If works on paper is a phrase you usually associate with genteel riverscapes, with irises in vases painted by silver haired septuagenarians in twin sets on tranquil Sunday afternoons, then prepare to be robbed of a major misconception. Curator Sarah McCrory has wrestled the phrase from the grasping hands of the middle aged, middle class Bond Street art dealers and she’s given it back its va-va-voom. If you’re of a prudish disposition don’t forget the smelling salts when you head to the ICA for Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper).
The first thing you see when you enter the lower galleries is a twelve foot phallus. Funny as that may seem to the British and the easily amused, it is in fact no joke. Recreated specifically for this show after a work originally made in 1967 in defiance of America’s role in Vietnam, Fucked by Numbers is a comment, by New Yorker Judith Bernstein, on war and masculinity. Emblazoned down the shaft of the enormous graffiti-style monochrome cock the words Moral Injury are spelled out in red. Out of the urethral orifice the stars and stripes unfurls, not standing proud but rather dragged down by gravity, as though toppled by the heavy psychic burden of shame and denial. Bernstein’s voice screams out from the walls: 231,000 deaths, 6 trillion US dollars spent by 2050, fucked by numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no subtlety here. But then there is no subtlety in war.
It should be noted also that Ms Bernstein’s scorn is not saved exclusively for the Americans. In Union Jack-Off Flag (1967) the Union Flag and the flag of the United States are both referenced and once again the male member dominates, with the words ‘Jack-off on US policy in Vietnam’ leaving us in no doubt as to what Ms Bernstein thinks of Britain’s involvement. How little things have changed.
In the same room five works by the British feminist artist Margaret Harrison relatively whisper their presence. Equally punchy in her message Ms Harrison beguiles her audience with humour and elegance. It’s only as we peer closely at these delicate drawings that we realise what we’re looking at. That Captain America’s leather head gear is not so much that of the superhero as the awkward sex gimp, that his eyes shine not so much with compassion and strength as with lust and coquettish fear. That below the mask, in the most delicate watercolour hues, the artist has given him prosthetic boobs and decorated his little cock and balls with blue and white stars to match his red and white stripped corset and suspenders. God bless him. It’s both hilarious and repellent at the same time, a scathing attack on the ignorant and punishing didacticism of the myth of gender norms. This series of works was begun in the late 1960s and it’s a testament to Ms Harrison’s avant-gardism that their message continues to resonate today. Anyone who thinks gender stereotyping and gender based discrimination are no longer issues needs to think again. Seriously.
Much of the work in the upstairs galleries continues on themes of sex and gender. Gratifyingly Sarah McCrory has introduced several artists not traditionally associated with the fine arts, which is partly what makes this such an engaging and varied exhibition. Tom of Finland (bottom photo) was primarily an illustrator, known and well loved in niche circles for his graphic erotic drawings of homosexual encounters. The tone of these works is charming; gentle, comedic, affectionate. There’s nothing dark or cynical here at all. It’s like The Famous Five only with a slightly fruitier theme. What stands out is that the protagonists in these drawings – uniformed sailors, leather-clad bikers, semi-dressed policemen and denim wearing lumber jacks, all engaged in homosexual acts – look so happy. Everyone’s having such a good time. It’s good, clean, moustachioed fun.
Cary Kwok’s work is in many ways more extreme and confrontational. The most exquisitely drawn images in blue biro – the choice of media perhaps underlining in conceptual terms the ubiquity of the work’s subject matter – of naked men from a deliberately broad cross-section of ethnicities surrounded by what the press release delicately terms “flowing decorative ejaculate”. Even more controversial are the works showing men of the cloth. A rabbi, a priest, a Buddhist monk, all very clearly in the moment of ejaculation.
Kwok is using our psychological and physiological urges as a leveller. Once again looking at hierarchies and power dynamics Kwok eloquently makes the point that beneath the fancy outfits and the grandiosity that many of us perform in one way or another, we’re all much of a muchness. The work is not intended to offend. It is intended to empower. To point out the concealed nature of certain truths and our own complicities in keeping them concealed. What does it tell us about ourselves that we might find it difficult to engage with the idea that the padre experiences the same physical and psychological urges as all the rest of us? It’s powerful stuff.
Also upstairs we meet George Grosz. This is a surprise. A wild card. But why be predictable? Stickmen meeting members of the Bourgeois (1946) is the earliest work in the show and rather than tackling sex and gender based discriminations and inequalities as most of the rest of the work does, it looks at the distribution of wealth at a particular and notorious moment in German history. Four skeletal monochrome figures hungrily follow two morbidly obese human monsters with ham and steak and beer in their bellies. The message is clear. Some have to excess and whilst others have barely enough to subsist.
But the underlying investigation here is the same as the other artists in the show. All the works are pointing to or tackling power dynamics and their abuses. In one way the Grosz could be seen as the linch pin that holds the show together, the work that all the others emerge out of.
Words: Beverley Knowles Photo: © Artlyst 2013
Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) ICA London until 8 September