Sex, literature, and visual communication

The Virginia Quarterly Review invited me to guest art direct their fall issue themed The Female Conscience after I observed yet another schism in our phallologocentric culture that might be remediated with education in critical theories of identity and visual literacy.

vqr the female conscience

vqr cover before

In their ‘before’ version, where the cat in the history of Western visual culture represents women’s sexuality, or metonym for Woman generally, here the placement of the cat in the setting of a bathroom vanity visually communicates the stereotype of women as vain, narcissistic, or frivolous, reinforcing the hegemonic values of an imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal culture. While the designer carefully concealed the hot faucet handle behind the tail of the uppercase ‘Q’ in this small literary journal’s masthead, s/he was less attentive to placement of the type describing the issue’s theme or other content details. The clutter of branded and bar-coded hygiene products in the upper left corner tells us who ‘wins’ in this pubescent journalistic battle of the sexes: profit. Who loses? Flesh-and-blood men and women and all of the sexes in between.

While I have not read Joyce Carol Oates’s entire oeuvre, and I am unfamiliar with the other writers in this issue, I have read enough to know that her writing deserves more dignity and respect than unsophisticated potty humor.

Graphic design precedent for solving the problem of sexism includes David Carson’s layout in Beach Culture, reproduced in The End of Print, wherein he lures readers with the promise of a bikini-clad centerfold, only to confront them with a disapproving illustration and companion essay under the headline Sexism Sucks, begging the question: why is a 1980s surfer mag more rigorously visually intellectual than one of our nation’s most esteemed literary journals housed at an institution of supposedly higher learning?

I wonder if maybe the invention of the camera in the mid-1800s wrought not just the end of painting, as has been declared repetitively many generations since, but also stunted our visual imaginations?

Perhaps the problem is not so much sexism as any subject/object problem for artists and designers. In a world made rapidly visual thanks to social media and networked computers, a world overwhelmed with metadata and stock photography, a database search for ‘female’ inevitably returns innumerable examples of cultural stereotypes, an exercise in circular logic.

No need to be trapped by outdated paradigms or unresolved Oedipal complexes.

Twenty-first century technology empowers us with the ability to visually communicate healthier relationships between women and men, between body and mind, between image and typography.

I began with the site of contestation between male and female bodies, the bed, shooting in black and white. While color is a powerful visual element, line and shape and value are all essential to a visual vocabulary.

Ahh, look, visual evidence that the sun does shine in Seattle:


still from b/w video shoot

My studio assistant stopped by the set while I was experimenting with light, shadow, and movement with black lingerie against white sheets and an oscillating fan. In examining the outtakes, I abandoned my earlier ideas, since she was so obviously the star of the show. The consummate professional, her improvised performance was captured in one take, without script or further stage direction.

Working in motion generates mountains of lush imagery for editing and final selection when the intended output is a static image for print, a discovery that I owe thanks to the work of Mitch Goldstein. While motion feels something like painting with pixels instead of pigment, the process of selection becomes reminiscent of subtractive printmaking processes rather than the additive process of painting.

the female conscience

still from motion graphic in process

In my design solution, the female body challenges the privileging of conscience, or mind, over body, where we are always already embodied. Here the lure of body is challenged by the message of the text, with my selection of Cooper Black further challenging the type designer’s assertion that this face was inappropriate for advertising women’s lingerie. Not previously a fan of the typeface probably due to its ubiquity in lead printshops leftover from newspaper advertising’s heyday, Paul Shaw‘s charming introduction at Type Americana 2 persuaded me to more closely consider the work of Oswald Cooper.

Knowledge begets respect, perhaps another solution for our culture’s ongoing problem of sexism well over a decade into the twenty-first century?

Even with layers of imagery and text composited in After Effects, a subject as complex as the conscience demanded still further complexity of form. Another shoot, this time of the in-process video playing on my computer screen and shot through layers of sheer silk lingerie pinned to a wire:

Comparable stills of before and after re-compositing:

still computer screen shot

computer screen shot before additional compositing


fecon after addtl compositing

still from video after additional compositing

I experimented with different pieces of lingerie with various transparencies and range of values from light to dark. While the stockings that encouraged Frida’s engagement in the initial shoot proved too opaque and thus edited from the final output, their shifting diagonals produced more ideas for future compositions, here a lovely soft edge that “pops” or challenges the dichotomy between figure/ground, there/not-there, much like a zebra’s stripes:

composition with stockings

stocking edge of composition

New to audio and designing in video without it, happy accidents discovered after rendering, like the sound of the drawer opening and the cat meowing coincident with text, motion, and color changes, usually mean that I am on the right track:

Here, my design solution for VQR’s cover, with added typography in CMYK color selections, indicating the intended output of print, form and content synthesizing communication of the complexities of our cultural frame that dictates dichotomous thought:

vqr front cover

vqr front cover after

Through this design process I learned, to my surprise, that ‘female’ and ‘male’ are not directly etymologically related. With ‘Fe’ as the chemical abbreviation for iron, an alternative and playful reading of the issue’s theme might be “iron man with science,” where of course one definition of irony is related to or having to do with irons, traditionally associated with women’s work, also referencing many irons in the fire, an iron fist in a velvet glove, and so on. The linguistic, numeric, and visual puns abound, multiply, and increase layers of communication and meaning.

Of course I never design an isolated front cover when the intended output is a three-dimensional object like a book or a magazine. Here, my design solution includes front, back, and spine, a visual communications solution that does not invert the dichotomy of male over female, as that would simply create another limiting hierarchy, instead, visually suggests a turning sideways, upside-down, or backwards, encouraging multiple readings:

vqr full cover

vqr full cover after


2 thoughts on “Sex, literature, and visual communication

  1. Wendy

    Fun to see the puns that come out on the revised front cover. What do I need to do to get the two videos to work?

    1. journal6other Post author

      The videos are working fine for me. How you are accessing the web? Browser? Platform or mobile device? And what’s not working for you? Are you not seeing any video at all? Is it too slow due to your connection speed/traffic? Maybe try watching directly from Vimeo.


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