Should male artists be praised for their portrayals of the female nude? It’s a question that has become relevant in the art world as the voices of second-wave feminism become increasingly prominent. After all, haven’t male artists had several thousand years to fetishize and idealize our naked bodies? A recent New York Magazine article asked this question of several artists. Wrote Tracey Emin, “Many of [Egon Schiele’s] paintings are so hard-core. But even the ones that include women, they’re not about the male gaze. They’re about the primal act of sex… he’s not making images to show ‘I’m in control of this woman.'” Emin’s response exemplifies my take on this question: It depends on how the artist portrays the female nude.
It is with this perspective in mind that we ought to evaluate Allen Jones’ new exhibition at Marlborough Contemporary. Jones has been riding the fine line between cultural acceptability and crass fetishization for fifty years. His early sculptures of women quite literally used as objects– see Hatstand and Chair— were sharply criticized by feminists. Chair was even vandalized with acid. In a 2014 article for The Guardian, journalist Zoe Williams pondered Jones’ exploration of female objectification. “Was it critique or endorsement?” she asks. “It seems pretty plain that the sculptures aren’t meant to be titillating, but are they debasing?” This is a question I am setting out to answer– through a combination of interview-reading and visual analysis.
In a 2014 interview with The Telegraph Jones said, “Fetishism and the transgressive world produced images that I liked because they were dangerous. They were about personal obsessions. They stood outside the accepted canons of artistic expression and they suggested new ways of depicting the figure that weren’t dressed up for public consumption.” So it was the boldness, the danger, the rule-breaking that attracted Jones. Jones had neither a misogynist nor a feminist mission– objectifying images of women were merely a means to an end.
I do find it problematic that Jones used objectifying images of women to achieve a secondary goal. It’s objectifying in an ironically meta way. But if I can swallow this pill for a moment, I think the artist has a point. Jones didn’t invent objectification. He didn’t create sadomasochism. These phenomenon were deeply engrained in the social psyche of our world. The artist merely swept away the curtain shielding these psychological tendencies from polite company. Suddenly, the high brow world of contemporary art was colliding with the shadowy underworld of our late-night thoughts. Jones forces us to confront the origins and ramifications of our desires.
Today, the sexual landscape is radically different. The internet has increased access to pornography (for increasingly younger viewers) while the depiction of BDSM in movies like “50 Shades of Grey” has normalized sexually aggressive behavior. Assault on college campuses was finally addressed several years ago when hundreds of universities were shown to be in violation of Title IX. This past year, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements shed light on sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry, as well as countless other fields. We already know that many people engage in deviant behavior. Some do so consensually, and other perverted individuals do not.
So what purpose does Allen Jones’ work have today? If he made them today, Chair, Table, and Hatstand would no longer be considered shocking– pornographers have made sure of that. For Jones’ work to stay relevant, and out of the realm of fetishization for fetishization’s sake, he must adapt to this changed sexual landscape. Allen Jones’ “Bystander” at Marlborough Contemporary– his first solo show in NYC since 1988– is the test of his adaptive ability.
In the first room of the show, Hatstand is updated for the digital age. In Your Dreams is a digital rendering of the same leather-booted fetish-queen. Instead of staring blankly past the viewer, immobile, she stares blankly past the viewer, slowly moving her extremities. If animating the body was an attempt to lend her agency, it failed. Newsflash: it is possible to have motor control and still be objectified.
However, another work in the first room caught my eye for all the right reasons.
Cover Story is a hollowed-out mannequin perched precariously on a silver stand. From the front, the viewer sees a shiny violet rendering of the female form. The breasts are pointed, the waist whittled, and the collarbone pronounced. Upon first glance, her proportions are reminiscent of a decapitated Barbie doll. But the illusion is not long-lasting. After a quick body scan, I noticed how strangely narrow the figure’s shins are. It is disorienting to see a healthy torso balanced on such flimsy calves. Cover Story‘s calves make Barbie look like a spokeswoman for body positivity.
I then really processed the fact that the mannequin has no arms. As a person who owns mannequins I am accustomed to this. But after seeing the figure’s eroded legs, the lack of hands emphasizes how helpless the figure is. She is utterly dependent on those around her– she even needs a silver pole to keep her upright.
If these clues point to the figure’s helplessness, then the view from behind questions her existence. Cover Story has no back, no rear and, nothing. She has only the reverse indentation of a chest and pelvic region, like she was molded over a woman’s body and then peeled away. A series of straps protrude from the sides of the mold like the paper tabs used to attach clothing to paper dolls.
There is nothing fetishizing about this to me. Her purple and teal skin, so different from the real colors of flesh, prevent her from arousing titillation in the viewer. Jones aimed to shock in his earlier work, but here he is content to slowly discomfort and engage. The viewer must recognize the whittled calves and the strange straps to understand that this is a commentary on performative sexuality and gender. Cover Story represents the highly sexualized, specifically gendered facade that we often attach to our true selves. With this work, Jones demonstrates that he can adapt to changing social contexts. Cover Story uses objectification in order to make a larger point about the limits of gender and sexuality in our society.
“Bystander” includes two other rooms filled with Jones’ work. I was quite fond of the third, but found the second to be lackluster. Riffing on the idea that the theatre is a metaphor for ‘the creative act,’ these works depict people engaged in both social and sexual acts at the theatre. While this is a decent idea, the draftsmanship to me is incoherent.
Where is the relationship between the figures and the giant swatch of orange and red paint? We are given no motivation for the sudden burst of abstraction. In Cacophony, is it meant to be an exuberant manifestation of sexual desire? The painterly expression of an orgasm? I feel like I am pulling terms out of an AP art history textbook and struggling to make them fit before the clock runs out.
It seems to me that when Jones attempts to veer from performative sexuality– a subject he has explored and continues to explore in a nuanced fashion– he gets a bit lost.
By room three he has found his way again and I can forget the muddled middle bit. An artist as storied as the provocative Mr. Jones is allowed a misstep.
Backdrop is one of five multi-media installations in this last room. Each features a hand-painted, fiberglass figure on a movable stool in front of a large abstract canvas. Depending on where the figure is placed, she develops a different energy with the painting behind her. When she is centered she exudes power. When she is positioned at the left of the canvas, facing right, she exudes purpose. When her body is almost past the canvas, there is a sense of anticipation– what comes next?
The figures are idealized, but like Jones’ previous work, they lack something human that would make them titillating. Though we stare at them, we do not consume them sexually. Instead, we are focused on the sumptuous nature of the paint on their bodies. The message is clear: Women, like works of art, are painted and put on display for consumption. Jones performs this literally. But unlike his previous work, Backdrop is marginally participatory. A river of hardened paint on the figure’s shoulder emphasizes the material nature of both paint and makeup– a key tool for the performance of identity. This serves as a reminder that the figure’s experience is a shared one.
I also feel invited by the figure’s gesture. From the front, she appears to be doing a sexy arm wave a la Bob Fosse. But from behind, her fingers reach towards me, asking me to grab ahold. Like a secret signal, it’s not recognizable to everyone.
So what’s the moral of the story? “Allen Jones– not such a bad guy?” To some extent, yes. While I don’t always agree with the artist’s methods, I feel that his work has always had a social, rather than exploitative, bent. And I believe that his current work, demonstrated mostly exquisitely at Marlborough Contemporary, demonstrates his perceptiveness to the current social landscape. I am OK with male artists depicting the female nude if they can do so tactfully and with clear purpose, both of which Allen Jones does.
I urge you to see this exhibition, open through June 16th at Marlborough Contemporary on West 25th St. Feast your eyes (and sharpen your claws, if you disagree with me). This is one artist I’d love to have a good argument over. Comment, contact me, you know the drill.
Until next time!