Sadie Dupuis and I are surrounded by cunts. "They're watching you," reads a description of the art exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, which is showcasing Judith Bernstein's The Voyeur series. That Tuesday afternoon, the Speedy Ortiz frontwoman and I are at the art space in midtown Manhattan—a small room displaying large canvases painted bright with erotic art. "Crying Cuntface" reads one painting, which Dupuis immediately points out as her favorite of the bunch.
It's no surprise that she's chosen this exhibition for our field trip. The Massachusetts-based band leader is a feminist icon, who, between singing and shredding, is always making an effort to turn her indie rock scene into more of a female-friendly zone. Bernstein, too, a renowned feminist artist, started making her erotic art in protest of sexist oppression, when she found out that Yale University (where she received her Master of Fine Arts) wouldn't hire women professors. In her art, she objectifies male genitalia while representing the vagina as a symbol of power.
"I think a lot of our lyrics seem to be describing sexual power play," says Dupuis, drawing lines between her art and Bernstein's. She adds, "But I'm demisexual, and not really writing about that beyond liking the metaphorical or shock value of it." When I ask what that sexual orientation means, she tells me it's a level of asexuality—"sometimes called 'gray asexual'"—in which one is emotionally attracted to a mate rather than physically. She doesn't have a preference in sex, though she's currently dating a person of the male variety. "I can't like look at someone and be like, 'Damn my heart is racing,' or 'They're so attractive,'" she says. "So it makes looking at porn or strippers a very different experience. I love going to strip clubs but mostly for like the aesthetic of the dancing itself and not for any kind of sexual reason."
That may explain Dupuis' immediate response to the Judith Bernstein paintings as something more political rather than sexual. "I like grotesque bodily depictions," she says, commenting on the art. "I think what's interesting about Bernstein is that she's using these sexual metaphors often with things that have nothing to do with sex or have to do with sex only in the most political sense. She's using a phallic image to talk about patriarchal power bleeding the country into violence." The singer has always been concerned with gender politics, and, like Bernstein, does not shy away from using the taboo "C" word. Earlier this year she told Pitchfork, "So many words that are used to degrade women—like 'cunt'—have derivations that come from, like, honoring a high priestess. They are words of power that have been mutated into insults." As we talk about that origin—casually throwing around "cunt" a bunch—we get side-eyed by the old ladies next to us.
Lately, Dupuis has been putting a "Gender Is Over" T-shirt over her guitar amp—the shirts are part of a project started by Brooklyn residents Marie and Nina, in a statement against binary gender roles. Dupuis says the shirts reflect "women's dissatisfaction with having gender roles dictate so much of the expectations that are placed on them in terms of working and functioning." She's familiar with this dissatisfaction—having always worked in a male-dominated culture, and being a female artist, who, onstage, has felt the male gaze all too often. But Dupuis makes it especially difficult to pick a bone with, as she rocks harder and writes better than the boys in the biz.
And even though we shouldn't be surprised when a woman is a master at the game, Dupuis finds it worthy of note. "I think it should be pointed out," she says. "Because the reason that more women are able to enter the field of rock is because there's been more visibility for women, and I think that there's a snowball effect. I think it's dangerous to point it out when making comparisons between people who sound nothing alike. I think many people are frustrated by only getting compared to female singers when their band doesn't sound like the people they're compared to, but in terms of building community and increasing visibility for people who want to enter a field that's been so dominated by, you know, straight white cis men, I think it is important to showcase what is possible that exists." With a smile she adds: "Also it's just exciting to see less dudes."
As we walk around the gallery, Dupuis tells me Judith Bernstein (born 1942) had a hard time showcasing her artwork most of her life—often censored or rejected by galleries. A few years ago, Observer published a piece about the under-appreciated art of Bernstein, who only found wide recognition recently. Bernstein, unable to show most of her work, co-founded A.I.R. Gallery (Artists in Residence Gallery), a female-only space, in 1972.
Dupuis, too, is currently working on a very cool project right now to help out fellow women in her field. Though the name and many of the details are under wraps, it's a website that acts as a directory for women working in the field of music. "I feel like I've spent my whole life buying canonical indie rock by men and guitar pedals that are built by men and working with male sound engineers and producers, and I've been a bit more conscientious about seeking out women working in production," she says. "But it's hard because there's not really a good network for finding them. Like I switched out all my pedals on my pedal board to be ones designed by women, but there aren't too many. There are three—maybe four—companies where women are engineering the pedals, so I'm in the very early stages of building a database of women who work in music in a non-performative role. So that would be like, sound engineers, or monitor engineers, or guitar repairers, and it would be a searchable database by city, so if you're booking a tour and you're like, 'I want to play in Cincinnati in a venue that's owned by a woman,' you'd be able to type in Cincinnati and see who are the women who are working in music in that city." Dupuis, a respected artist in her scene, with a strong, loyal following, is just the candidate to help change the game.
A lesser-known fact about Sadie Dupuis is that she's also a visual artist. She creates her own album art, including the terrarium on their cover of their most recent release, Foil Deer. While visiting a museum in Amsterdam, Dupuis was inspired by a gold deer statue called "Le Cerf" by early 20th century artist Ossip Zadkine. Though she usually does two-dimensional art, Dupuis (daughter of an artist mom) gave herself a 3D art project. "I knew I wanted to do a diorama," she says. "I used the gold deer as the starting off point, but I filled it with all kinds of things and I sewed paper flowers. I went to the craft store and got a bunch of different kinds of brushes. It was a very slow process while building this piece, but it was fun."
Though Sadie's own art isn't as provocative as Bernstein's, she's always had a liking for that stuff. "Something I've always liked is when women who are artists—when representing themselves—do it in kind of a grotesque, ugly way," she says. "I think it's an interesting look at conventions of beauty and the way in which women are expected to be presented in this upright way." Naturally, Dupuis is also a horror fan. (Their "Raising the Skate" video is a tribute to 1977 cult horror Hausu.) "I'm fine with any gore or torture-form style," she says. "I've always liked supernatural, spooky, witchy stuff. I think that kind of goes along with the grotesque."
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a staff writer for Complex. Follow her @kristenyoonsoo.