Sunday, 20 May 2012

Skin Deep at Hay Hill Gallery

Artist Jamie McCartney(left)

As I get older and wiser experience confirms that judging by appearances is never a good idea. One of the benefits of social media is swapping ideas and inner most thoughts, getting to know people from the inside first, allowing inner beauty to shine through. Then should you meet, you already know the mind of the person, if not the superficial flesh. And their looks, really, does it matter? Why are people so judgemental regarding what is on the surface? 

Skin Deep explores ‘notions of beauty and society’s obsession with the physical self’. The artist Jamie McCartney ‘depicts his models in their natural state without recourse to the scourge of image manipulation …they celebrate the human body and human condition.’ The exhibition contains over forty large photographs, bronzes, and plaster casts and is deeply intimate in subject; the human form is stripped bare leaving skin and personality exposed.
There are echoes of a classical fascination with the monumental in the full size portraits and sculpture. However unlike the toned, flawless hyper-perfection of Greco-Roman statues, these ‘human’ gods and goddesses have stretch marks, tattoos, moles, hairy legs and most touchingly, dirty feet. They seem to embody a slightly untidy Ovidian metamorphosis; half way between human and god.

His female forms are sympathetic yet whimsical, enabling the individuality of the woman to shine through. The yoga images are serene but the photographs overtly referencing ancient goddesses are perfect. At page 16 of the gallery document ‘Shakti’ reclaims the swastika in a spiritual, physical form; imperfect squashed breasts, peaceful and contemplative. The rug behind her suggests primitive sensual luxury. ‘Parsva Dhanurasana’ (cover) is an open and almost non figure; a dreamy floating form with physicality provided by a gentle hair curl, a tattoo, imperfect skin and her pure femininity demonstrated in her hands/nails. Whilst the rosy cheeked ‘Goddess’ (page 3) requires no words at all.

The contrasting pair ‘Resurrection’ (back cover) and ‘Fallen Angel’ (page 4) are deliberately provocative. The male cruciform is definitely not Jesus but the iconography is playing with Christian ideas, inspired by a piece of jewellery the model was wearing when he turned up for the shoot. ‘Fallen Angel’ has an impudent yet innocent dirtiness; not an angel with a dirty face but a simple filthy, earthbound foot.

 His active photographs are imbued with power. ‘Dive’ (page 12) hints again at a classical fascination with the athletic power of the human body, as seen on vases etc. His incredible sense of movement is striking. This is technically achieved by the attention grabbing sharp focused forearm, contrasting with the hazy, ghostly outlined torso. ‘Climb’ is another athlete in action, a form with perfect physique. ‘Leap’ is softer, more balletic but conveys a dreamy closed eye abstract movement.  His Physical Photography pieces are central to this exhibition however I initially went to this gallery to see the Great Wall of Vagina. This ‘it’s not vulgar, it’s vulva’ collection of museum quality plaster casts has been described as a ‘work of great socio-political importance and is a provocative response to the exponential rise in cosmetic labial surgeries’. The sheer diversity of women from 18-76 - including transgendered men and women, mothers and daughters, piercings, identical twins, an example of a post op labiaplasty – is astonishingly beautiful and mesmerising. The individual textures, shapes collected in large metal frames are almost architectural and solidly impenetrable.

I'm aware that half the population has a vulva and they are as individual as our faces or minds but we don't get to see so many examples in one place. It is important to remember that in this selection every cast belongs to an individual woman with a story, in which her vulva will play a great part. Biologically they all designed to do the same job, but is a unique body part to be respected and loved, which is why I find the idea of non-essential labiaplasty rather sad. This work demonstrates in a completely non erotic way the beauty of the most private part of the female body and it deserves a wide ranging audience.

The final piece I want to mention is ‘4x4’, an amusing aside, a jaunty collection of 16 erect penises. I was told that it was included to reflect theme of Skin Deep, providing a counterpoint to the vaginas and that it is also rare for people to be able to compare gentlemen parts in that state of arousal. Now I’m not sure about this because they are perhaps drawing attention away from the female casts which are central to this show but it was interesting to compare visitors’ responses. These cocks are in your face, amusing, diverse and endearingly captivating. But the vaginas engendered quiet contemplation and awe.

Which brings me back to the question of beauty of the mind and the modern obsession with superficiality – age, imperfections, scarring, deformity are all things to be hidden, prevented or require surgical intervention. This is nonsense; communicate with each other and look further into the other person and value their charm, wit, compassion, kindness, brains etc instead. There is copious material in this exhibition to ponder; like the vagina itself, so much to explore in such a small space.

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