Amygdala, a joint exhibition featuring work by Jenny McIlhatton and Gordon Stabbins, opened last month at Radio– King’s Cross. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the titular work Amygdala, a photograph Stabbins printed on silk that McIlhatton later embroidered. Though the kinship between the two artists is most clear in this collaborative piece, it is also visible in their individual works, which oscillate between realistic and abstracted representations of the human form. It is intriguing that McIlhatton and Stabbins, despite their distinct subject matter and mediums of choice, exhibit this shared proclivity.
Jenny McIlhatton was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She first studied fashion and textiles and worked for several years at Vivienne Westwood Couture before pivoting to fine art in 2015. McIlhatton quickly made a name for herself as an artist and activist, selling all six works from her debut exhibition and expressing continuing support for the charity, EVAW (End Violence Against Women). Gordon Stabbins is originally from Somerset in South-West England, though he has lived in London since 2011. He studied photography at university, and has since explored a range of artistic pursuits, from portraiture and fine art to travel and documentary photography.
Over the last month I have enjoyed a virtual correspondence with McIlhatton and Stabbins, throughout which we discussed Amygdala and the intricacies of their work. We also dug into the politics of depicting bodies, unearthing some useful ideas to consider in an ongoing cultural debate. The following interview is composed of a number of excerpts from our conversations:
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Chloe Hyman: What inspired you two to collaborate on an exhibition?
Jenny McIlhatton: The idea for collaboration came first. Our mediums and techniques are so different, we thought it could be interesting to see what we could produce using aspects of both.
Gordon Stabbins: Being friends and really appreciating the work that Jenny had been producing, it just seemed natural to work on something together. And due to [my] interest in alternative processes, it seemed like a good idea to work on a collaboration piece.
CH: And how did you conceive of this collaborative piece, ‘Amygdala?’
GS: The idea came about fairly organically. It wasn’t a great leap to conceive of…Jenny transferring what she was already doing with her embroidery appliqué…on top of a printed photograph.
JM: Gordon sent me the image used in Amygdala. We both loved it so Gordon ordered some test prints on different kinds of fabric—cotton and silk. I experimented on these with threads and colors to get a feeling for what we could produce. We loved the grained, vintage effect on the silk. As I really like the sculptural effect of Gordon’s nudes, we didn’t want anything to jar with it, so I chose shades of thread in tone with the image. I [added] texture, sketching with the thread to create contours you discover as you look closer.
CH: Gordon, do you think printing on silk affected your images, perhaps by changing their resolution? The saturation looks softer than in your works on paper.
GS: Actually, Amygdala has a particularly grainy feel because I chose to crop in heavily to particular area that was desired for the final image. Also, the choice to enlarge quite drastically lent a distortion and abstraction which suited the final outcome.
CH: And your other exhibited pieces, the cyanotypes, those are also printed on silk?
GS: Yes— I printed enlargements onto acetate which were then used as a ‘negative,’ so to speak, to contact print onto the silk. Silk prints have a very fine print quality. It is very different than a traditional paper approach. It feels freer—the material can move and it’s not rigid.
CH: Jenny, I want to hear your side of the story! How did working with a pre-existing image affect your practice?
JM: To be honest, I was terrified working on a pre-existing image, especially one I liked so much already! I’m glad I played around [first] with different ideas. It’s always so good to challenge yourself and try something out of your comfort zone. I definitely want to expand this further in future.
CH: I’d like to talk about the other works in the show that each of you produced independently. Jenny, some of your work, like ‘Our bodies, our choices,’ is obviously connected to the fight for women’s reproductive rights, even without reading the title. I love the organic form that emerges from the figure’s womb in a series of ever-widening rings. The spiral is a symbol of reproduction—in your work, it resembles a surging wave, another symbol of nature’s cycles. That it is placed beside the figure’s genital region suggests that it may be a representation of maternal or sexual energy. Do these musings strike a chord with you?
JM: The background is, indeed, a spiral, loosely based on the Fibonacci—a symbol of creation. And I always use blue in my pieces because of my affinity for the ocean! I grew up by the sea, and for me it is the most restorative and centering part of nature. Our bodies, our choices is most definitely about the power of creation in the body, as the womb is highlighted in gold.
CH: I’m intrigued by ‘For Northern Ireland’ as well. There are obvious sexual connotations to the state of your bound figure. Do you intend to draw a connection between the subjugation of Irish people with wombs and sexual submission? Is it a humorous association, meant to unnerve a conservative public?
JM: There are many things I was trying to express in this piece, [particularly] the idea of sexual oppression. When the topic of abortion came up in school, I was told by a teacher that you couldn’t get pregnant through rape because God wouldn’t will it. End of discussion.
Even now, the complicated politics and religious influences of the country are interwoven so tightly. They are presented in a way that I don’t believe represents the will of the people regarding abortion and same sex marriage, so the element of constraint in this piece is very literal.
There is also an element of humor, yes, especially in relation to its twin piece—a work entitled The Submissive Is Always in Control. [Like a submissive], we as a people have the power. The Alliance for Choice, Together for Yes and The London-Irish Abortion Rights campaigners [are working towards] decriminalization by October. It’s a first step.
CH: ‘For Northern Ireland’ is also unique in your oeuvre because it’s more realistically figurative than your other work. ‘Ode to Macha: Wife of Cruinnic,’ for example, shifts into abstraction.
JM: The theme and subject [of the former] have affected my practice. I actually never aim for a very realistic-looking figure in my pieces. Creating the pair in bondage seems to have constrained my style to more traditional, realistic figures rather than my usual, more abstract forms.
CH: I think this is a great moment to incorporate Gordon’s work for analysis. You are both quite concept-driven, and the resulting oscillation in your work between realism and abstraction is a byproduct of that. Jenny, your ‘Ode to Macha’ is an uncanny example of this phenomenon. Macha’s body is merely suggested by her hovering limbs, which are devoid of ligaments and composed of geometric shapes. The longer one gazes at her, the more pronounced these shapes become, and decidedly less flesh-like.
Gordon, your work balances a similar invisible line between reality and abstraction in the depiction of the human body. ‘Legs Abstract’ reduces the figure’s body to geometric forms in a practice that recalls the Cubists’ simplification of the human form. Is that what you had in mind?
GS: Legs Abstract definitely draws upon these ideas, but not everything is planned in advance. I tend to have a general idea sketched out, and when it comes to shooting, I follow my instincts. I find imposing a strict rigidity on the process ends up in frustration and missing shots that present themselves. It’s a constant process of discovery and at the same time construction.
CH: I’m also really taken with ‘Torso Back’ because it bears the least attributes that are heteronormatively deemed ‘female’ and ‘male.’ Instead, it proposes an un-gendered dichotomy between softness and hardness that manifests itself in the soft flesh of the rear end and the taut back muscles. What do you think about that interpretation? How does gender figure into the subjects you choose, and the parts of the body to narrow in on?
GS: I’m not necessarily conscious of gender when I am choosing a subject and working with them. I suppose by removing articles such as clothing and concentrating on the body alone you start to remove any gendered constructs. It also feels like a collaboration with the subject. I would like to think that the subject has a way of inserting ideas about themselves into the picture.
CH: Would you say, then, that your work is apolitical?
GS: They are not political photographs or photographs with a great message. They are tentative beginnings exploring a subject…They are reflections on the human condition—you take what you want from it.
CH: I ask because I feel that bodies are inherently political, due to the violence regularly exerted upon women and people of color. While I respect that not all nudes are intended to be political, it is still important to consider how ‘the male gaze’ is or isn’t employed in the presentation of any nude. For the record, I think you both depict female bodies without objectifying them, and I want to explore how you achieve that. Are you conscious of preventing your work from feeling voyeuristic?
GS: I absolutely think it’s possible to celebrate the human form without objectifying your subjects. I’m interested in photographing the human body as you would photograph any other object. I’m interested in form, in light, in abstraction.
It’s a curious thing to photograph anything. Once you look through the lens and put a frame around things, [they] look very different. You get a heightened sense of what you’re looking at, [and] the body becomes interesting because of the possibilities pictorially. Bodies are beautiful things…and when you concentrate on form you can create your own beauty.
JM: As a feminist with a background in fashion, I am very conscious about wanting my statement to be about contemporary feminist issues and celebrating a freedom in identity, physical body and gender that I wish was possible for everyone. I grew up in Northern Ireland where abortion and same sex marriage were and still are illegal; breaking these constraints put on us is a hugely important theme in my work.
CH: Do you think that mixing mediums for ‘Amygdala’ allowed you to communicate in new or different ways, your thoughts about bodies?
JM: Working on the pre-existing image—which is another artist’s view of a figure—was certainly a new experience. But I know Gordon and have worked with him on projects as a model, so I suppose I felt quite in tune with him knowing that we have similar ideals and values.
CH: I brought up the question of objectification vs. celebration in the depiction of the human body, because it is such a hot topic right now in the US. In a big New York Magazine spread a year or two ago, many artists and critics contributed their thoughts about whether or not men should ‘be allowed’ to depict the nude female form. Their opinions—which spanned from enthusiastic ‘yes’ to vehement ‘no’—are rooted in ideas about objectification. Have you encountered this debate in the UK?
JM: I don’t think there has been as specific a discussion as in America, but there is definitely a mood for art, exhibitions, and institutions to be more inclusive and aware, which I think is amazing.
CH: From what you have heard, and from the context I gave you, do you have any immediate thoughts on the matter?
GS: Yes! I think the obvious thing to question and criticize is how bodies are depicted. The notion of whether men should be ‘allowed’ to depict the female form is kind of ridiculous—this line of thinking quickly leads to an erosion of freedom of expression. However, the way women have been depicted in the media and by men has left a deep social and psychological scar that we can begin healing and changing by having discussions about representation.
JM: I agree! Regarding artist expression, I do think freedom should be allowed. Knowing an artist like Gordon who has photographed me and other women I know I just can’t imagine telling him he couldn’t do that. I also used to work as a life model and I absolutely seeing people’s impressions of me. I felt like a truly valued part of the artist process and it also helped me shed insecurities about my own body.
However, as someone who has also been a victim of sexual violence, when I hear stories of models being abused and unpaid by people in positions of power it makes me very angry. Clear lines need to be drawn at anything, offensive, racist, abusive, homophobic, or transphobic. And models should always be fairly paid.
CH: The issue extends to issues of race, with portraits of POC in the canon being deemed exploitative. I’m thinking right now of Gauguin, and his portraits in Tahiti. Has that discussion been present in the British art scene?
GS: Well I think the case of Gauguin that you use is interesting. From what I know, he was failing commercially as an artist…when he had had this idea to travel to Tahiti. [He was] inspired by accounts of the free spiritedness of the ‘savages,’ bought into this myth, and went there to find it wasn’t true. He decided to [continue propagating] the myth through his paintings and memoirs to drum up some interest and sell his work.
CH: That is truly horrific.
GS: Yes, there is an exploitative nature to him and his work. As the writer Meredith Mendelsohn says, “His representations of nude Tahitians reflect a sexual and racial fantasy forged from a position of patriarchal, colonialist power.”
On the other hand, there are many people who think all that matters is that he was a great painter, [who disregard] the post-colonial critique of his work. Still others argue that we have only come to these conclusions and had these discussions with the aid and benefit of time, progression and reflection.
CH: The discussion about Gauguin has been complicated because we’re talking about how to pass moral judgement on historical figures. But maybe it’s had effects on the way we talk about contemporary artists portraying the likeness of POC?
JM: I love the idea of incorporating some of the women of color who have inspired me in my work but am honestly nervous of how this might be perceived.
CH: Which is very fair! You want to be respectful.
JM: Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ made me sit down and take notice of the insidious nature of institutional racism and unconscious bias in the UK. I have educated myself further by reading Black female authors and following the contemporary dialogue [about gender and race] through journalism and social media.
CH: That’s super important. While the ‘right’ to depict bodies that are different from ours might always be a contentious topic, there does seem to be a consensus: artists who do not educate themselves about and stand up for communities of color should not take inspiration from their likeness or cultural production. Is there anything you’d like to share from what you’ve read?
JM: Absolutely. Less than 30% of artists represented by major commercial galleries in London are women, and according to ArtNet, only 13.7% of living artists represented by galleries in Europe and North America are women. A recent study conducted by the Public Library of Science found that, of the artists represented in 18 major American museum collections, 87% were male and 85% were white.
When you see statistics like these, you realize that female artists have such a small piece of the art world and Black women/women of color have an even smaller slice. In certain circles, things are changing, but unfortunately not enough and not quickly enough.
CH: Gordon, any thoughts?
GS: My view is that policing who can depict what—based on race, gender or sexuality—would be far more problematic and damaging than having artists produce work that people don’t agree with. But if you want to put work into the public domain that deals with contentious subject matter, you have to be aware that criticisms will be drawn.
CH: That’s a really key point you’ve brought up there, Gordon. Artists can’t pretend to be shocked when their motivations and methodologies are challenged. I think your trepidation, Jenny, about depicting women of color, and your subsequent research into the issue, illustrates that artists make conscious choices. And they will be expected to defend them.
I am always going to think about objectification when I see nude bodies in art, hence the questions I posed to you regarding your depictions of the female form. If anything, this discussion has been productive, and has complicated (in a good way) how I interpret your work.
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If you, dear reader, would like to share your two cents on these issues, feel free to comment or drop me a line! I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Jenny and Gordon’s work.
Stop by Radio- King’s Cross to see Amygdala, from now through September 22. If you like what you see, follow Jenny and Gordon on Instagram to stay up-to-date with their work. And if you want to receive monthly (or so) updates from me, subscribe to Canvas and Crumpets!