Stephanie Rohlfs, Penis Fingers
At Hallwalls Center for Contemporary Art
by Cliff Parks Jr.
White patriarchy has a message for everybody and it is simple: it’s not going down without a fight. From 4Chan to the local TV news, to Facebook comments, to the White House, the trolls are trying furiously to hold back the tide of long overdue change, and all hell is breaking loose. Against this deplorable zeitgeist enter Stephanie Rohlfs and her sculptural installation Penis Fingers (2016-2019), recently on view at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. The work delivers a well-timed kick in the midsection that’s entirely deserved. With a righteous blend of mercy and hilarity Penis Fingers presents an elegant critique of the inherently unsatisfying 21st century brand of toxic masculinity.
Part of her exhibition Put One Over, this wall-mounted work is composed of a series of one-to-one scaled sculptures of limply dangling fingers with a few utterly flaccid penises thrown in to “sell” the bit. Penis Fingers leaves no man unscathed no matter how hard we try to defend and deflect culpability. My initial impulse to jokingly suggest that the work might be a shot at the alt-right—those men’s rights retrograde racists, sexist swine, and neo-fascists surging forth domestically and abroad—falls flat and short of the mark as Rohlfs declines to let men (and me) off the hook that easily.
The knee jerk reaction to cry out indignantly “NOT ALL MEN ARE DICKS!” goes up in flames upon closer inspection because yes, all men are dicks, as Rohlfs makes clear with an exaggeratedly wide variety of skin types represented. Even Martian and fantastical beasts are depicted with green or purple appendages. Are you a purple or green skinned guy who may or may not exist in the wild? Well, you’re guilty too. The work thereby holds a large cross section of men accountable for the rising tide of masculine revanchism unfolding as we speak, especially here in the United States where a concerted effort to undo social progress is underway.
Although the piece packs a punch, there is an interesting dichotomy at work in the piece’s presentation in that the finger/penises are not arranged in a particularly striking or aesthetically pleasing manner. Compared to Rohlf’s other works in Put One Over, which feature childhood touchstones á la Jim Dine rendered in dense, three-dimensional forms with elegant, Loony Tunes-worthy rounded edges, the appendages of Penis Fingers just dangle there in space against a blank, white wall. Penis Fingers feels visually unfulfilling, which one suspects is the point. Perhaps a more dynamic work was possible, but that would’ve required more dicks, and the world doesn’t need more dicks.
An expression of unspoken solidarity with those oppressed by the lingering patriarchy at the expense of those tacitly or otherwise propping it up long past it’s sell-by date, Penis Fingers doesn’t particularly care about your feelings. If you happen to have a Y chromosome, it’s helpful to get over yourself before viewing this work.
Cliff Parks Jr. is a concerned citizen, activist, and troublemaker. Parks writes primarily about music but is currently in the process of branching out.
Image - Stephanie Rohlfs, Penis Fingers, 2016-2019. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez/Courtesy the artist
Stephanie Rohlfs, Put One Over
May 10 – June 28, 2019, Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, 341 Delaware Ave, Buffalo NY 14202