May 2010, Marc Quinn @ White Cube

Marc Quinn, Buck & Allanah, 2009
Orbital sanded and flap wheeled lacquered bronze
65 3/4 x 41 5/16 x 17 11/16 in. (167 x 105 x 45 cm)
(c) the artist; Courtesy White Cube; Photo: Roger Wooldridge

Marc Quinn: Allanah, Buck, Catman, Chelsea, Michael, Pamela and Thomas
White Cube
48 Hoxton Square
London, N1 6BP
7 May through 3 July, 2010

On and off, on the way to work, I happen to pick up a copy of Metro, a free newspaper which brightens the morning rush-hour of many Londoners. Of course most of it is not worth reading, it’s packed with gossip and is badly written. However, one thing is there for sure, more than in any highbrow newspapers: popular culture, tonnes of it. So after years of enjoying my guilty-pleasure-read and seriously wondering if I should quit, (almost as bad as cigarettes) I finally had an epiphany upon entering the Mark Quinn exhibition at White Cube. In the reception hall was a sculpture of Catman’s head! How exiting! Catman!

I know that to many his name may mean nothing, but for those who glanced over that copy of Metro a couple of years ago, suddenly the penny dropped. Catman was featured there and unless you are a frequent surfer of the wired and wonderful Internet bizarre-world, then there are very few chances you may be aware of his existence at all. American computer repair-man Dennis Avner, 50, is the world's 'most modified man' and has had surgery to create a feline cleft lip and a flat, upturned nose. He has also had tiger stripes tattooed on his body and fixes synthetic whiskers to piercings through his lip every day. Of course, I find this rather intriguing as Catman is part of an underworld of popular culture, effectively an under-popular culture that officially never really makes it big, but that exists in those famous 15 minutes of fame once envisioned by the avantgard genius of Andy Warhol. However, in a way or another, Catman has become an icon, immortalized in polished marble, in the tradition of Greek sculpture for the world to see. But why should the world look at Catman? That is the implicit question posed by the show.

In the main gallery, Quinn’s sculptural works are exhibited along with a number of large canvases depicting close ups of violently coloured compositions of flowers. Here there are references to psychedelia as well as the floral work of Georgia O’Keefe and the photographs of Mapplethorpe, where flowers’ sexual function was brought to the surface by an allusive game of textures and shapes. These paintings re-assess Mark Quinn’s interest for the symbolic essence of flowers and demonstrate his obsessive care for the material quality of the works he creates. From a distance, the canvasses look like large photographs, but a closer inspection reveals them to be effectively painted surfaces. The smoothness and homogeneity of the layers of paint suggest the use of acrylic colours. Instead, the information sheet reveals them to be hand-painted oil on canvas. Plastic or real? In keeping with the main subject of the exhibition, the flowers depicted here could well be artificial; the colours used are those of a photographic negative rather than a printed positive.

Marc Quinn, Thomas Beatie, 2009
Marble; 98 13/16 x 33 1/16 x 27 9/16 in. (251 x 84 x 70 cm)
(c) the artist; Courtesy White Cube; Photo: Roger Wooldridge

At the centre of the exhibition we find a rather famous work, a larger than life-size sculpture of Thomas Beatie, a married man who used to be a woman, who, to the amazement of the world, became pregnant in 2007. At surface level the story echoes with bizarre overtones, however there is a much more touching and intimate reason for the pregnancy to take place in this way. Beatie decided to carry a baby for his wife, Nancy, because she had a hysterectomy. He was able to get pregnant because he kept his female organs when he switched genders. Quinn’s sculpture, created in polished white marble, in the tradition of Greek sculpture, elevates the man to the level of deity and confirms him as part of a contemporary mythology - one defined by the imaginative leaps of popular culture. Of course here, the pregnancy is transfigured into a mythical occurrence, just like everything extremely out of the ordinary that happened so naturally in Greek mythology, enchanting readers for thousands of years. But are we here enchanted, or disturbed? Around the gallery other unconventional bodies tell stories of transformation of different kinds; it appears clear that all these works of art are bound together by a sexual thread and the work of pastiche.

So next to Beatie, we find another white marble capturing the graces of Chelsea Charms. I have to admit that I did not know who she was prior to visiting the show and that I had to do a little research on her before writing this review. I have found that Charms is a ‘large breasts model’ that achieved her large breasts through the use of polypropylene string breast implants. The string implants irritate the breast pocket, which in turn, promotes the production of fluid. The fluid is absorbed by the implant, resulting in continuous, gradual growth of the breast. On her website, Charms says that her bust size is 153XXX, and that her breasts each weigh 26 pounds (11.8 kg). This sculpture ironically comments on our contemporary idea of beauty whilst testing our moral boundaries. Ancient Greek sculptures of young men and women captured the idea of beauty through the perfectly proportioned anatomical body. However we know that Greek sculptures too, emphasized some anatomical attributes in order to create an impression of balance and harmony. Those sculptures play a key role in our contemporary understanding of beauty of the human form as much as adverts of very slim women and muscular men do. Chelsea Charms clearly questions and challenges all that by presenting us a rather disturbing representation of a modern ‘Goddess of abundance’.

Marc Quinn, Thomas Beatie, Buck & Allanah, 2009
Orbital sanded and flap wheeled lacquered bronze
65 3/4 x 41 5/16 x 17 11/16 in. (167 x 105 x 45 cm)
(c) the artist; Courtesy White Cube; Photo: Roger Wooldridge

Around the gallery there are a few sculptures depicting Buck and Allanah. In one they stand next to each other holding hands like modern Adam and Eve. Everything looks rather conventional until your eyes roll down to the genital area to find that his got hers and vice versa. Everything becomes suddenly clear! The two are niche porn stars Buck a “man with a pussy” and Allanah, a man who has changed her body into the idealization of femininity even though she also has preserved her penis. A nearby sculpture captures them having sex and subverting our expectation of role-play even further.

Everything here is ambiguous, subversive, glossy and surprisingly suspended between the grotesque, the moving and the epic… aside from one piece, Michael. Man in the Mirror is a beautifully crafted marble head of Michael Jackson placed on the ground so to look like it’s emerging from under the floor into the gallery space. The head, although slightly stylized, captures incredibly well those sinister features, which became a trademark of Jackson’s later career. Once contextualized amongst the rest of the unconventional bodies, his presence becomes mainly humorous but not much else. The joke goes even further as a reversed (black face/white hair) Michael mirrors the white-faced counterpart placed in the opposite corner of the room. This of course is a reference to his 1991 Black or White hit, which also jokingly referenced Jackson’s ever-so-mysterious paleness.

Upstairs a smaller room sees another interesting work presenting us with a doubling of Pamela Andersons sculpted in bronze. The sculpture is ironically titled The Ecstatic Autogenesis of Pamela and it stand in the middle of the room surrounded by large black and white canvasses depicting the same fake-looking flowers encountered downstairs. However here, in one canvas, the inclusion of a skull shifts the context to the idea of vanitas (of course in reference of Pamela) and the representation of memento mori of 17th century painting. Pamela is captured in a languid pose (wearing bra and underwear) which, as the title suggests, echoes the famous Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, a famously controversial Baroque statue that highlighted the connection between sexual pleasure and divine elevation. Like a modern birth of Venus wearing knickers and bra, Pamela is doubled. As in Andy Warhol’s paintings she is a commodity more than a real person, in this case multiplying herself, as in self-perpetuating her personal myth.

What a mouthful of a show this is. As layers of socio-historical ‘under-pop-culture’ clash with classical references, our morals and ethical values regarding what things should be like are not only provoked but shattered into little tiny pieces. This destructive process is, however, sweetened by the extreme virtuosity involved in the realization of the sculptures and paintings on show. Quinn measures himself with the ancient technique of white marble, but he also challenges our expectations of what oil painting should look like and revisits bronze with the use of an orbital sander. Abrasive. Just like the whole show is.

Giovanni Aloi

 Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture

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