Bodily Objects, curated by Philomena Epps, Richard Saltoun Gallery, London. 1.05.2020 - 30.06.2020, access online viewing room here.
The business of an online exhibition is certainly very topical. You would be forgiven six weeks ago for completely ignoring the emails of a gallery promoting their latest ‘Virtual Online Viewing Experience’. But, given our current climate, it seems that these computer-generated platforms are the only way that art lovers can really get their fix.
Richard Saltoun’s newest online exhibition runs alongside the past 12 months of the gallery's promotion of a fantastic program of ‘100% Women’ – a slogan that has been plastered in their gallery, online, and even on tote bags. Over the past year the gallery has done a wonderful job of highlighting under-recognized and under-represented female artists in a complex and fascinating manner. And this is often done with a very feminist over tone. Thankfully, this online exhibition is no different.
Curated by Philomena Epps, Bodily Objects brings together the works of four feminist artists – Penny Slinger, Rose English, Renate Bertlmann, and Helen Chadwick. All four artists share a surrealist focus and attack traditional ideas of sexuality through avant-garde performance, photography, collage, and sculpture. But each works with these medium in unique and individual ways.
The title Bodily Objects was, for me, the thing that really grabbed my attention and made me take the effort to move my cursor over the hyperlink in my inbox and click. It seems jarring, seemingly at odds with the feminist overtones of the curated exhibition. However, perhaps obviously, the title here is used humorously, lampooning the objectification of women – something that the artists also do. One of my favorite pieces, Zaerliche Pantomine [Tender Pantomime] (1978) by Renate Bertlmann, does this so very well. Tender Pantomime consists of 20 gelatin photographs depicting one of the artist’s first, staged performances, which belong to her ‘tender-poetic’ series dealing with corporeal symbols of eroticism and sexuality.
The images in this piece are all relatively shocking – showing the Austrian artist at home in a black silk vest and a mask adorned with suggestive pacifiers over her vagina. It appears to lend a ‘face’, another identity, to the sex that she was assigned at birth – the sex that, to the viewer, defines her. Another interpretation relies on the artist’s use of the pacifiers. The face is an absurd representation of a baby she is birthing, something that so perfectly contradicts her sexy outfit. Bertlmann treads the line of power, humor, and sex and aggression so perfectly. She adeptly confronts the idea of a woman’s sexuality and ability to give birth in one series and forces the viewer into a re-evaluation.
The traditional view of a woman as a mother continues to play a role in the other artists' works, notably those of Helen Chadwick. Chadwick is known for many things. Arguably, she is best known for challenging and subverting perceptions of the female body. Which is something she achieves in quite a graphic yet, once again, humorous manner in Birth of Barbie (1993). The Cibachrome (a dye-destruction and image transference process) photograph shows a birthed red barbie with platinum blonde hair. The 'new born' is apparently being shot out of a lump of bloody and raw meat shaped to look like a vagina. The interplay between the terrifying smile of peroxide barbie and the gruesome background creates quite a menacing image. Chadwick certainly has not shied away from drawing connections between what women are meant to look like, and the reality of the female body – in all its raw, and somewhat exaggerated glory.
Reality and make believe stand arm in arm in this exhibition. Quite literally in the case of Rose English’s image ‘Rose and Athene Riding’ (1974) in which two porcelain horses are playfully secured underneath the two nude women’s bottoms. This gives a whole new meaning to bare back riding. English is best known for her contributions to the development of performance art in Britain. She has honed a unique artistic vocabulary that has consistently focused on images of both girls and show horses. Rose and Athene Riding therefore fits into her oeuvre perfectly, providing a witty approach to the traditional representation of the female nude body. The photograph creates a dialogue between the pageantry of horse dressage, a theme often addressed in English’s works, and the fetishization of the women’s bodies. This is also emphasized by the black string that spans the models bottoms, which is reminiscent of reigns or bondage rope.
In one breath, Bodily Objects celebrates the female body as a vessel for new life, and yet in another, engages with the continuous objectification and seduction of the female body. The works are curated with a consistent sense of dark humor running throughout, relieving the uneasy sexualization of all these female bodies. It is an ambitious theme to try to relay online, but the use of photography – which inherently lends itself to the digital medium – is expertly done. The artists chosen, not all of whom I have had the space to talk about, use their works and medium to discuss the cultural perception of the nude female body as an object. The sensitive curator-ship relays the theme well. While I absolutely miss the physical element of the gallery space, Richard Saltoun’s approach to the online exhibition was certainly very well done.
Josephine Bailey is an art historian, writer and aspiring curator who recently graduated from the University of Oxford where she studied History of Art. Currently living and working in London, Josephine regularly writes on the subject of women artists and runs an Instagram account called @procrastinarting_ which aims to champion the works made by female identifying artists.
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