A Photographer Transforms Herself Into Radical Heroines of History

Pin It
Anti-Icon: Apokalypsis by Martine Gutierrez
Helena from ANTI-ICON: APOKALYPSIS, 2021All works © Martine Gutierrez; Courtesy of the artist and Josh Lilley Gallery, London

In her new series Anti-Icon: Apokalypsis, Martine Gutierrez assumes the role of iconic women or gender-fluid figures from throughout history and mythology, from Helen of Troy to Joan of Arc

In 2021, Martine Gutierrez took over 300 bus stop advertising slots throughout Boston, Chicago and New York. Her sleek images depicted the American artist and performer (herself) assuming the role of iconic women or gender-fluid figures from throughout history and mythology. These idols are often lauded for their physical characteristics and internal strength, but perhaps also constrained by the highly visible pedestal they have been placed on. The artist is now showing all 17 Anti-Icon: Apokalypsis images across three galleries – Josh Lilley in London; Ryan Lee Gallery in New York; and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco – and releasing a book of the same name.

“I was thinking about the idols that I admired growing up,” says Gutierrez, describing the starting point of her long-running project. “Whether Magdalene or Mulan, Joan or Judith‎, she is a prophecy destined, both born before her time and a visionary for a future that will come to pass, fallen from the world’s pedestal to rise as an idol in death. Whether worshipped as the goddess Aphrodite or Queen Cleopatra, she is the mythos of aspiration annotated by history; a simultaneous existence of both truth and fiction.”

Often with minimal clothing and set pieces, Gutierrez interprets the distinctive image of figures such as Elizabeth I, Helen of Troy and Joan of Arc. Many of these women have complicated histories. Helen of Troy, for example, was celebrated for her profound beauty and told to have been the cause of the Trojan War; Joan of Arc is now a patron saint of France, though was burned at the stake by the church on heresy charges.

Gutierrez also takes on the role of icons who have been historically viewed as male but are in fact gender ambiguous: her images of a highly feminine Angel Gabriel with exposed breasts, arched back and handmade wings explores the celestial being’s lesser-explored ability to take on any physical form; the Hindu god Shiva is depicted together with his consort Parvati, as composite male-female icon Ardhanarishvara.

In embodying each of the icons herself as a non-binary transgender woman of indigenous descent, Gutierrez challenges the limits of mainstream assumptions, questioning the strict definitions often held around race and gender. “My first question was, ‘Am I a woman? What does being a woman mean?’” she told The New York Times in 2021. The works also feel incredibly celebratory of both Gutierrez’s body and the play that can be found in dress and embellishment, from Elizabeth I’s fiery red wig to Cleopatra’s expressive gold jewellery. 

“Stop waiting for permission to be who you are, and give it to yourself,” she tells me, considering the feelings evoked while personifying these 17 figures. If the icon shows humanity’s spiritual ideal, it is the anti-icon who refuses the delusion of man, his inflated self-conception. For the icon makes real the image; the anti-icon must break through to reveal reality.”

The figures depicted by Gutierrez have been imagined repeatedly throughout art history and pop culture, from fashion shoots to oil paintings and Disney movies. Many of their defining characteristics are now so burned into the collective psyche that it only takes one or two cues from the artist for the viewer to understand who they are looking at. And yet there is so much that is unfamiliar in the images too, with Gutierrez inviting viewers to rethink these figures, many of whom have become cliches of themselves in public thought. 

“I wanted to incept our framework, to distort what the mainstream doesn’t teach us to question,” she says. “What is power without resistance? The historical moment and the figure that stands in opposition. These images are not a vision, but the place we are at now, the inevitable new, the next civilisation we are going to become.

Anti-Icon: Apokalypsis by Martine Gutierrez is on show at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco until July 15 and  Josh Lilley in London until 12 August 2023. An accompanying book is also out now