Allen Jones RA: Royal Academician’s show thrusts to the fore the objectification of women By James Brewer
Is this the right way to confront the demeaning mass media imagery of women? British pop artist Allen Jones has been turning out provocative and – in some eyes – gratuitously erotic works for years. Whatever you think of them, they are memorable.
Visitors to the Royal Academy of Arts for the first major exhibition in the UK of the work of Allen Jones since 1995, can judge for themselves, once they get over the startling thrust of the series of life-size dolls in sexualised outfits and poses. The colours he uses are riotous.
For four and a half decades, the 77-year-old Southampton-born artist has aroused the ire of feminists, but he is sanguine about that. He says: “You cannot be responsible for how people will react to art.” Is this artist showing an unhealthy interest in the sexuality of women? “If you go to a horror movie, you do not think the director has a bloodlust.”
The Royal Academician (he was awarded the distinction in 1986) is one of those artists whose work needs to be seen in the round – and here is the opportunity, for more than 80 works have been assembled, many from private collections in the UK, Europe and US. Both paintings and sculptures are cleverly displayed, from the 1960s to the present.
There is no doubt he has a sense of humour, given teasing titles with a double meaning, such as Waiting on Table, and Curious Woman. He allows us a glimpse into his studio sketches and artefacts, which include the coarse and saucy seaside postcards of Donald McGill. He is, without doubt, an accomplished draughtsman and sculptor, and this stands out in every piece.
In a grand understatement, the Royal Academy introduction says: “The female figure has remained an enduring interest for Jones, who has continually found fascination in popular culture’s prolific and differing depictions of femininity, ranging from the erotic to the seductive and the glamorous.”
It can be said that the artist objectifies women, but it is likely this is as parody rather than misogyny. Some of the furniture sculptures incorporating submissive female figures ‘shocked’ in the 1970s, but people should have got over this by now: it was the advertising industry that denigrated women until correctly, political correctness sought to call a halt to antediluvian attitudes.
Allen Jones continues to cast images of women as playthings, albeit with faces impassively mask-like. His first such works from 1969 – blandly named Hat Stand, Table and Chair (painted fibreglass, resin, Plexiglass, mixed media and tailor-made accessories), caused a storm. They were a precursor for the fascinating but a little less blatantly erotic painted steel sculptures of entwined dancing couples, from the 1980s. The dancing figures are deftly arranged as though taking a turn around a ballroom. He was still appropriating household titles for steamy themes two decades later as with Refrigarator and Light (2005)
The theatricality of his work should come as little surprise, for he is renowned as a stage and television designer: Oh Calcutta! for a start, and productions for Ballet Rambert and the Royal Ballet have been among his commissions.
The impact of his early visits to the US, where he took stylistic note of Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann in New York, and Ed Ruscha and Mel Ramos on the West Coast, remains strong. Examples of this have been a 1994 oil painting of the ballerina Darcey Bussell and a 2013 red-hued portrait of Kate Moss (the model whose favourite artist is said to be Lucien Freud).
Less well known now, so a revelation, are his earlier endeavours reflecting city life, public transport, music and the theatre. There is no glamour, but plenty of atmosphere, in works such as 2nd Bus of 1962. A 2007 triptych Interval with choc ice girl and audience chat in the theatre is compulsive viewing.
Allen Jones RA is curated by Edith Devaney of the Royal Academy, and the artist collaborated closely on the show. It will continue at the Burlington Gardens galleries of the Academy until January 25 2015.