Organized by art historian Norman Rosenthal, this survey of Allen Jones’s work aimed to provide a historical view of the controversial artist’s oeuvre—going as far back as the mid-’60s, when he was living and working in the Chelsea Hotel. It was successful insofar as it conveyed Jones’s unyielding effort to find new ways of representing a recurrent trope: the female figure, portrayed in stylized, borderline pornographic terms.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors encountered Treasure Chest (2014) and Cover Story (2015), which set a waggish tone for the show. Disguised as cheeky puns, these pieces in fact operate through the mechanics of sexual dominance, and to just pass by them with a chuckle would have been to witlessly validate the casual misogyny that lies beneath the silliness. Treasure Chest is a loose painting of a woman from the waist up sporting a salacious facial expression; her breasts—executed in resin and attached to the canvas—literally pop off of the picture in the manner of a Marjorie Strider “build-out.”
Cover Story was the newest—and most impish—work on view, evidence that the temperament of this octogenarian British artist has not cooled a bit. The piece is a life-size fetish outfit (strap on, of course) cast in sparkling fiberglass and lined with red leather. When Kate Moss wore a nearly identical version for a photograph in 2013, Jones titled the picture Body Armour, which begs the question of whom or what one might do battle with in such an outfit. Here, the armor was less fiercely compelling than in the photo, appearing like the suit of a retired knight.
Women populate much of Jones’s work—rarely as warriors. In the pieces included in Rosenthal’s survey, they are portrayed as performers and prostitutes, as waitresses and audience members; they swim, splash, squeeze balloons, and even levitate. But they are all essentially the same figure: she of the narrow waist, buxom chest, and rounded buttocks. It’s the sort of woman who exists primarily in the realm of media-engineered fakery, where airbrush technicians can erase any flaw.
By comparison, the male figures depicted in the works are either heavily abstracted, as in the sculptures Third Man (1965) and Artisan I (1988), or lecherous and leering, as in the early painting Bra-La-La (1974), in which a green-faced chap peers through a little window at a scantily clad woman, his gaze interrupted by actual female undergarments that bifurcate the bizarre composition. This rendering of the male gaze is so over-the-top that it might even be in jest, a caricature of cheap desire.
Rosenthal attempted not only to present a historical view of Jones’s career, but to position that career in a larger history as well. Among the paintings the curator selected—and whatever Jones’s preferred content, he is a supremely talented painter—was a three-panel image, Interval (2007), that directly invokes Picasso. In this piece, a 1950s-style nightclub interior displays, on one wall, a copy of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which, of course, depicts prostitutes in a brothel. Rather than excusing or validating Jones’s controversial oeuvre, Rosenthal seemed to be emphasizing its place in a lineage of art with libidinous subject matter. In this light, perhaps the warrior wears Cover Story to shield herself from that gaze that so wantonly consumes what flesh it settles upon.