Allen Jones RA
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens, London
13 November 2014 – 25 January 2015
Exhibition curator Edith Devaney
According to the Royal Academy ‘few artists inflame debate like Allen Jones’, which would explain why my ears were as stimulated as my eyes at the first major UK exhibition of this artist’s work since 1995. Moving from room to room, the snippets of conversation that I overheard fixed the exhibition firmly in the 21st century with its modern-day attitudes to sexuality and female empowerment.
At a time when modernism stood for minimalism, Allen Jones was intent on revitalising figurative art. As a student at the RCA in the 1960s, his was an illustrious year group, including fellow Pop Artists Patrick Caulfield and David Hockney. With its reliance on mass media images, Pop Art was both entertaining and slightly shocking, particularly so in its use of the low-culture images of women that became Jones’s inspiration. It is this interest and passion that we see theatrically played out in the RA’s survey of work by Jones produced over a period of fifty years.
The dimmed lights, deep cerise walls and heavy velvet drapes that screen the back of the first of six rooms set the scene for the show to come with back-stage, electrically charged anticipation. Cue two quirky ladies of a certain age engaged in earnest discussion of Jones’s Green Table (1972). This is a painted fibreglass mannequin, clothed in leather gloves, knickers and hood, down on all fours, supporting a palette-shaped glass tabletop on her back; adjacent, her companion, Table (1969), gazes down at her own image in a hand mirror placed on the floor. ‘Look, that’s us isn’t it?’ says one of the grey-haired ladies, ‘supporting, carrying, practical – dealing with it. My husband couldn’t be a table! Well, he couldn’t, could he? Men are useless!’
This witty appreciation is in stark contrast to the reception that Jones’s Chair (1969) received on 8 March 1986 (International Women’s Day) when a female objector entered the then Tate Gallery and attacked the sculpture with viscous paint stripper. This act of protest was recently included in Tate Britain’s exhibition, Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, taking its place among centuries of wilful destruction. The subject of this vandalism is a female figure, dressed in Jones’ signature leather accessories, lying on her back with her knees drawn up to her chest and a cushioned seat fixed on the back of her thighs, her calves providing the backrest.
For centuries, women with bare breasts (that look as though they have been applied with ice cream scoops) have supported temples, porches, fireplaces and lamps, so why the violent objection to Jones’s caryatids? The standard response is that three sculptures of women central to Jones’s work – Chair, Table and Hat Stand (1969) – are presented as items of domestic furniture; add to that the perception that the fetishistic clothing in which they are dressed is degrading, and the debate about the objectification of women is potently fuelled. But how much of this revulsion is due merely to the fact that the creator of these pieces is a man and, more to the point, not a gay man? From exactly the period when Jones was creating his 1960s figurative sculptures, a press advertisement for Yardley, by graphic design maverick Robert Brownjohn, shows a gun belt with tubes of lipstick in place of bullets. The copy line reads, ‘A Woman’s Ammunition’. Here the female form is perceived as powerful and its beautification as further empowerment. As Umberto Eco put it in Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), ‘a naked woman is an armed woman.’
For the current RA show, Jones’s Cover Story (1976) has been re-imagined as Body Armour (2013), a dazzling bronze casing worn by Kate Moss, adopted by the RA as the key image to promote the retrospective. I call to mind the first time I saw this piece, as a young designer visiting London’s Design Museum. The lead image for their exhibition The Power of Erotic Design was also this moulded outfit, but photographed in 1978 worn by an anonymous model, provocative hand on hip and a fragment of a smile. Fast-forward almost forty years to the first lady of the lens, Kate Moss, with a glazed, Fritz Lang expression in her eyes and it is fascinating to see how the same body suit can up the ante for female empowerment. Then and now, however, by choosing these erotic forms of clothing, Jones secures his work’s longevity beyond the transient lifespan of the purely fashionable. As curator Edith Devaney points out, fetishistic clothing does not date: these leather-clad women defy passing fashion trends; the 1960s pieces are as contemporary as those made today.
The second room is a display of shelving, replicating the artist’s studio. Here we see maquettes and sketches showing the process by which Jones’s work develops from drawings into three dimensions with their remarkable use of negative space. I am reminded of the studio of my late friend Eduardo Paolozzi. The seam mined by the great Pop Artists runs through both, but this is unmistakably Jones. The working of paper into energised, three- dimensional objects through the seemingly simple actions of cutting and shaping makes me marvel at how these light paper models will translate into large-scale, solid steel structures without compromising their airiness, suppleness and sense of graceful movement.
From here we open out into the first of two large rooms and it is as though the lights have come on and the curtain has been raised. The small ‘c’ of controversy has been replaced with the capital ‘C’ of Colour – and what colour! No one can work red and green and blue and yellow and orange like Allen Jones. As with all good theatrical performances the audience is transported into another world: suddenly the grey, dark, wet and cold of a grim November afternoon are no more.
One of the early paintings exhibited here, Interesting Journey (1962), invokes a sort of psychedelia as a face blends with a bus window to suggest both reflection and movement. Red and green are frequently seen as Jones shows an enduring interest in their polarity. We are also reminded that there is a wit to Jones’s work that should not be overlooked. I stand before Curious Woman, (1965), studying the composition of oil, plaster, epoxy resin and wood; the cantilevered bosom, which the artist found in a joke shop, protrudes from an almost inadequate green polka dot bikini, articulating the transition from two dimensions into three, invading our space as viewer. Behind me, a cheeky voice pipes up: ‘The nipples follow you around the room, you know!’
The second of these two vast rooms is a revelation; the paper maquettes from the artist’s shelves have given way to the real thing. The sculptures leap from the canvasses that circle the room to fill the space with their movement, shapes and vibrancy. Inspired by the ideal expressed in Plato’s Symposium, that we spend our lives searching for our other half, Jones creates a completed whole by allowing idea and steel form to find each other – by bringing them together. The unspoken understanding created by the meeting of two complementary parts is here played out beautifully in a series of binary pairs: sameness and difference, opposite sexes, and contrasting colours of the spectrum. These combine in legs and torsos painted with an opacity and translucence of colour that blends them ethereally. There is a wonderful ambiguity at play, and such is his extraordinary skill as a draughtsman that I begin to feel Jones could seamlessly fuse fish and bicycle. Is it fanciful to suggest that the philosophical ideals he brings to his art are also apparent in his own life? Deirdre Morrow, muse and wife of thirty-six years, is his soul mate; his daughters are twins. The idea of twofoldness, of same/different, seems ever-present.
Progress into the next, smaller room seems slightly disjointed as we must descend a staircase to get there, despite the tantalising urge to dash on directly to the very alluring final gallery, which lies straight ahead. It is also rather odd that room five of the six doubles as the exit. But I make my way as instructed and enter a space filled with rarely displayed drawings and plans, some of which are the workings of sculptures and paintings that we have already seen. This is a very monochromatic display, another glimpse behind the scenes, quite literally in the form of storyboards and grids that show the practicalities of how Jones works. Hole Chair (2014) makes me, and those around me, smile. Made of veneered bentwood, it is a lounging structure with a removable phallic rod, but despite this wit and androgynous ambiguity I cannot help but feel that the piece is not quite right. I have the sense that I have seen the show, enjoyed a roll-call of celebrated stars, including the previously mentioned Chair (1969) which is also displayed here, and that I am now experiencing, in Hole Chair, an Allen Jones tribute act.
To the final room, back into dark magenta walls and dimmed lighting. It has the reverent hush of a tomb, but not just any tomb. The last word goes to one young visitor: ‘This is awesome, better than the Terracotta Army.’ It is an ensemble of figure sculptures, which includes Hat Stand (1969), along with Chair and Table the third of Jones’s three celebrated (dis)graces. They may be static in their poses but the grouping is dynamic. This is chorus line as front line – confident, strong and impressive. Here women’s bodies are represented as ‘perfect’ – deconstructed, in two dimensions and in three, sometimes both together, always displaying Jones’s examination and exploration, his celebration of the female form. The static figures do not look real, but they are not intended to be real any more than they are intended to be actual pieces of furniture. As Jones himself explains, they are art: ‘I want the image to be a Sign for Woman and not a portrait of her’. This, I suggest, brings an integrity to Jones’s work that is sadly and dangerously lacking in that of the mass media image makers of today, who expect us (and sadly we all too often comply) to consume their artificially enhanced women (and men), not as imaginative creations but as reality. Behind the series of sculptures hangs a large painting, a rare study as Jones usually tends to shy away from portraiture. But who else could paint Darcey Bussell (1994), not as a feathery swan or sugary fairy but as a woman at the peak of her illustrious and celebrated career? Her muscular legs en pointe (thin air in place of thin stiletto heels) with outstretched arms strong and defined, the paint in this portrait is thin and translucent, and again we note that strength is combined with lightness.
For the avoidance of doubt (as they say), I should mention, finally, that the only sense of unease I felt as a female visitor to this exhibition was from the overly attentive guards, who perhaps thought I was a little too interested in the work and that my handbag was possibly a little too big. They followed me closely with all the subtlety of those primed to anticipate trouble. Perhaps controversy will always follow Allen Jones, but where there is art there is debate and so the show must and will go on.
Readers may be interested to read Mark Glazebrook’s review of Allen Jones for The London Magazine in September 1967:
‘But works of art, though they may establish contact by their subject matter, cannot rely on that subject matter plus a few technical tricks to pull them all the way. This is the mistake Salvador Dali and a few other surrealists made. And an intriguing recent example of a talented young artist in London making the same mistake is Allen Jones. It is not that he ignores form in order to concentrate on content in his numerous paintings of vulgar, shiny, stockinged legs in dated high-heeled shoes stepping on and off actual 3D ledges and steps. It’s just that he fails to relate the content to the form satisfactorily. The steps and ledges do not relate to the flat canvas either to provide a trompe l’oeil effect or as elements in the composition. Jones’s projections irritate rather than involve the spectator. No doubt the Jones legs, considered as art, are an improvement on the images in the fetishist or transvestite magazines which inspired them. But all there is really to admire, apart from the deliberately ghastly colour, is the slick painting of the wrinkles in the ill-fitting stockings. A splendidly coherent image, on the other hand, is the top third at least of Perfect Match, a very tall vertical triptych admired by Robert Melville in the New Statesman as Jones’s best picture to date and as ‘a sacred image of a girlie, an absolutely inviolable Pop Art goddess’. But whether the two bottom parts match the top as well as the title suggests is open to doubt.’
Front Cover shows detail from Perfect Match, 1966-7, Allen Jones.
Cologne, Museum of Ludwig