Is Allen Jones’s sculpture the most sexist art ever?
Source:The Guardian Author:Zoe Williams Date: 2014-11-11 Size:
Zoe Williams goes among the women as fetish furniture at the RA’s new show to find out...

Chair by Allen Jones

Brutally arresting … Chair

I find it very difficult to have an authentic response to work that has generated a lot of controversy in the past. My inner contrarian harasses me to disagree with the orthodoxy. So I was all set to resist the feminist critique of Allen Jones, simply because it would be predictable to agree with it. And yet, at the same time, I hate the way decades simply trump debate, so that the heat around Jones – that he didn’t attack or make problematic the objectification of women so much as art-ify it, make it respectable – has simply abated, as he has become respectable, part of the canon.

Making every reasonable effort to shut off this cacophany, my first thought at the Royal Academy’s new show is: Jones’s identity as a painter has been the biggest casualty of his accidental place in politics. Paintings such as Sin-Derella, a man and a woman dancing with waists fused, their top halves invisible, juxtapose the clean, clean lines of the pop artist against the racked, evanescent certainties of the artist. Hot Wire, likewise, is a magnetic study of the intensity of art, showing the bottom half of a tightrope walker above what appears to be a snake. Early, joyful transport paintings, Sun Plane and 2nd Bus, capture not just his formal playfulness but the optimism of the start of the 1960s. The earliest experimentation with bringing paintings off the wall – Curious Woman from 1965, whose 3D breasts the painter picked up in a joke shop – has that same honesty.

The controversial sculptures – Hat Stand, Table and Chair – aren’t shown together. This is because they were “not conceived as a group”, says curator Edith Devaney. “They just share a visual language and were made at the same time.” The time was 1969. Yet I wonder whether that decision wasn’t also made to complicate their message with the work that surrounds them. Because, as single pieces, Chair especially, they are still brutally arresting.

Stand In

Stand In

Hat Stand is a mannequin in radial leather knickers and thigh-high boots. Chair is the most famous of the three: a woman lies on her back, with her knees against her chest and a cushion on top of her. That’s the seat, her calves make the chair’s back. While all the clothes – black leather gloves, boots and a strap – reference bondage, she also looks dead, trussed up ready for some inept suburban disposal. Table, being topless, is more classically provocative. It would be pushing it to say the figure was adopting a more active shape, though: she’s on all fours, holding up a pane of glass with her back, her head looking down into a hand mirror. Yet the physics of the position make her look more like a doll than a corpse, and the effect is more intellectual challenge than 10 Rillington Place.

“Fetish clothing doesn’t date,” Devaney says. Jones’s Secretary – three sets of crossed legs, disembodied pastel dominatrixes – could have been made yesterday. Or they could be a detail from a Victorian erotica show. Hat Stand could be an Agent Provocateur window display.

Fetish wear is timeless for the same reason illegal drugs are always the same price. The black market doesn’t seem to understand inflation. But we’re also looking at a dense interplay of deliberate and accidental reference: Jones’s images have been so influential that almost no image of woman-as-object or woman-as-other-object can be created, even 40 years later, that doesn’t nod to them.

Curious Woman

Curious Woman

Jones’s first clashes were with the art establishment: his paintings got him kicked out of the Royal College at the start of the 1960s. In his own descriptions of his famous ungrouped group of sculptures, he still sounds as if he’s shadow-boxing with that past and the keepers of artistic respectability, certainly not trying to feud with feminists. He was, he wrote, “presenting the figures as objects that would demand an immediate, non-art response: ie, chair – sitting; table – using. I attempted to dislocate the normal expectations when the viewer wishes to confront a work of art.”

The challenge was, as Natalie Ferris writes in Allen Jones and the Masquerade of the Feminine, that these sculptures came out at the same time as second-wave feminism not by coincidence, but because they were both exploring the same thing: “the imagery of capitalism, in which the alluring female body did not act as a sign for its owner’s own sexuality, but only as it existed for the male sexual imagination”. But what did Jones’s exploration amount to? Was it critique or endorsement? It seems pretty plain that the sculptures aren’t meant to be titillating, but are they debasing? If we accept that this battle existed, between the imagery of women-as-sex-instruments on the one side, and women as whole people on the other, then merely to represent it is feeble, a kind of proto-postmodern cowardice: “I’m not saying this is right or wrong, OK? I’m just saying, ‘Here are some tits.’ Get over yourself.” From the time they were created until 1986, when Chair was vandalised with acid, the sculptures were the subject of great anger.

Taken against his other work, it is impossible to conceive of Jones as having one single view of women, in which they are objectified. An impressive gathering of his painted metal sculptures fills one room: couples folding in on each other, limbs merging, a sense that momentum collapses the distinction between one person and another, between genders. It’s eerie and entrancing, like a dancing army. Hermaphroditism is a strong theme, the lines of a woman’s leg in 1966’s Drama sliding into that of a man, like cells merging. Gender is a necessary exaggeration, a cartoon, to keep apart these shapes whose real drive is to be inseparable.

Hat Stand

Hat Stand

Yet the exhibition and the debate it would once have generated also underline how much the world has changed. Culture has become essentially supine in the face of that “imagery of capitalism” whose thrust has remained unchanged, indeed, has become even coarser and more assertive: one gender as meat for the other.

Earlier this year, a fresh chair controversy was spawned when Dasha Zhukova, the gallerist and girlfriend of Roman Abramovich, was photographed on a pastiche of Jones’s sculpture in which the woman was black as well as looking dead (it’s by the Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard). It’s a cheap shot, borrowing someone else’s complicated provocativeness and spicing it up with racism. Zhukova’s defence was: “This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an artwork intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics.” (That “out of context” remark is interesting: what would have been the correct context?) And if we’re going to have a conversation about race and gender, do we want it to start with a rich white man and end with Mrs Oligarch sitting on a black woman? Jones was moved to respond: “I never intended the chair to be sat on.”

Jones was the canary down the mine in 1969, observing obliquely: This is the real direction of the pop art pin-up, the woman separated by an ad man into all her pneumatic parts; this is where we’re headed, to a place where women can be anything except people. Did second-wave feminists shoot the messenger? Or did he mangle the message? The debate is still open.

[Editor] 刘建兰