Dubbed "anti-heroin chic" and an "intersection of power, independence and sexuality," Adrianne Ho is the woman who has arguably made sweat sexy to a wide swathe of New Year's resolutioners and aspiring spin-cyclers. The driving force behind the incredibly popular Sweat the Style fitness blog, she's a fashion model who has made her site an outlet for promoting a healthy lifestyle with motivational mixtapes, recipes and more, and addressing "the challenges of staying fit, healthy, and stylish in our ever-changing, fast-paced modern environment."
A personality, model, and health advocate who's much more than just an emaciated face, she's effectively created an online brand that serves as a positive role model for aspiring female exercisers stuck in a gym-sock, male-dominated workout culture. Ho is a smart, business-savvy woman who used the power of the Internet to peddle an image of beauty that doesn't require eating cotton and taking pills to maintain an attractive physique. She knows that she's a part of a problematic industry, and the fact that she uses her clout to advocate for a healthier and more attainable lot for the everywoman is admirable.
However, artist Ryder Ripps has a different perception of her achievements, or at least it seems that way. In a series of paintings created for his first solo exhibition "Ho," opening this week at Manhattan's Postmasters Gallery, he's turned photos of Adrianne into a grotesque, Flubber-esque montage, the pink flesh of her lips melting in the corners and undulating from bloat to Botox to bulbous. In an incredibly uncomfortable promotional video, he has manipulated her image so that she spins around, her grin stretching to comical lengths, as her cheeks cave in and her delicate chin boils and warps. Ripps' paintings erase Adrianne's years of strength training and marathons, replacing her powerful physique with nothing more than a Miyazaki-esque monster—Ripps's external projection of his internal "frustration." His series is a visceral, knee-jerk way of removing and distorting a vision of female empowerment.
The biggest issue with Ripps' art is that he is someone you can't just ignore. He's undeniably brilliant; a chatroom-bred forum troll who knows the power of publicity (or "discourse") and wields it to his advantage. However, his pedigree is especially disturbing as Ripps is arguably the most lauded internet artist of the moment, being the Creative Director of digital agency OKFocus and creator of online image-sharing community Dump.fm. Bolstered by a mile-long résumé studded with names like Kanye West, Nike, Soylent and Red Bull, he's the kind of brand contemporaries, patrons and the like have fed into; to a large amount of important, relevant people, he is an artistic force to be taken seriously.
As artist Ann Hirsch explained in a Twitter conversation she had with Ripps and several other female artists, the larger issue is the unwavering support of how male artists appropriate/exploit the work of female ones. "male artists need to stop appropriating women's net presences," Hirsch suggested on Twitter. "we have so little power, please dont take away our self representation. After Hirsch clarified that she was speaking not just to Ripps' work but to a larger systemic issue, he responded: "LETS KILL ALL MEN OR SUBJUGATE THEM TO ONLY MAKE ABSTRACT GIFS!!," as well as posing the weak defense that his "gallerist is a woman." His responses were petulant, and completely disregarded Hirsch's original and very legitimate point that female voices continue to be drowned out by male ones—a trend that's been a pervasive problem (i.e. the muse-artist dynamic) for centuries.
Ripps is allowed to be frustrated by his own carnal desires and his natural inclination for "doting over flesh," as he puts it, but "Ho" mostly feels like an exercise in personal branding for him. It's a way of appropriating a woman's image and "speaking over" her story in some sense—negating Ho's independent achievements by overshadowing her work, in order to further a narrative about himself as an incredibly influential artist.
After all, this isn't the first time Ripps has come under fire for his self-aggrandizing, narrative-usurping art. "ARTWHORE," his 2014 piece for Ace Hotel's Artist-in-Residence project, stirred up controversy when he hired two sensual masseuses (who he refers to as "sex workers" throughout his accompanying LiveJournal post) to come in and draw for 45 minutes, in an attempt to compare the commodification of the human body to art. According to him, he paid each of the "sex workers" $80 for about 45 minutes of drawing time, adding that he also ended up paying more than the $50 the Ace Hotel allotted him for art supplies and refusing to give the works to the hotel, saying in an email, "I feel the paintings are enough for a work that ended up costing ME money to produce."
Rhizome publicly decried the work, and Art F City called it "in the running for the most offensive project of 2014." As Gawker's Andy Cush explained, if you "go one level deeper... the metaphor starts to break down. Even if Ripps feels exploited by Ace, he's still given agency: as a successful—and often brilliant—artist, he has a platform to guide the narrative surrounding the work."
"ARTWHORE" was the same sort of "speaking over" he applies to Ho with this exhibition, raising questions of power dynamics, sexuality, branding, body politics and race. "Ho" is a problematic title in and of itself, as it reduces a traditional Asian surname into playground humor. And though Ripps says "Ho" is the result of his own frustration with his instinctual response to a public display of the female form, there's something vindictive about the idea of a man warping and distorting a positive, self-created image made by a woman in control. Though it would be dishonest to say Ho isn't a brand—she's an agency model who is arguably the face of fitness fashion right now—at least she's trying to go about it in a positive way, as a beautiful woman who makes exercise and self-love glamorous and enviable.
Ho's management declined to comment on the exhibition at this time, but I have no doubt she worked hard for that lean muscle and great tone, and it's a shame that Ripps chooses to visually warp that show of agency she has over her own body. Ripps claims he is making a statement on "the inaccurate synthesized artificial beauty passing as everyday," and yet Ho is made more attractive by her own agency, not by the hand of a digital retoucher equipped with a liquify tool. To that end, she doesn't cater to the male gaze—she caters to her own desire for a positive body image. She is not subservient to Ripps' male gaze, and that he is quite literally destroying her image to better suit his artistic narrative is disturbing.
Ripps has stated that his "Ho" paintings are a reflection on Smartphone social media being a "new site of aggression and anxiety in the age of the 'virtual male gaze,' where the archetypal macho painter has been emasculated." But taking it in context, "Ho" seems to be more about the problem with men who feel threatened and choose to take it out on successful, self-made women in charge of how they are perceived by the world. Adrianne Ho broke into a male-dominated space, fearlessly showing ownership and becoming a positive role model for women. Ripps, apparently, finds that grotesque.
Sandra Song is a recent graduate from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism whose work has appeared in Gothamist, Thump, AdHoc, Impose and Dummy. She currently works and resides in Brooklyn.
Images via Instagram.