Flesh – Exhibition York Art Gallery visited 05/01/17
I suppose you visit exhibitions such as this drawn by ‘great’ names, and indeed the exhibits by Rubens, Rodin, Bacon, Lucian Freud and Kneebone are all worth the entrance fee. However, I came away with largely surprised by the work of William Etty, particularly the exploration of skin, ‘race’ and sexuality in some featured pieces. Suddenly the Etty world of doughy white ‘female beauties’ that I wrongly associated with this artist and wrongly disliked him for were put into a rare and radical context. One piece shows a nude male tied by the hands (somewhat decoratively), from a high studio scaffold such that, the information given on the wall tells us, Etty could help the model to display the fall of flesh over the torso under such restraint in ways impossible to unaided poses over the durations possible for life-modelling. Yet here is a painting that recalls the homoerotic material in Caravaggio more than any other one might see. Yet divorced from the underpinning of a story of significant torture, such as the Christian stories offered earlier artists: what remains is a study of flesh itself as an empty container for meanings that are uncomfortable but pressing and necessary.
This exhibition explores the use of flesh as a signifying model across multiple domains and potentials for meaning. Flesh as the material of predation – meat – and its meaning determined by drives within predation (whether as commodity offered to the appetite for food or erotic fulfillment), or flesh as that commonality which makes our mortality bearable and bounded (a common vulnerability). If all ‘flesh is grass’, flesh ties us to death and yet sublimes within itself the potential for massive non-corporeal meaning and attempts at transcendence.
Etty’s nude wrestlers contrast black and white skin and flesh in a moment of male combat where other meanings emerge – even changes in skin colour as a white man’s embrace recolours the skin of an encircling arm (a trick of light or of meaning). We see all that differently again in a wonderful study of male flesh in animated combat in Steve McQueen’s Bear (1993) where every meaning and attribution of the significance of flesh is dramatically tested as action morphs aggression and predation into balletic dance, as light turns flesh colour and surface into many forms, merely by the act of looking from multiple perspectives.
Sometimes flesh is the material of art – the patches of preserved skin from convicts bearing tattoos etched by needle or whatever sharp (or blunt) instrument that the prisoner could procure and then suddenly flesh that is on the cusp between life and death becomes to bear meanings that inevitably evoke iconic representations of metaphor of flesh as animal and human. Flesh in decay or in consumption be an animated. The animated videos showing the decomposition by maggots of a dead hare twists that body into wondrous shapes but this is recalled in the painted series of the death and decomposition of a high-class Japanese woman in a series of paintings in another room.
The still life corpses of Dutch art of the everyday get recalled precisely by a manufactured corpse of a deer, in which its potential to be embodied humanity often gets realised as we wander round it. The otherwise difficult-to-watch video installation ‘Meat Joy’ shows naked volunteer actors demonstrating fleshly manipulations as on the cusp of animal and human, drive or sublimation, sex as conjoined with predation or empathy or both together.
A tile-wall erupts into monstrous life only to display ambiguous signs of death and deindividuated and uncontained fleshly parts (Varejão 2000). An image that contains reference to the complex mix of the means of sustaining life and losing. And then flesh and fat. There are potent images here of how these ‘ideas’ are linked in socio-cultural and aesthetic configurations – although very unstable ones, where the definition of beauty and its opposite are in play, sometimes joyfully (as some may feel about Rubens and Benglis’ ‘Eat Meat’ - a mass of fatty fluid flesh on the floor styled in bronze.
There is SO much more to say but see it – PLEASE. It is mind-changing, which is perhaps to also say flesh metamorphosing.
All the best