Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never unsee it: Senator Mitch McConnell is lying on his back, naked with his legs spread. In the foreground, the Statue of Liberty is penetrating his gaping anus with her torch; in the background, his face is pinched into a tight little frown while his flaccid penis flops sadly to one side. (Editor’s note: You can view this at the bottom of this page. Fair warning, too, that much like McConnell’s Senate, this page is full of dicks.)
Welcome to the work of Alexandra Rubinstein, a 32-year-old artist based in New York City with a growing Instagram audience of more than 22,000 followers. Rubinstein’s media, genre and subject matter vary, meaning she might draw a celebrity portrait one day and paint a still life the next, but what she’s really known for is dicks — loads and loads of dicks. She makes dick coasters, dick cutting boards, dick koozies and dick face masks, and paints dicks in Paris, dicks on farms and even dicks committing suicide.
Rubinstein laughs when I ask why she returns again and again to this subject matter. “Why dicks? I think every woman knows ‘why dicks,’” she quips, before explaining how tired she’s grown of the art world’s focus on female bodies. To avoid exposing women to yet more criticism and judgment, Rubinstein decided to focus on men’s bodies instead. “I decided to use penises to symbolize men, and explore the complexities of masculinity,” she tells me, adding that the penis is “the origin of a lot of [men’s] vulnerabilities and insecurities around the male experience.”
But it would be a mistake to think that Rubinstein is glorifying men — or dicks. She does sometimes paint impressive erections, but often her dicks are shriveled, flaccid and unimposing. “I really wanted to avoid [the paintings] coming across too celebratory,” she says. “My work isn’t about, ‘Men are beautiful, too!’ — that’s not where I’m going with it. As a woman, I wanted to disarm the penis and take the power away from it.”
Rubinstein was born and raised in Yekaterinburg, Russia, before moving to the U.S. with her parents and two siblings at the age of 9. Her family moved around before settling in the suburbs outside of Pittsburgh, where she attended Carnegie Mellon University to study painting, drawing and photography, with a minor in business studies. “I’ve always been into 2D media, primarily oil painting on canvas,” she tells me. “That’s my favorite; I enjoy that the most.”
She moved to New York City after she finished college, and she’s been steadily building her profile since. She had her first solo show, Dick Diaries, in February last year, shortly before the pandemic forced the city into lockdown. Quarantine has been a mixed blessing: On the one hand, it’s regrettable that people can’t see her work in person, which she much prefers. On the other, because Rubinstein has a day job, quarantine has freed up enough time to explore more unfamiliar media like sculpture, as well as to grow her online audience.
Her most well-known and controversial series is A Dream Come True, where she paints or draws male celebrities, politicians and other public figures performing cunnilingus from the woman’s point of view. Everyone’s up for depiction, no matter how adored or revered: James Dean, the Pope, Winston Churchill, the Founding Fathers and even Jesus have all received Rubinstein’s treatment. But she says the figure that prompted the most backlash was Obama. “I tried to make it look like possibly Michelle’s pussy; I try to respect people’s relationships,” she deadpans. “But that one got a lot of heat, and that speaks to the shame American culture has around sexuality, especially when it’s in the service of women.”
The internet provides endless inspiration for Rubinstein, not to mention source images. “One of the sites that’s been most useful is Reddit,” she explains — so if you’ve shared a dick pic to Reddit recently, you might see your penis’ likeness in one of her paintings. “I composite a lot of found images or I stage them.”
But being online is no picnic for a woman who makes dick-themed art. Rubinstein receives plenty of unsolicited dick pics, and men ask her to draw their penises on a regular basis; she’s also noticed a gendered double standard in how her work is received. “My work has been graphic and sexuality has always been dominant, and that’s come with a lot of slut shaming,” she says. “People often make assumptions that, if I paint a guy or paint a dick, I love men, I love dick. That’s not what the work is about, and it’s simplifying me to that.”
Men, on the other hand, don’t get this treatment. “We’ve seen all of this [graphic work] and more from male artists for centuries, with much less conceptual context,” she continues. “So it’s completely gendered.”
The advantage of social media is that it makes this sexist reception obvious, which Rubinstein says “opens a conversation.” “It’s great to have these comments in a public realm where other people can read them and see that this is the response that this work gets,” she explains. “I do think most people pick up on more than just those very superficial reads of my work, and they’re able to see how quickly that turns into judgment and slut shaming, and an attempt to silence and minimize me.”
Besides, Rubinstein points out, she’s not the one preoccupied with penises. “Men have an obsession with their own dicks,” she concludes. “So I think this projection that I often get that I’m obsessed with dicks is just an extension of their own attitudes.”