York Art Gallery’s Flesh exhibition has a point to make, but one which is not unlocked to its fullest potential…
The monstrosity looms from the back wall, catching your eye as soon as you enter. If self-recognition can be said to underlie any exploration of flesh, then Adriana Varejao’s cavernous Green Tilework in Live Flesh (pictured below) gives us as gruesome a reminder as any of what is an inherent part of ourselves, but we may wish to hide. Flesh is most successful when it forces us to consider what we conceal, and what art can conceal: namely, in the words of Joseph Heller in Catch-22 that “man was matter”. The exhibition seems to gradually peel the layers of concealment away, beginning with some devotional works on the left wall of the opening, central, and also largest room, “Figuring Flesh”. In these first pieces, flesh peeps from behind veils, it can remain a mere suggestion. No more effectively than with Cavallino’s St Agatha, which portrays a woman martyred by having her breasts cut off; made all the more horrifying by the wound remaining only half-visible above her dress. The plaster is then ripped off, so to speak, with three triptychs by Kusozu, depicting a woman’s death and decay, followed by Bacon’s explosive Henrietta Moraes. Having arrived at the Varejao, where the crater in the tile-work seems to figure a body ripped open, the guts and entrails laid bare, we are still left troubled about what we see. The intestinal forms are at once recognisable and unrecognisably chaotic; we are unsure of exactly what we are seeing, but convinced by its horrific rawness. Even at its most bold and most potent, Flesh still withholds, it keeps things ambiguous.
The room marked “Still Life” is an expertly crafted collection of both classical and modern interpretations of the genre. It was so refreshing to see playful adaptations alongside masters such as Snyders. None of these adaptations was more playful, intriguing and ultimately powerful than Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Still Life; a time-lapse decay of a hare carcass, next to a GM peach remaining totally in tact. Attempts of humans to delay decay are overshadowed by the violent and inevitable natural process. We are made to question the efficacy of concealing flesh; its transience must be recognised. Still Life also challenges, through its sense of inexorable motion, the power the artist has to truly preserve the ‘moment’ of capturing ‘still life’. Is not this a suggestion of art’s very incapacity to keep in touch with nature? To keep truly in touch with flesh? The “Still Life” room is able to push the limits of its own remit, and then asks us to do the same for the exhibition at large. Is an exhibition of flesh through art not inherently self-defeating?
‘a gorgeously-shot wrestling match between two nude men…a totally real expression of tender friendship and aggressive brutality’
“Still Life” is brilliant at encapsulating the ‘ethic’ of the exhibition, and the challenges of its brief. There are a couple of rooms that fall flat however. First of all, the room labelled “Anatomies” has a focus remarkably like that of “Figuring Flesh”, namely that of exploring the boundaries flesh provides between the human exterior and interior. The only difference appears to be that “Anatomies” is more medical. This is an interesting approach, with Landseer and Kramer’s portraits questioning the boundaries between art and medical diagram. But despite the 18th Century book of anatomy, Towne’s gruesomely life-like wax anatomical figures in glass jars and the downright strange wax model of the head of William Blake, the room feels strikingly bare. I wanted to be overcrowded like I was in the library of some Victorian eccentric. I wanted to feel the faint disgust of being in the Hunterian Museum. It didn’t feel like there was enough disorder.
The initial ‘revelation’ of the exhibition is acutely manoeuvred, and there is a stand-out work in Ron Mueck’s exquisite sculpture Youth (pictured above). Here a modern-dressed African-American man is depicted with a Christ-like spear-wound. The flesh has a plastic tinge that makes it look like a figurine, yet Mueck has captured the man’s expression so perfectly, that it seems to transcend its synthetic form. It is, once again, both unrecognisably cartoonish, and totally recognisable in its humanity.
The exhibition all too often lumped sculptures at our feet like dead weights, doing no favours to the intricately tattooed ceramic torso of Edward Lipski. The trend continued in the vaguely titled “Abstract Flesh”. While Sarah Lucas’ tender and brutal Nud 4 was rightly given its own glass case, others were seemingly discarded. Also, why was it that John Coplans’ nude photographs of his torso and genitalia came under the auspices of ‘abstract’, and Jen Davis’ didn’t? This not only seemed to take some liberties with the notion of ‘abstract’, but placed the male form out of the bounds of ‘convention’; (the obverse being that the traditions of voyeurism associated with the nude female form are not sufficiently questioned). Before suggesting too strongly that the exhibition reinforced the male gaze, it was refreshing to see Jenny Saville and Jen Davis’ nudes alongside Freud, Gilman and Degas. Saville especially confronted us with her body, her head leaned back. This was a statement of ownership, of reclaiming the female body from prurience.
At the very end, we go into a darkened room where a silent Steve McQueen film, Bear, is playing. It is a gorgeously-shot wrestling match between two nude men, and without scrupling on the angles it takes, presents a totally real expression of tender friendship and aggressive brutality. Bear captures the rawness of flesh alongside, rather than operating against, humane beauty: it should be the exhibition’s centre-piece. Flesh has something important to say, about recognising ourselves, and the potentially vexed relationship that that recognition has with art. Trimming the fat would have made the message even more powerful.