know who you are and accept that first?
While Aarons work is certainly for an older audience, there are elements of it that should be taught earlier. Girls should be taught that it’s OK to be who they are, embrace their natures, and that they should stand up for themselves.