Friday, 9 November 2012

Anthea Hamilton

Karl Lagerfeld Bean Counter, 2012

Anthea Hamilton (born 1978, London) works with sculpture, painting, moving-image and performance using the iconography of popular culture and history to create her own form of contemporary pop art.

Man Arch (Pasta) (detail), 2010–11

Walking around Anthea Hamilton's installations can feel like you've stumbled onto a theatre set without a script. There are plenty of cues but you have to keep improvising the lines. They typically feature cut-outs of women's legs in wood or Perspex. There might be artfully arranged prop-like objects including food, or kimonos, hanging like costumes, ready to be stepped into. Then there are her blown-up images of yesteryear's body beautiful: Amazonian gym queens, pouting pin-up boys and hunks with luscious hairy chests. It's always sexy, funny and formally seductive.

Yet what to make of this young British artist's weird conjunctions? The heap of buckwheat for instance, echoing the cut-out silhouette of a dark-eyed man with a fulsome chest rug reclining in a low-cut swimsuit? This, astonishingly, turns out to be the young Karl Lagerfeld, long before the ponytail, big collar and gloves. It's a shock: another Karl behind another image. A more whole version, like the wholesome food he's paired with? Maybe. The associations Hamilton tempts us into making feel as provisional as the props and wheel-on, inch-thin theatre scenery the work resembles.

Installation view; Cut-outs, 2007.

Essentially assembling work through a cut-and-paste aesthetic, Anthea Hamilton takes bricolage to another level by creating installations and knee-high horizontal assemblages as if she were unpacking a Joseph Cornell. Leo Steinberg’s analysis of Robert Rauschenberg’s compositional logic as that of a flatbed picture plane, where information is distributed across a real horizontal surface as on a desktop rather than in a fictive naturalistic space, seems equally applicable to the way Hamilton structures her sexy and playful output.

The sexuality on display also possesses a campy trait, comparable to the arched innuendos of British “Carry On” films, such as Carry On up the Kyhber (1968) or Carry On Matron (1972). For example, a large reclining black-and-white cutout of a hairy-chested man in a mankini—or wrestling outfit, which is more likely—turns out to be a young Karl Lagerfeld, whose sexiness is deflated by several Désirée potatoes and a pile of buckwheat included in the piece. Hamilton’s iconography seems to be referring to different forms of base desire, one the province of the eyes and another of the stomach.

Gymnasium, 2008

Hamilton’s cut-out legs give a visual rhythm to the installation, their anthropomorphic shapes inhabiting and activating the space. Not only do they strongly assert the presence of the artist within her production – and as such can be understood as a collection of self-portraits – but they also bring to the work an intensely sensual mood that verges on the sexual.  This titillating atmosphere, very much in tune with the ancient Greek understanding of the gymnasium (‘a place to be naked’), is enhanced by the abundance of female shoes, perhaps the ultimate fetish object in the popular imagination. From the suggestive (a white vinyl platformed boot) to the romantic (a couple of cute Cinderella glass slippers), these shoes dress the naked legs to provide an intricate representation of desire.

Beyond the strictly thematic exploration of the sensuous body and its representations, ‘Gymnasium’ is also a rich investigation of the sculptural. Hamilton’s Dadaesque assemblages deftly combine matters and textures, the organic with the readymade. Sitting on the floor, the glass shoe is filled with water and topped with a fresh half of lemon; on the wall, a painted cabbage becomes a lonely desiccated brain. Every corner of the space is in some way occupied. The various materials covering (or revealing) the original concrete floor – faux marble vinyl, mats and cork panels – delimit distinct areas, each strongly identified by the distinct physical sensations provoked by these contrasting textures; a spider’s web of vertical ropes and fishing nets visually answers this complex horizontal pattern.

Hamilton’s concern with the female body echoes the works of an Eva Hesse, as do the materials that she uses, but the overwhelming presence of self-representational elements steer this vibrant installation away from any first-generation feminist political agenda. ‘Gymnasium’ is not only a stimulating take on the enduring issues of sexuality and desire, it is also an inspired and enticing mise-en-scene of the self.
Coline Milliard


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