artist violet overn challenges the male gaze with her own body

The young artist uses her body in confrontational ways.

by Michael Valinsky
22 September 2016, 4:00pm

Artist Violet Overn has spent the past five years producing work that refuses boundaries. Through her photography, video art, and public installations, she makes her body vulnerable, exposed, and bare. She's stood half-naked in one of Manhattan's busiest junctions. She's laid across the front lawns of frat houses. She's thrown a fit in front of the camera to explore female victimhood. As the daughter of legendary performance artist Karen Finley -- famous for work including writhing naked in honey -- Violet grew up in a subversive, creative environment. Working from her apartment in the East Village and her studio in Long Island City, she has developed a practice that denounces all-too-common societal inequities, particularly in relation to women. We meet Violet to discuss female empowerment, performance, and the 1980s New York punk scene.

How do you address women in your work?
It's what comes naturally to me. I've tried to do work that wasn't associated to the female form, or to my body, but it never feels right and the work isn't very good. The battle women face every day, be it in the workplace or at the coffee shop, is an issue that is important for us to discuss. My artwork is the enabler, the pusher, the prodder, the poker, and the provoker.

You talk about these issues in your photography and film. How do you choose the medium in which you work?
Recently, I've been working with digital photography, but film photography is what wins my heart. The dark room is my favorite place to be. My Milestone Series was shot on my iPhone's built-in timer. I wanted to use the true medium of modern day self-portraiture. One day I would love to make lenticular images but I haven't found a project it's right for yet.

Which artists have influenced your work?
The 1980s New York punk scene is my largest influence. Growing up surrounded by powerful women who used the city as a backdrop taught me that my artwork is worth doing. I've been very fortunate to grow up in an artistic, experimental, and political household. I've watched my mother and all of my other New York City mothers labor tirelessly to make work about issues they believe in. That's my motivation to keep going, to provoke men more.

You do provoke them in the Fraternity House photography series-where you lie in front of frat houses surrounded by red solo cups. What kind of responses have you received from this?I've received a very wide range of responses: men contacted me and publicly disapproved of my work because they thought it polarized them, or that it was unnecessary because they themselves had never experienced any problems within the fraternity community. I've had women who experienced sexual assault thank me for my work and tell me to keep going. These responses have truly proven my point, and watching men project their insecurities onto my photographs is something that drives me to continue.

In your video Body of Text, you stand in a bathing suit in front of the CNN building, covered in news articles. What did you hope would come out of this?
I wanted to see how men would respond. I wanted to cover my body in news articles so that pedestrians had to first look past my almost naked body before reading the news. Men ended up taking photos of and with me but no one really looked at what was written on my skin. I hoped people thought about the way news and media are presented to us on their commute home.

Why are cities important to you?
I like doing work in public spaces because people don't have a choice of whether or not they're going to see it. My body can also be a non-violent protest, a sit-in, laying down on a male-driven institution.

The Scream - Hurts so Good pushes your viewers into discomfort. How far are you willing to push it?
I took scenes of women screaming in horror films and women screaming in sex scenes and swapped the audio. The screams usually lined up pretty perfectly, which in itself is horrifying. We see that imagery so often that I don't think that the work is pushing any boundaries…especially since it's found footage. Everything is from very mainstream movies. A handful are rated R. The greater question is why is it so uncomfortable if this imagery is so common?

What are some new projects you are working on?
I'm working on contact sheets. I took about 200 headshots of myself as a female star. The photographs start to break down; I become hysterical, cry, and have a fit. Looking at it from the photographer's point of view, I want to tackle the fetishization of the female victim, who, in reality is the influencer and the influenced. 


Text Michael Valinsky
All artwork courtesy Violet Overn

Karen Finley
Violet Overn