Friday, 6 July 2012

Figuring It Out with Some Incongruous Nudes

The photo booth at the Serpentine Gallery was ‘having technical problems’ so I couldn’t add my smiley face to Smilesfilm and participate in Yoko Ono’s ambitious plan to take a snap of every single human being in the world. Sad face. To The Light is a retrospective, presenting five decades of her work and includes two videos of her powerful performance, Cut Piece, where the audience is invited to cut Ono’s clothes off her body, piece by piece, until she is nearly nude. There are two videos of the work, from different points in her life, one from the 1960s and the other 2003. For 2012, however, her message to women is that you can be strong and do what you want to do, while letting other people do what they wish with you. You can do both. To the hard-core, that might sound like a compromise, but in our complicated age of post feminism, it can sometimes feel like 50 years of feminist art history never actually happened.

Yoko Ono's Wish Trees at Serpentine Gallery

John Currin has enjoyed much controversial attention with his kitschy female nudes that mix pornography and art history. His new series of paintings, more Beryl Cook than Cranach, are on show at Sadie Coles HQ. The majority are painted directly from life resulting in less caricature and more realistically detailed, natural-looking faces and alluring gazes. Women, with an abundance of milky white, flawless flesh, and draped with pearls, lounge seductively over sumptuous silk cloths. 

John Currin, 'Gold Coast', 2012
from Sadie Coles website

The Wild the Beautiful and the Damned at Hampton Court Palace could provide the type of soft-core, historical erotica that Currin pokes at. Provocative portraiture includes the alluring teenage gazes of Peter Lely’s Windsor Beauties or Godfrey Kneller’s Hampton Court Beauties alongside mythological seductresses, thereby conflating real portraits with lurid fantasy.

Frances Stuart, Peter Lely, c1662
'Cleopatra', Benedetto Gennari, c1674-5

But Currin’s paintings are explicit. Everything is revealed; alluring, sweet smiles are cut through with fingered labias and pubic hair and there is a particularly creepy painting called Lake Place, described as a modern day Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe.

John Currin, 'Lake Place', 2012
from Sadie Coles website

Currin is easy to write-off. Some of his imagery is knowingly and provocatively un-pc and engages our moral compass. He describes himself as an American tourist in the tradition of European painting and is the first to admit a self-conscious lack of elegance and grace, no matter how good he can paint. Currin has said that one of the joys of figuration is that it was never progressive, unlike severe modernist movements that had to be progressive with a social message. Figuration is hopelessly retrograde and doesn’t speak to the future or have that burden. But it is something that people love to do, and so it will endure. The question of it’s relevance today is at the heart of another exhibition, Perfect Nude, which opened for it’s third incarnation at Charlie Smith last night. 

Alexis Harding, 'Nude's Hole', 2012

Dan Coombs and Phillip Allen asked 100 artists to make paintings of the nude. Released from the responsibility for choosing their subject, the artists have taken up the challenge and the result is visually complex, revealing a wide range of processes, attitudes and narratives that leap from the delicately raw in Emma Talbot’s Nude, to pink, puckered skin in Alexis Harding’s Nude’s Hole

Emma Talbot, 'Nude', 2012

There is also a level of humour and in-jokes; Barry Reigate’s The Teacher depicts a peachy-bottomed Phillip Allen, but most reveal consideration for the subject that, in contrast to Currin, leave irony and derision at the door.

Barry Reigate, 'The Teacher', 2011

Alli Sharma