Study from the Human Body at Stephen Friedman Gallery

This new exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery aims, in its own terms, to pay homage both to Henry Moore and Francis Bacon and their own ‘Study of the Human Body’. This could appear as an aim that is both ambitious and likely to create a very scattered effect – between sculptural and painterly, the transformed body and the body performing in a particular space. In a sense that is quite true of the exhibition in general, which chooses to focus on all mediums and remains open to all kinds of interpretations of what this “human body” may look like. The result is an eclectic mix of different mediums and aspects from a vast array of artists. And does the exhibition pull it off? Well, my views are a bit mixed.

The first part of the exhibition plunged us straight into a life drawing class of a particular kind…notably, David Shrigley’s Turner Prize-winning Life Drawing. Particular because in this case our model was a large cartoonish naked sculpture residing in the center of the room. Maintaining a pose was therefore not a problem for our “model”…aside from the occaisional blinking and ‘urinating’ in a bucket befors its pedestal. Surrounding it were easels, all the material and paper neccessary in order to get down to drawing, and the audience becoming momentarily artists for an instant as they put their own particular viewpoint on the paper…then on the wall, which already showed previous participations. These were extremely spontaneous and diverse – the pressure lifted on representing a caricature of the body rather than a ‘real’ body, people felt more free to experiment with different genres and styles. More than in any ‘real’ life drawing I have ever attended in any case. This was only encouraged by the helpful and friendly assistants present during the evening itself.

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Life Model, David Shrigley, 2014.
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Past contributions…
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…and mine!

Exploration, the grostesque and the body transformed; the tone is set in a participative, dynamic humorous way for the rest of the exhibition that shows different, varied representations of the human body. I loved the Moore sculpture and their relation to Paul Mc Devitt’s Notes to Self sketches, exploring the transitions anf between the drawing and the three-dimensional, form and substance. They complemented each other beautifully and probably were the best testimony to these links with Moore and Bacon that the exhibition wished to acheive.

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Henry Moore
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Paul Mc Devitt, Notes to Self, 2010-2014
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Yinka Shonibare, MBE Fire, 2010

The second part of the exhibition is quieter than the hubbub created by Shrigley but interesting, showcasing many different artists of the gallery and their mediums…but attempting to unite them all under not only one theme of the human body but specifically the human body according to Moore and Bacon is perhaps too much of a stretch, an attempt to create a strenuous link between objects that do not neccessarily have any need for this extra layer of interpretation. Trying to reattach works amongst themselves with something as universal as the human body and then made to fit into perceptions of two very different artists and their own different views does not work out well, in my opinion.

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Huma Bhabha, Chain of Missing Links, 2012

I did enjoy the works that I saw however, with their diversity of materials and medium. Maybe that is the point, ultimately: they did not neccessarily need the link to Bacon and Moore to create questions and tensions among themselves. Where does the body start and where does it end? A silhouette made psychedelic like Yinka Shonibare’s MBE Fire sculpture challenges Being, by Tom Friedman, made entirely of styrofoam balls and paint roughly aggregated into a colossal silhouette like a combination of atoms forming a body.

Huma Bhabha’s Chain of Missing Links furthermore questions this with a ‘body’ or its grostesque likeness constituted of materialistic, physical but artificial elements like styrofoam, clay or plexiglass. Do these works challenge the organic nature of the human body or emphasize it? Kendell Geers’s Flesh of the Spirit seems to embody this through its very title, while criticizing the attitudes of Western art towards African sculpture. The human body becomes a performance, in the two large works by Catherine Opie, Divinity Fudge and Vaginal Davis, where gender and clothing become a way of transfiguring her subjects. The kitschy but striking Death of Chatterton by Kehinde Wiley, reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelite theme by Henry Wallis, contrasted with Julien, the caricatural but sensitive portrait by Yoshitomo Nara.

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Kehinde Wiley, Death of Chatterton

And after facing the fleshy, intense smudges of paint of Bacon’s Study of the Human Body, we confront the human body in its absence of physical presence, through Shadow. The concentration around a figurative, physical representation of our bodies and what they represent, revolving around sculpture, painting and photography as well as two prominent artists, made this exhibition lack some overall coherence. However, this did not detract me from the works themselves, and the installation by Shrigley instilled a feeling of interaction and experimentation throughout the entire exhibition.

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