Flesh Arranges Itself Differently is a collaborative exhibition, drawn from the collections of the Hunterian and the David and Indre Roberts Collection, co-curated by the Hunterian with the Roberts Institute of Art (RIA).
The selected works are centred around imagery of the human body and bodily experiences, and there are both historical and modern representations in the exhibition. The Hunterian’s Co-curator Dominic Paterson has said ‘… this presentation offers new ways to see each.’
There are diverse kinds of work, across many media and spanning centuries: drawings, paintings, etchings, prints and collage, photography, light works, sculpture and video.
Contemporary works by leading international artists are seen in contrast with historical items from the Hunterian’s collections. Alongside literal representations of the physical body are works where the viewer’s interpretation will be needed to make a connection to ideas of the human body.
The first work upon entering the exhibition is An Anatomist, an English School painting of 1560-1570 from the Hunterian collection. The anatomist points at a dissected body, a subject of medical study. Interestingly, the relative scale of the figure of the anatomist to the dissected body in front of him appears non-realistic, the anatomist seeming larger-than-life.
Next to the Anatomist are Two drawings of écorché figures by William Cowper, (c.1694). The scientific purpose of the illustrations is emphasised by the separation out from the body of the right arm.
The historical anatomical illustrations from the Hunterian are shown in juxtaposition to 21st Century works from the Roberts Collection. A Hogarth print of 1753, Analysis of Beauty, Plate I and Robert Macaulay Stevenson’s finely-drawn and coloured studies of legs and feet from the 1870s are shown directly opposite the 21st-Century paintings of the Swiss Artist Miriam Cahn. Cahn’s approach to figurative painting contrasts strongly with Stevenson’s anatomical studies. Dominic Paterson, the exhibition’s co-curator, notes that Stevenson was making these drawn studies as part of the foundation of his Art School education.
The detail of Stevenson’s works are contrasted too by the work around the next corner of the gallery space – Rita Ackermann’s large abstract Burn Up in Heaven, (2014). From a series of ‘chalkboard paintings’, it looks as if much of the image on the ‘chalkboard’ has been erased, leaving only a suggestion of what may have been drawn previously – a figure disappearing or re-emerging.
Ackermann’s piece leads on to a further selection of contemporary works, including three-dimensional floor standing figures by Tamara Henderson (from Canada) and Huma Bhabha (Pakistan/USA). Tamara Henderson’s Camera figure of 2015 is human-like, assembled from a range of found objects and materials. Huma Bhabha’s totem-like sculpture What is Love (2013) is crafted from cork and polystyrene, again these are found materials. There are several works too by Ayan Farah: these challenge the viewer, since there are no obvious representational images here.
In direct juxtaposition, Medical imaging in the form of X-rays of a clavicle and femur are shown next to a mixed-media work modelling of a window, Michael E. Smith’s Untitled (2013). It could be interpreted that X-rays provide a window into the body.
Accurate studies of the body contrast with stylised artistic interpretations, for instance in two works by Loie Hollowell, Squeezed Cheeks (2019) and Boob Wheel in blue and yellow (2020), both 3-dimensional – ‘biomorphic’ paintings, vividly painted. The extent to which these works are physically contoured is only evident when viewed from oblique angles. The combination of contouring and finely graduated colour rendering is very effective.
Some works relate to a mental state rather than to the physical: Yayoi Kusama’s Dots Obsession (Tobas), (2016) is one, expressing obsessiveness in a polka dot pattern, black on a silver background. Kusama’s ‘Dots’ sit well alongside Hollowell’s two works, all have high visual impact.
Opposite the works by Hollowell is a medical teaching chart, Tissu Nerveux, at a scale made for the lecture hall, a ‘non-artistic’ work shown alongside the ‘artistic’.
From the Hunterian’s collection, there are five prints from the series General Dynamic F.U.N. (1965-70) by Eduardo Paolozzi (from a portfolio of 50 prints) – most of the images selected here include ‘machine age’ elements, there are test dummies and robot men. The art historian and critic Hal Foster says that Paolozzi’s ambition was – ‘to adapt the practice of collage to the tradition of the figure, and thereby to alter both…’
In addition there is Paolozzi’s collage A Veterinary Student, of 1960, juxtaposed with Jimmy Durham’s wall-fixed sculpture Colored Glass and Steel Construction with Epoxy Glue of 2015.
On an opposite wall to Paolozzi we see Robert Rauschenberg’s Horsefeathers Thirteen print of 1972, one from an edition of 76 variations. As with Paolozzi there are elements of collage within the print. Using multiple disparate images within the work, Rauschenberg wanted to stimulate the viewer’s free association.
Christine Borland’s 2010 film of an animatronic medical mannequin SimWoman is notable partly for the fact that Borland cast her own body in wax, to overlay on a male mannequin. A large number of the contemporary art works are by women, with a gender dimension to several of the artists’ works.
Michael Dean’s monumental concrete sculptural tongue, hours (Working Title) Analogue Series (tongue) (2013) sits on the floor, close to Horst Ademeit’s grid of thirty Polaroid annotated photographs.
These photographs are part of an archive of many thousands, of his home and local area in Düsseldorf. This work represents the state of mind of an individual, as opposed to depictions of the physical body. Ademeit perceived he was being affected by ‘cold rays’ transmitted by an unnamed organisation and the photographs were taken to record those incidents.
An informative illustrated booklet accompanies the exhibition, and includes an overview by the co-curators, biographical notes on the artists and notes on their works. The booklet certainly enhances understanding and appreciation of the works – for example, the background given to Horst Ademeit’s annotated Polaroids, or to Yayoi Kusama’s way of life and work, Ayan Farah’s materials and practice, and many other insights.
There are many ideas expressed in the various contemporary works, and these are challenging to understand in some cases, but interesting in all their variety and in their contrasts to the more figurative and historical works.
The selections across both collections are diverse, and indeed one could say about them: ‘flesh arranges itself differently’.
With grateful thanks from Artmag.co.uk to Gordon Reid for this review.