Gender

Sexism/Sensationalism/Seduction? Allen Jones at the RA

Allen Jones still has the power to push buttons, his current show at the Royal Academy has reignited longstanding debates questioning objectification over empowerment inherent in his fetishised female forms.

The show pulls together iconic works like Chair from the early 60s to recent images of commercial icons including Kate Moss. Perhaps I should have been offended, but instead I was entirely seduced by Jones’s women. I was struck by the contradictions and ambiguity embodied in the female representation in his drawings, paintings, sculptures and furniture.

Jones controversial stance was evident from the outset even as a student at the Royal College of Art, where he trained alongside David Hockney and Peter Phillips, eventually being kicked out in 1960. In 1964 a year spent in New York marked a turning point in his career, he established his bright, flattened, Pop iconography and stylised women, launching his name into fame. It was in 1969 that he really made his mark however - exhibiting Chair, Hatstand and Table – cast fibreglass women wearing leather bondage gear in erotically charged poses transformed literally into household objects. When they were exhibited at the ICA in 1970, feminists let off stink and smoke bombs in protest, paint stripper was later poured over Chair at the Tate in the 80s attempting to destroy the offending body. There’s a Duchampian sense about this outrage however; just as Duchamp’s wheel attracted criticism it got people debating, critiquing and most importantly, created a barrage of attention – these protests against Jones ironically acted only to elevate his name as an artist to be reckoned with.

L-R: Chair, 1969 and Table, 1969

Of course the outrage is completely logical; Jones presents us with simplified yet idealised, plastic mannequin-like, objectified women, mostly nude and generally passive while his men are clothed and active. Arguably Jones follows age-old stereotypical female representations; the body becoming object to be viewed by male gaze, his bondage-clad mannequins are intrinsically fetishised and sexualised. John Berger’s comments on art historical canonical trends spring to mind; ‘to be born a woman is to be born into an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men’ he expressed, ‘men act – women appear’. On the other hand, unlike the sculptures from classical antiquity and beyond that Berger was commenting on, Jones’s women make no attempt to conceal their nakedness, on the contrary they embrace nudity with their powerful stance – in one triptych Three-Part Invention the female subjects overshadow and dominate their male counterparts.

L-R: Three-Part Invention, 2002 and First Step, 1966

His focus on figuration both eschewed and embraced Clement Greenberg’s championing of Abstract Expressionism and its focus on flatness. Rather than abstracting form, he found a new way to flatten the human body, “Pop seemed to be a new way of representing the figure” he explains. Even his sculptural works often blend into the flat plane behind them.

L-R: Stand In, 1991-2 and Fascinating Rhythm, 1982-3

Is he a misogynist or merely following in the footsteps of classic sculpture? Jones denies that any of his works have a fine-art source, yet there’s no ignoring that the idealised female form he presents to us follows the traditions of classic painting and sculpture. Jones said recently ‘I think of myself as a feminist’ and perhaps it is a sense of playful pleasure in the female form that elevates them from mere misogyny.

Allen Jones at the Royal Academy of Arts is on now until 25 January 2015