A woman in a bra with a plastic bag over her head

Cheryl Donegan, Artists + Models, 1998

Cheryl Donegan, Artists + Models, 1998

04:43 min., b&w, sound
Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

Cheryl Donegan (born 1962 in New Haven, Connecticut) became known in early 1990s New York for using her own body in videotaped performances that confronted issues relating to sex, gender, art-making, and art history. Surprisingly, Donegan never took a course in media or technology as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned a BFA in painting, or Hunter College, where she completed an MFA in 1990. In fact, she was not particularly interested in video art until rats ate one of her sculptures. That is, in the late 1980s, Donegan primarily was a painter and sculptor who developed an interest in creating works from food, such as bread. Aware of her media’s impermanence, but doggedly insistent on the permanence of sculpture, Donegan was faced with reality when she entered her studio one night to find her work destroyed by vermin.

As the destruction of her artwork was out of her control and she had little time to develop new sculptures, Donegan’s predicament translated well to video art, as she could quickly create work with the press of a button. Furthermore, because Donegan did not know how to edit video, she developed a point-and-shoot style that reinforced the immediacy and accessibility of her work. She recalls, “I thought, let’s make this a performance video where it unfolds by itself. The only edit needs to be start and stop. I had no idea how to patch it together, but I had an idea and I just pressed play.” What resulted were direct, ironic, and irreverent videos, such as Gag (1991) and Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (K.M.R.I.A.) (1993).

In Gag, Donegan is seated in a chair with her hands bound behind her back. Clutching a baguette between her legs, she leans over to chew and swallow the bread until only a stub remains. Through a low-tech, single-take performance, Donegan ironically yet profoundly comments on sexist clichés and archetypes related to women’s status and struggles in the art world. At the same time, the work suggests her defiance and determination in the face of such obstacles.

In Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (K.M.R.I.A.) Donegan takes agency and uses her body as an art-making tool. Recorded during a performance at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, the video shows Donegan squatting her buttocks into green paint, then pressing them onto paper to form images of shamrocks. While the context and her motivation remains cryptic, Donegan’s mass production of paintings speaks to romantic notions of the (typically male) master painter or artistic genius.

In the same year, Donegan recorded Head (1993), perhaps her most famous work. Accompanied by Sugar’s song “A Good Idea,” the video features Donegan catching a flow of milk from the side of a large plastic jug into her mouth. When her mouth is filled, she swallows some of the liquid and spits the rests back into the top of the container. As the gush of the stream dies down, Donegan begins to lick the bottle. She again uses her own body as a metaphor and suggests, as in Gag, clichés about female sexuality as well as the pornographic histories and images of the domination of women in the realm of “high art.”

The success of her early works led to Donegan receiving various honors and awards. Her work was included in the 1993 Venice Biennale and the 1995 Whitney Biennial. In 1995, she won the Anonymous Was A Woman Grant. Donegan was an artist-in-residence at ART/OMI and Banff Center for Fine Arts, Alberta, Canada, and she won the Grand Prize at the 7th Biennial of Moving Image at the Centre for Contemporary Image, St. Gervais (Geneva), in 1997.

Also in 1997, she produced Scenes + Commercials. A video filmed at a gas station in Tennessee, the work was inspired by an uncut recording of the Beach Boys rehearsing “Help Me Rhonda.” Brian Wilson is known for rearranging his songs in multiple ways. Donegan notes that “the version of Help Me Rhonda that we know is as good as fifteen others. Why would we allow only one version to come through? That’s what I was trying to do. I did not want to become an icon.” Therefore, in later years, Donegan’s style and interests have changed in various ways. In particular, she has explored surface. For Donegan, the self is defined by surface, and identity is interpreted as clothing, fashion, and technology. Consequently, much of her work interrogates what could be called second skins, such as canvas, screens, and plastic.

Donegan has engaged in dialogues with designers about ideas in which we continually resurface our bodies. As a result, she produced Extra Layer, a collection of outerwear that she unveiled in a fashion show at the New Museum in early April 2016. She also has sourced social media and other found content from platforms like eBay and YouTube for her video output. This led to an ongoing project entitled Vines Project in 2015. In the form of an iPhone screen shot of Donegan’s VINE channel, YourPlasticBag, and alongside formal screenings, Vines Project encourages viewers to explore the artist’s six-second videos on their own phones.

Artists + Models (1998) combines Donegan’s earlier and later interests in a video that features her own body to comment on both the creative and historical processes of art as well as employ various surfaces and materials in ways that speak to the representation of the self and one’s identity. The video addresses canonical subjects in modern painting, particularly the relation between the artist and model. Donegan uses this pair to play with the notions of subject and object, giving banal items, such as plastic bags, subjecthood, as they cover and seem to symbolize Donegan’s body. Moreover, the video refers to ideas about the heroic, gestural painter and the supposed autonomy of abstract art.

In this black and white performance tape, Donegan works within the format of a music video, using more sophisticated editing techniques accompanied by the melancholic soundtrack of “Free Will and Testament” by Robert Wyatt. The art direction is compelling. Every scene features plastic of some sort that encases Donegan’s body, including a plastic shopping bag over her face, a shower cap on top of her head, and a trash bag that covers her body.

Donegan plays both artist and model, speaking to a decidedly gendered, paradoxical experience of women in the art world. Indeed, she is armless throughout the video and must paint with a brush in her mouth and onto the plastic that covers her or on the screen of the video’s camera. At times, the trash bag is covered with enormous stamps of fingerprints, suggesting her body has been “man-handled.” In the end, the plastic, meaning the model, is seen as discarded and disposable. The bag in which Donegan is tied up is thrown out with the trash, and the shopping bag that doubled as her face is carried off by the wind and seen floating down the street. Nonetheless, Artists + Models is Donegan’s creation and told from her perspective. She therefore takes ownership in the telling of a story to which many other women in art can relate. —Kanitra Fletcher