The essentialists are having a hard time of it these days. It began with Simone de Beauvoir and her assertion that Susan was of the female “persuasion”. Later Foucault did some archaeological digging to expose the fabricated nature of sexuality, and theorists like Judith Butler have carried on the torch to do with gender flexibility.
In art circles the spotlight gaze has been firmly turned around and trained on the viewer. Cindy Sherman is probably the quintessential artist who has done more than most to explore the issue of the chameleon nature of nature, the body, the role play of gender, and Fleshbag, a show currently running at Skinroom Gallery in Hamilton, continues that investigation.
This is evident particularly in the work of LarzRanda/Mainard Larkin. With titles like I am who I am and Yesterday when I was younger, this transgender artist plays with the internet medium and the phenomenon of the selfie to probe the manipulation of image and identity using 1990’s graphics and digital devices to render the self as now male, now female, now some point in between.
Jaden Olsen, a 27 year old artist also confronts the problematic nature of identity in a work called, Watched, a small painting that depicts a naked figure crouched in the centre of a concentric arrangement of staring and judgmental eyes.
The ambivalence of gender is further surveyed in a pen and ink topographical study of a female nude in one work (Caught) by Ellie Lee-Duncan and in a second, What’s in a name, using a 1950’s schoolbook image of a young girl staring up at the enlarged first letter of her own name, as if questioning the nature of the given.
The identity issue is taken in the direction of race and culture by Leafa Wilson and Olga Krause in her photographic work which includes a white police officer and a Samoan woman dressed as a taupou. The artist provides them with equal standing by having each posed and gesturing in exactly the same way so that they become mirror images of one another. History and anthropological fetishisation thus becomes nullified.
The body can be read in multiple ways and Craig McClure confronts directly the physicality of his with a semi abstract rendering (ink on paper) that explores the discomforts of puberty where he was “far from comfortable in my own skin”.
So was Oliver Fiander Crafter who experienced medical complications producing anomalies in his body which resulted in various forms of social ostracism. The before and after photographs, accompanied by a zine text, present a biographical outpouring of self-depreciation as an artistic and personal response.
Such trauma might induce a self-cuddle and this is what Sam Timmings work, Here here projects in his ink and acrylic on paper – a psychological self-portrait interrupted with an enigmatic bold red abstracted line, signifying internal strain.
The volume of such tension is turned up a notch in the video performance by Jordana Bragg called, How to water the roses where the submission of the body in ritualistic practice assume masochistic proportions overlaid with religious symbolism. The artist slowly and methodically undresses then kneels on shards of glass in front of a small mirror and a rose which lies on a white mantle, evoking the Virgin Mary. It recalls the fetish of wound worship that Fiona Pardington has also explored in her work.
The fetish of the female nude is something artist Kari Schmidt confronts in a work that gives the show its title, Fleshbag. Eight white empty frames challenge the viewer to look elsewhere, in this case, inside a zine positioned on a small plinth on the floor. Here the viewer can access photographic nude images that are accompanied by a text taken verbatim from each model. The distancing effect of art is deliberately reduced while simultaneously referencing another medium. The gaze thereby becomes subverted.
Tyla Jane Armstrong via her surreal paintings of the female nude (flesh and skeletal forms), Amanda Watson’s abstracts and Paris Curno’s photographic silhouettes all address the question of the body and destabilise conventional readings in their various ways.
Drawing on myth and folk tale, Jane Siddell investigates the symbolism of body transformation in her embroidery work while Matthew Wrightman attempts a gender transformation in his video piece where he confronts the viewer like some ranting Old Testament prophet on the subject of “toxic masculinity”. Pro-wrestling culture is invoked to provide a clever satirical edge.
One of the sculptural works in the show, (besides Adam Ben-Dror’s inflatable pool with fountain) is Delaney Parker’s, All relative, which uses colourful Pop Art inspired configurations, (two ‘wrestling’ and penetrating abstract 3D forms) that present allusions to bodies and their binary interplay.
The body as “site of discourses” and the complexity of human subjectivity are all canvased in this intriguing show where all mediums are engagingly employed to consider the nature of human constructions. Curated by Kari Schmidt and Ellie Lee-Duncan. A show full of contemporary challenges.