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 Louise Bourgeois,MIMA
Louise Bourgeois: Body, Sexuality And The Erotic MIMA Middlesborough - ArtLyst Article image

Louise Bourgeois: Body, Sexuality And The Erotic MIMA Middlesborough

25-07-2014
 
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Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art (mima) stands brilliantly apart from the town’s surroundings, representing a shining beacon of modernity and optimism; it is a great coup to be the first institution to display the touring ARTISTS ROOMs exhibition ‘Louise Bourgeois: A Woman Without Secrets’. For the strength and significance of this American artist’s works cannot be underestimated, not least for her lasting inspiration to female artists throughout the 20th century. ARTISTS ROOMS was founded by The d’Offay Donation in 2008, now owned jointly by Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, with the purpose of reaching and appealing to new and younger audiences throughout the country. This show of her late works is a treat; a concentrated (for the tiny space) whistle stop tour of major themes and concerns informing her pieces, presented with enthusiasm and obviously thorough research. Combined with Bourgeois’s distinct and gripping visual sensibility, it is certainly an accessible show that will appeal to many, especially younger introductory audiences, which was precisely the aim.

Confined to the era of ‘later works’, the show is not chronological but thematic, with an astonishing number of themes crammed into the four rooms: the overview alone lists “cycles of life … the body, sexuality and the erotic ... memory, architecture, observation … repairing and forgiveness … emotions, fear, jealousy and pain, to joy, passion”.  This sequence does not so much allow parallels and links to be made, but effectively lists these themes one after the other, assigning works to each. It opts to concentrate on the common overarching theme of how Bourgeois used differing materials and medium to explore the many themes and concerns, and as such little importance is attached to the order of viewing or of any progression throughout the show. This can feel disjointed: in one room entitled ‘Seeing, Sewing, Spirals’ these three themes are discussed independently in turn. How is the pink marble sculpture of ‘Eyes’ (2001–5) with is clear voyeuristic and unnerving sexual connotations exuding from its pink undulating folds, in any way related to the collection of Spiral prints on Japanese paper directly next to it? Each piece has an enthusiastic and well researched caption, often including a quote to help give context (though tenuously used in some cases), yet exists independently of its neighbour. It is an academic approach that misses the crucial magic that a curator can conjure through juxtaposition: that of suggesting common visual themes or comparison exploring an artist’s work in deeper terms than can be done on paper.

However the strength of the pieces on show more than make up for the lack of coherence and indicate clearly the enduring power of Bourgeois’s vision. ‘Eyes’ represents the uncanny, the threatening yet compelling and irresistible quality of her erotically charged works, at once soft, inviting and warm with its blush pink marble hue, yet disturbing form of multiple absorbing eyes. ‘Tits’ of 1967, a bronze double horn-like piece again forms an ambiguously sexual object, suggesting the dual role of mother as sexual and nurturing being. Its surface of black patina which is polished at either end similarly appeals to our primitive instinct. These represent the enduring concerns throughout her life coloured by the propensity for psychological and philosophical exploration: she studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris between 1932–5 and underwent psychoanalysis throughout the 50s to 80s.

Yet it is the simpler representations of age, frailty and friendship that rise above all else as p=most powerfully affecting. Directly greeting visitors to the show is ‘10am is when you come to me’, a sequence of sheets of paper with crude outlines of Bourgeois’s single hand (identified by her wedding band) and both hands of her helper of 30 years, Jerry Gorovoy. The simplicity of composition and how this changes throughout each piece betrays a whole range of emotions experienced within this relationship, not least the reliance of one upon the other. The crude outlines, like the wobbly pencil outline of a child outlining their own hand, speaks enormously of the nature of growing old and frailty. Characteristic of this exhibition, the enthusiastic accompanying caption is as large as that outlining the room’s content itself, and goes into extensive – and speculative – detail as to its meaning, specifically the use of deep red to colour in the hands: in a work as powerful as this the use of red should (and in actuality does) speak for itself.

Indeed, the continuous suggestion of interpretations within the captions does the work for us and in some cases threatens to constrict the possible meanings. A case in point is 2010’s ‘Untitled’, a soft trunk-like body covered in berets at one side (which she wore throughout her life), with a cavity and protruding block at each terminal, next to a structure containing spindles of thread, all within a glass box. Unmistakably the sexual and repairing function of the female is on display, yet the caption suggests interpretations ranging from the evocation of soft landscapes Bourgeois made in the 1960s, or perhaps the berets representing stones marking a grave. This imaginative suggestions of a variety of ideas is encouraging, yet to prescribe these over the clear sexual connotations (berets = breasts) and the overtly cynical, feminine concerns of the piece threatens to limit the interpretation of the viewer. It is one thing to reach an audience, and another to get them to engage and explore meanings for themselves. One of the defining and compelling qualities of Bourgeois’s work is the deliberate ambiguity, designed to unsettle the viewer and highlight our fears and anxieties; it is something the viewer has to embark on and open oneself up to. Perhaps the mima feels the need to justify bringing audiences up north by overly researching – most literally ‘doing the homework’. Yet with such an array of brilliant pieces, arranged with the major themes and ideas prevalent in her work all present and correct, many will find the show hugely rewarding regardless.

Words: Olivia McEwan © Artlyst 2014 Photo courtesy MIMA all rights reserved

Louise Bourgeois: A Woman Without Secrets Artist Rooms 18 July – 12 October 2014@ mima, Middlesborough


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