A chair, a table, and a hat stand made Allen Jones famous. More specifically, objects of furniture, fashioned out of the objectified female body. You probably know how she is positioned: on her back with legs bent into her chest, kitten heel boots in the air (for example, Chair, 1969); elbow-length gloves and knee-high boots on all fours, peering into a cheap looking glass (Table, 1969), both on shag pile rugs that scream swinging ’60s. In Hat Stand, the mannequin woman in lingerie stands upright, staring—like all of Jones’s figures—blankly ahead.
In this Royal Academy retrospective, the first major survey of Jones’s work since the ’90s, the provocative trio are not displayed together—perhaps in attempt to deflect attention away from the models that caused a furore in their day, around the time of feminism’s second-wave in the U.K. Curator Edith Devaney is keen to emphasize that there is much more to Jones’s output than the “women as furniture” series—but the exhibition’s texts are conspicuously quiet around the original feminist response. Are they a commentary on the oppressed position of Western women at the dawn of the ’70s, an absorption and re-forming of societal misogyny, or a simple reproduction of sexism into art? Jones claimed he didn’t mean to create “shock art,” citing instead a will for humor and playfulness, but this supposed obliviousness does not paint his position more sympathetically.
Studying briefly at the Royal College of Art (before he was expelled) with peers like David Hockney, Jones’s practice moved between three languages—painting, figure sculptures, and painted steel works. In the largest rooms of the exhibition, which take a thematic approach, broadly chronological within each section, we see the extent of painting across five decades, beginning with quirky semi-abstraction in a fauvist palette—early examples like Interesting Journey (1962) remain fresh—and moving towards rainbow-bright canvases in which outlines of the human figure prevail. Across the decades, he reproduces psychedelic meldings of male and female forms, in more or less harmonious relations, reflecting the spirit of the sexual revolution that accompanied British Pop Art. These paintings were energized, too, by stays in America, where he took a studio in New York’s Chelsea Hotel. The orgiastic fantasies of Jones’s heyday, from the fixed perspective of a male artist, are palpable, as is the hedonism of London’s clubs in the ’80s, depicted in the kaleidoscope shades of Kandinsky or the Delaunays. It’s a positivist vision (these are wealthy crowds, sipping bubbles), the rhythm of the capital city portrayed with strong libido and futurist momentum.
A welcome pause to all the garish color comes in the display of his charcoal drawings, where it is possible to see how the spread of interlocking bodies in his large-scale club, dance, or sex scenes are built up. There are examples of drawings for set designs, and a pentimento study of the fluid steps of dancers’ limbs. He truly fetishizes women’s legs: one particularly “leggy” wall displays painting upon painting of lines of calves in high heels, while Secretary (1972) features three pairs of crossed legs in lace-up pastel leather, coming out of the wall like the middle of a magic trick.
The final, dramatically lit room of fiberglass figure sculptures continues this fetishization, with each model holding the same bosom-forward, arms-elongated pose. These statues are born from Hollywood dreams or sci-fi fantasy: less than exhibiting a corporeal “perfection” to aspire to, their proportions and poise are about as life-like as a Madame Tussaud’s wax model (indeed the same factory was used to fabricate some of them)—that is, they resemble humans, but are evidently unreal. They are surreal like André Breton’s photos of mannequins in his 1928 novel Nadja, uncannily divorced from actual female bodies. Though each is made to do just what the male artistic ego wants (and one is literally confined to a box), some seem to hold a dominatrix-like power. They are performing—as we all do—but here to the extreme, for the platform of art.
If Jones’s sculptures retain iconic status, it is because questions of dominance and submission between the sexes still resonate today, from a saturation of pornographic imagery, to the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey. It is easier, perhaps, to accept their positions, now that women in the art-viewing audience experience more daily freedom, but these models—the endpoint of objectification—remind us too that patriarchy lives on, and that for feminism, there is still much work to be done.
Allen Jones is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Nov. 14, 2014–Jan. 25, 2015.