Thursday, 31 May 2018


I have started writing for the excellent and visually punchy magazine ELEPHANT.  You can see  material from my picture essay on SEX for Issue 34 below, plus that for  COMEDY in Issue 33 below, including some unpublished material - you always need the odd reserve for such items. Meantime, Issue 35 is just out, which includes my choices for the theme of ANGST



While there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to an image for sexual reasons, the possibility makes for a potentially awkward interplay when considering art which takes sex as its subject. Wherein lies the interest? I suspect, for example, that it's the sex, not the art, which generates the strong reactions to Allen Jones' work, which falls somewhat flat when his art plays the lead role. To make satisfying art about sex typically requires an indirect approach, a leavening of humour, the introduction of a wider agenda, or a foregrounded engagement with aesthetics beyond those of the body. None of which need stop us starting off, as a Cockney might say, with a bottle and glass, a stick of rock and Sir Anthony Blunt.

Eric Yahnker: Golden Asshat, 2017 -  pastel on paper, 49 x 46 in

LA-based former animator Eric Yahnker tweaks pop sources into witty scenarios in order to make a point. For example, a southern girl finds her dress straps make a negative union cross out of her sun tan.  The sleek pastel ‘Golden Asshat’ is closer to straight comedy, as it emphasises at double life-size the cleavage of an attractively androgynous bum through a ridiculous – yet persuasive - visual pun.  Yet there’s a dark side, too, as the possible implication is that this body ends at waist level - in which case a critique of objectification is implied.

Sarah Lucas: Angel, 2016 - beer can penis with wings

Sarah Lucas has various ways of making penises - not just, she's said, because she hasn't got one, but  for reasons of 'voodoo, economics and totemism'. The simplest squash two beer cans together to construct a near-tautological male package through a stereotypical symbol of the male. Here Lucas builds on that suggestion of an old-fashioned evening down the pub using her more recent and differently double-edged signature material of cigarettes. Given that they form wings, conjuring and poking fun at the classical sacred phallus and the tradition of the unsexed angel, her bawdiness gets quite complex.

Stephane GraffUntitled (Courbet / Fontana), 2015 - acrylic silkscreen, oil on wood, 61 x 86 cm

Franco-British artist Stephane Graff's source for his 'Catalogue of Errors' series is auctions: referring to the typical double-page spread featuring a work of art to one side and its accompanying description on the other, he pairs faithful reproductions of the illustrations of one work with the catalogue entry for another in order to undermine artistic identity and set up ricochets of meaning and value. Here Graff points up the sexual interpretation of the incisions  which Fontana made in his cuts series by choosing a fleshily pink example, and by matching it with Courbet's famous 'Origin of the World', much the most famous artistic depiction of a pubic region.

archival pigment print, 120 x 120 cm

The Mexican photographer Flor Garduño, who trained with Manuel Alvarez Bravo, deals sensually and often surreally with the body and with organic items such as fruit and flowers. They come together in her most famous images, of nudes with giant leaves.  Here chirimoyas, also known as custard apples from their creamy texture, carry a hint of the exotic which, say, the banana can no longer claim. Add the implied temptations of taste and touch and the interplay of inner and outer form, and plenty of passion seethes beneath this still life. 

Annie Attridge: Should of Could of Would of, no. 7, 2016 - porcelain, tin glaze, concrete pillar - porcelain 17 x 10 x 6cm

Annie Attridge is in love with porcelain - putting its seductive qualities through its baroque paces - and with love: this is from a series which relish the pleasures of actual or imagined  lesbian interaction, shamelessly taking over the prototypically male interest in comically exaggerated bodies and mysterious masking. Is all about sex? She says not, for the act is raised on a pedestal of veneration, the concrete of which provides a strong foundation for a relationship, and the bed is on a scaffold, offering further support - though some doubt is surely allowed, if your scaffold is of porcelain.

Daniel Sinsel: Untitled, 2016 - Oil on woven linen support, hazelnutshells, lime wood stretcher 150 × 130 × 12 cm

London-based German Daniel Sinsel has a way of fetishising modernist tropes. Here woven tape sets up a grid which is disturbed by the bumps of hazelnuts over and under it. They’re set into painted fig - rather than hazel – leaves: the art historical cover for nudity.  Given Sinsel’s stated aim of realising a ‘universal and suggestive, dormant eroticism’, the nuts can be read as testicular, the salmon spot as a nipple, and the weaving as a summoning of actions in and out. The whole is also a chance to explore spatial tensions which have a frisson of their own

Bastian Gehbauer: Verrichtungsboxen, North Rhine Westphalia, Germany 2013

Form follows function in young German photographer Bastian Gehbauer's cool depictions of little-seen spaces in which processes take place: a pink-lit greenhouse, an automated crematorium, and this  garage of sorts - literally a 'performance box' - designed to allow sexual services to be provided more safely in cars. The set-up, he explains,  enables the prostitute to flee the passenger seat on the right in case she is threatened, whereas it is almost impossible for the driver to open his door. An emergency button is also located in almost every unit.  The property has a generous fence and is opened and closed by the regulatory authority every day in accordance with its 'business hours'.

Dale Lewis: Sunday Roast, 2015 - Oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 200 x 400 cm

There are many means of censorship, but Dale Lewis comes up with the most logical: hide the cocks in the orifices. The resultant chain of connections just add to the all-over energy typical of the upcoming Lewis’ enormous multi-figure widescreen format compositions - this is four metres wide. They’re planned in some detail, with compositions derived from Renaissance masterpieces, but the daringly rapid paint handling comes while the paint can be moved around best -  often over one day's frenzied sixteen hour session. As for the title, is that sexual slang, or does the action take place while the more conventionally behaved are tucking into their meat and veg? 

Cary Kwok: Arrival (La Belle Époque), 2016 - Dalbergia Odorifera Wood, Resin, Brass, Pearlescent paint, Wood Wax, Cable, Inline Switch, Lightbulb holder, Plug, E14 Lightbulb - 160 x 50 x 49 cm

London-based Hong Kong born Cary Kwok’s camp pastiche comes into its own in the baroque flourish of improbably leaping ejaculate. His series of detailed blue biro portraits at the point of orgasm concentrates on faces partially obscured by abstract expressionist splurges, most memorably when Popeye’s self-decoration is revealed as spinach green. Lately Kwok has played the knowing excess into would-be architectural designs, complete with priapic fountains and - as here - internal decor. The lamp rather suits semen's origin story: let there be life, let there be light...

Sue Williams: Busy Blue, 2016 - oil on canvas, 122 x 148cm

The – scientifically controversial - principle of homeopathy is that vanishingly small amounts of a diluted substance can trigger a reaction. Sue Williams might be seen as testing a parallel art theory. In the 1990’s, the explicitly sexual content of her paintings critiqued patriarchal society. Those morphed into all-over semi-abstract swirls of body parts, orifices, and betokened organs. Her latest work goes further: not much looks bodily, but you can still spot the odd hint. Sex has been swallowed up in everyday life – from which it may emerge at any moment, as we know… 

Extension to cover Frieze New York, 2018:

There’s usually a smattering of sex at art fairs. Frieze New York is no exception, but the most interesting sex-themed works on show this week typically have a dark undercurrent. Louise Bourgeois (Cheim & Read) and Tracey Emin (Xavier Hufkens) set the scene with couplings born out of angst. Tom of Finland’s explicit, celebratory and increasingly celebrated drawings (David Kordansky) now represent the prelapsarian world before Aids. Los Carpinteros’s film Skin (Peter Kilchmann) connects sex and death with ingenious directness by showing what seems to be one couple ageing progressively during ten minutes of making love. Here are some works in which the sex is more than a little complicated

 Mira Schor, Dicks or The Impregnation of the Universe, 1988 

The Spotlight section is dedicated to solo artist presentations of work made in the twentieth century, with an emphasis on rediscovery. Mira Schor’s Dick paintings from 1988-93 have never been exhibited before, but in the gallery’s words “with a self-professed groper in the White House, Schor’s paintings of limp members and receptive ears feel searingly relevant”. So much so, perhaps, that Schor (born in New York in 1950) has returned to the theme in new work made after Trump’s election. This huge work (ten feet high) is built up of twenty-one small canvases, suggesting both diminution of phallic pretension and the possibility of more healthy approaches to intimacy.
Lyles & King, New York
Anthony Iacono, Rose, 2017

New York artist Anthony Iacono trained as a sculptor, which is evident in the treatment of his crisp images, collages made from painted paper which is cut and assembled with the intricate precision of parquetry. Iacono uses the technique to make observations about sexual mores, balancing a sort of detachment, which could be read as boredom, with a sense of fascination, which could be seen as desire. Here I am reminded that roses have thorns, even as I recall Morrissey’s predilection for singing with gladioli stuffed down the back of his trousers.
P·P·O·W, New York

Armin Boehm, Mountain View, 2018
German painter Armin Boehm’s complex painting shows politicians alongside tech world leaders such as Sundar Pichai of Google, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg. I take it to critique how technology alters the way in which people see themselves and what they might become. A woman seemingly obsessed with self-presentation is melting like a semi-mechanical figure into a table, under which the floor is torn apart to reveal a glimpse into another world where a cyborg is being constructed. It, in turn, holds a tablet displaying a pornographic scene: will even robots be affected by the modern excess of sexual images?
Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich 
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Zilia Sánchez, Topología Erótica, 1982

Cuban-born Zilia Sánchez, now ninety-two, lived in Havana, New York and Madrid before settling in Puerto Rico in the early 1970s. Her work, though formally abstract, has a bodily sensuality, especially in the undulating shaped canvases she’s been stretching over hand-molded wooden armatures for over fifty years. That undercurrent is emphasized by the title of “erotic topography”, but the typically dark and muted tonality and a suggestion of decapitation takes this some way from a straightforward invocation of pleasure.
Galerie Lelong, Paris / New York

Laure Prouvost, Cooling System (for Global Warming), 2017

Lisson’s newest signing, 2013 Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost comes up with a typically quirky and sexually provocative answer to global warming. The individually blown breasts—glass, not balloons—provide a means of mothering the world through cooling. Temperatures soared unseasonably high during the fair, which was too much for the air conditioning, and rather made me wish Prouvost’s proposal had reached the stage of a working prototype.
Lisson Gallery, London / New York
F.marquespenteado, Butched In from the series Identifique as Palavras do Vernáculo Das Prisões, 2012 
Portugal-based Brazilian-born artist F.marquespenteado does not align with a specific gender. Their use of embroidery links clothing accessories, books and found objects in complex scenarios, which often explore the performance of gender. This beautifully sewn black on black example literalizes the darkness in drawings by Jean Cocteau which depict sex in prisons, so applying a tradition often seen as feminine to male relationships, in circumstances in which power and violence are in play.
Mendes Wood, Sao Paulo / Brussels


Daniel Firman's elephant balancing on its trunk was a bit too obvious for the comedy article, though the horizontal wall-sucking version is less well-known... (Nasutamanus, various versions since 2008)


What makes for successful comedy in art? If there were rules, it wouldn’t work, but the key may be that surprise or incongruity leads to a recognition that there are deeper issues to dig into under the surface of the joke.  That may, of course, bring in disturbing or melancholy or aspects: Richard Prince rubs the punchline in just too hard; Bruce Nauman is one of many artists to edgily play out the cliché of the sadness behind the clown’s mask. Here are six recent examples which lure us with humour only to reverberate with psychological, environmental, economic or social concerns.

Paola Pivi: I am Tired of Eating Fish, 2017

Italian artist Paola Pivi is best-known for working directly with live animals, putting ostriches, zebras and donkeys in surprising, yet unphotoshopped, situations. Her full size bears surprise differently: they act in a far from ursine manner, and are made of feathers, absurdly parodying the possibility of flight and, perhaps, idealists who talk up how ‘you can be whatever you want to be’. Recent examples take the surreal turn a stage further by sporting neon colours and bearing light-hearted titles. It’s almost enough to banish their frightening aspect, but a slight frisson does remain when one looms over you… 

Sarah Anne Johnson: Uck, 2016 – chromogenic print with glitter 

It’s not so easy to be funny about the environment, so credit to Canadian photographer Sarah Anne Johnson: what seems at first like an immature – if still amusing – fallen letter gag turns out to incorporate a protest against immature thinking which betrumps nature. The addition of real glitter ties Uck into her series Field Trip, in which she alters her images with paint and digitally to revisit the in psychedelic colours the idealistic hedonism of her own festival-going youth through a nostalgic yet more knowing lens.


Martin Creed: Work No. 2814, 2017

2001 Turner Prize winner Martin Creed tries to avoid the stress of taking decisions in his art - not even whether to turn the lights on or off. As something of a hoarder (presumably he can’t decide what to throw away) Creed has recently  been evading choosing his art materials by using stuff that’s piled up incidentally in his house – plastic bags, for example. We’ve all seen the odd bag tangled in branches, but multiplying them into synthetic blossom plays on the language of abstract painting while making for an ominously absurd vision of the dangers of waste displacing nature. 


Cao Fei: Rumba II: Nomad, 2015 - 14 min video and installation 

China’s leading new media artist, Cao Fei, set domestic vacuum cleaning robots free to roam a building site on the fringes of Beijing on which – as is the Chinese rule - the structure of the past was being pulled down. The bots come across as alien and threatening yet friendly and comical. Sometimes chickens stand on them to hitch a ride. Evidently, and metaphorically, their ‘cleaning’ task is hopeless: there’s no reversing the rolling cycles of urbanisation. In front of the film, to stress the point, three bots acted out their edge-sensitive dance on top of the traditional form of plinths.

Dana Schutz: Boy with Bubble, 2015 - Oil on canvas 100 x 128 cm

Dana Shutz’s characters tend to seem stuck between composition and decomposition as they attempt the absurd, such as eating their own faces. They’re funny, yes, but troubling. Here she wittily rhymes all sorts of circles, including the head of a bubble-headed lederhosen lad, and sets them against the angularities of the Alps. Is that a smile or just a concentrating tongue as he anticipates popping the bubble? Does art, we might wonder, transform the surroundings or merely reflect its creator? And either way, how long will it - or we - last?



John Smith: Steve Hates Fish, 2015still from 5 minute video  

John Smith – that’s the John Smith, of course – has subversively exploited misunderstandings since his seminal The Girl Chewing Gum, 1972.  In Steve Hates Fish he scans signs with a translator app – but having set his phone to convert French into English, causing the programme to thrash around hopelessly  when faced by a London street. ‘Fruit & Vegetables’ becomes ‘Profit Venerable’ and ‘Current’ rentals become ‘Surreal’, parodying the verbal clutter of the cityscape and challenging our instinct to make sense of it. And what could it mean, in the Brexit context, to see a Briton self-defeatingly misapply what comes from Europe?


 Christian Jankowski: Massage Masters, 2017

Christian Jankowski has a way with public statues as part of his wider strategy of playing people outside the art world into his multimedia productions. For Heavy Weight History, he challenged powerlifters to raise the great and the bad, a light-hearted way of engaging with such burdens on history as Stalin and Reagan. Now, he has recruited masseurs to optimise the wellbeing – and, who knows, maybe in consequence the communicative effect - of stone figures around the streets of Yokahama. When he screened his film of the event, viewers in turn received massages, surely rather wasted on flesh.

James Hopkins: Scaled Ladder, 2014 - Wood and Stone

James Hopkins presents an implausible object, its spindly wooden slats bearing heavy rock to no apparent purpose. We’re tempted to seek a logic. Have the small rocks risen because they weigh less? It can’t be that, their density’s the same. Is it that the relative mass of a mountain as you climb it is echoed by the stones’ sizes as we imagine ascending the ladder? Meantime, the title puns on 'scale' as the act of climbing a summit, a fundamental concept of sculpture, and a reference to the diminishing size of the stones – and that brings out the resemblance to an abacus.

Gelitin: Golem, 2015 - Glazed ceramic, 21 × 23 × 25 cm  

The sexual and scatological are perfectly unrespectable zones for art humour, and Gelitin are often found there. That said, their series of Golems seem innocent enough – until you see the film of them being made in what the Austrian collective term ‘an oneiric ritual to unhinge their primordial spirits’ for which, in their gallery's deadpan words, 'they immerse themselves in clay and model it using their own bodies as a medium'. Never mind the macho male artist metaphorically ‘painting with his penis’, or Henry Moore’s spatial use of holes, the film shows the four men literally fucking the forms into being. 

Sofia Hultén, Reality Plural, 2017 – three drain covers, cement, asphalt, preserved leaves

Berlin-based but Birmingham-raised Swede Sofia Hultén draws you in to what looks like three ‘slices of reality’, perhaps in the style of the Boyle Family’s casts of the earth’s surface. Has she pulverised them and recast the material tautologically into a new version of itself, as in her ‘Partical Boredom’ series? No, there’s something else amiss: the tarmac underlay, paving surface and fallen leaves are presented in three different orders, as if the world could easily be differently scrambled. Maybe it could… Hultén has made films documenting such comparable actions as eating an apple before removing it from the plastic bag.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

About Me

My photo
Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.