Anyone of a certain age will have been exposed to women of a certain age being presented as perfect ‘objects’: Playboy centrefolds with, literally, spotless, unblemished, wrinkle-free bodies; Vargas paintings with gravity-defying, impossibly pert breasts and idealised proportions; flawless, airbrushed complexions, with faultless make-up. Welcome to Allen Jones’s world. He is primarily a painter, but he is also a print maker and sculptor, and it is this metier that catapulted him to fame, with his Chair, Table and Hat Stand, 1969, which first hit the art world at Tooth’s Gallery the following year. These lifelike, and life-size, figures, were provocative, to say the least, and caused an outcry amongst the feminists at the time, with cries of, “‘women are people too!”
Table comprises a woman kneeling on all fours, gazing into a circular mirror on the floor, in black leather stiletto boots by Anello & Davide, and matching gloves, with pale, pendulous breasts, a leather corset and her bottom clad in a pair of tight-fitting Naples yellow pants, designed by Zandra Rhodes. The Chair is a most accommodating and comfortable looking female figure, again wearing his trademark boots and gloves, with her legs in the air, a black leather seat cushion fixed to her thighs with a belt. Hat Stand is simply a standing female figure with welcoming arms outspread, ready to accept hats and coats, although she is wearing quasi-fetishistic black leather thong, halter, collar and thigh-length boots, with nipples that look like cup-cakes. These three objects,each standing on a white lambskin rug, have been amusing art-lovers hugely for forty-five years, and they were snapped up quite early by the billionaire playboy Gunther Sachs. Jones was accused of objectifying women, but his defence is that women are the subject and that the chair is the object, but then confounds the argument by stating that it is not a chair but a piece of sculpture, and not for sitting on. He was then asked by Stanley Kubrick to design the Korovo Milkbar in his seminal film A Clockwork Orange, where the somewhat uneven tables were all naked women and milk was dispensed from ladies’ nipples, but they fell out over money.
There is even a word for turning the human form into pieces of furniture, and that is forniphilia, and a French cabinet-maker, François-Rupert Carabin, had been making fauteuils, using the female form, at the turn of the last century, but his were made of wood and not fibreglass.
From early in his career, Jones started to three-dimensionalise his paintings, as the figures, or body parts, emerged from the canvas, starting with Curious Woman in 1965, whose breasts were in fact falsies bought in a Times Square joke shop in New York. More limbs appeared and these grew into complete figures from Stand In, 1991/2, where the painted mannequin leaves behind another woman on the canvas, to Waiting at Table and Cover Story, made this year. To say that Jones is a figurative painter would be to sell him short, for the women he paints and sculpts are from the realms of idealised hyper-realism, with ‘perfect’ tits, tight buns and pronounced camel toes, mostly strutting about in very high heels.
Although he professes not to do portraits, there are paintings of Darcey Bussell and Kate Moss; there is a large photograph of the super-model wearing his glittery, big-titted Body Armour. Many artists, and countless photographers have tried to capture her as a piece of ‘art’. Lucien Freud made a complete hash of it, with his anatomically awkward painting of her pregnant lying on a bed. Marc Quinn’s 18-carat gold Siren, in a yoga position, with her legs behind her ears, was as inelegant as it was vulgar. Enter Jones, with his glass-reinforced composite sculpture of her in a figure-hugging green gown, which sold for £133,875 at auction, and then the photograph by Jean-Sébastien Stehli of her in the bronze swim-suit, which went for £32,500 and helped revive Jones’s career.
One gallery is filled with large steel and wooden dancing figures, and in another, the highly-coloured fibreglass and wood single figures arranged in a ‘chorus line’, dating from 1964 to the present day. There are more casts of the same ‘perfect’ female figure, one, Stand In, 2014, painted in a glossy red and yellow finish, having emerged from a glossy red and yellow door.
Rather than metaphorically being under the bed-sheets with a torch and a well-thumbed copy of Playboy looking for ‘perfect’ fantasy women, he should have just waited until Kate Moss showed up.
Allen Jones RA
Until 25 January 2015