In the 1960s, Allen Jones discovered that women garner more attention than do city buses, a revelation that would go on to define his entire career. One of the original British Pop artists, Jones first took London buses as his subject, painting them on variously shaped canvases. Upon moving to Manhattan, however, he became intrigued by fetishistic illustrations he saw of pinup girls from the 1940s and 1950s, and by the idea of creating overtly erotic objects of male desire.
Jones’s current retrospective at Michael Werner Gallery captures his play on medium, featuring sculptures poised, tableaux-like, against a painted background scene and paintings that remain two-dimensional but for the breasts of the women depicted. The women—whether in 2- or 3-D—all have similar bodies: slim, with well-defined muscles and extremely perky breasts and bottoms. All are white. One painting, titled Ovation (2010), depicts a woman in a sheer blue dress, standing before an audience of sculpted male heads that stand out, lustfully, in a sea of fiery red and orange. But the back of the woman’s skirt is missing, allowing the viewer—although not the men in front of her—to glimpse her shapely limbs and blue thong, while the men in the audience see only an icy woman in blue.
The works depict exclusively male fantasies—one shows an Adonis-like man lifting a naked woman on his shoulders in what appears to be an orgiastic waterfall scene. The women, who appear too confident in their sexual allure to care that they are being watched, are the ostensible subjects of the works. But the viewer, the voyeur, is not so much observing the women as he is looking at the men looking at the women. In one painting, Bra-La-La (1974), the only visible face is that of a reptilian man, who, in turn, is watching a woman undress through a window. One fiberglass sculpture, Cover Story (2015), comprises only the front half of a woman’s body, with straps attached to the back, as though intended to be worn. Another sculpture, Artisan I (1988), which is deconstructed in a vaguely Cubist style, depicts a man whose left half is obliquely twisted from the waist down, giving the impression of auto-fellatio. The works in the show are, in essence, about how sexual desire, like all desire, is engaged in a battle between who we are and how we like to see ourselves.
The “we,” of course, represents only men. Absent from this retrospective are any works from Jones’s infamous “Human Furniture” series, which consists of sculptures of women folded and contorted into, well, human furniture. In the 1970s, Jones received a call from film director Stanley Kubrick, who had seen Jones’s “Human Furniture” series and thought the images perfect decoration for his upcoming project, the purposefully violent and misogynistic A Clockwork Orange. Because Kubrick offered him no more than a credit line, Jones refused. Kubrick, with the help of a set designer, ended up nearly replicating Jones’s work anyway. The pieces were appropriate for the movie, only because the figures of women functioned quite literally as props supporting a greater point about representations of violence themselves breeding violence. These works do little more than grant heterosexual men insight into their own psyches. As for women, the art merely reinforces the time-honored belief that they exist only for the benefit of men.