Sprueth Magers, London
23 November 2012 - 26 January 2013
Review by Henry Little
‘The Vivisector’, a historicising group show at Sprueth Magers, placed two bodies of work by Cindy Sherman within an artistic lineage encompassing Surrealists Georges Bataille and Hans Bellmer, Surrealist associate Frederick Sommer, commercial mid-century photographer Morton Bartlett, American conceptualist Bruce Nauman and tribal African sculpture.
Returning your gaze upon entering stood a female doll produced by Bartlett (c. 1950 - 60). At 76cm tall, naked, with fully developed breasts, thick blonde hair arranged in a side parting and a coquettish grin, the viewer was immediately wrong footed by her presence. Hermetically sealed in a Perspex cabinet mounted on a plinth this figurine sits somewhere between a child’s doll and a shop mannequin. The reverential effect was heightened by the lighting: interstitial exhibition space cast in darkness with each work spot lit from above. Eminently disquieting, this piece embodies the Surrealist notion of the femme-enfant, or woman-child. Not quite adult, but sexualised and endowed with a visceral, transgressive potential, Bartlett’s mannequin signified the abject, liminal twilight zone of the exhibition.
Stretching along the wall behind Bartlett’s creation, arranged frame to frame, Sherman’s ‘Sex Pictures’ (1989 - 92) formed a photographic frieze in which mannequins and sinister puppets appeared to indulge in auto-eroticism and rape. In another image a mannequin’s head apparently provides auto-cunnilingus. The slippery, misshapen sexuality of Sherman’s ‘Sex Pictures’ owes much to Hans Bellmer’s ‘Poupées’. Bellmer’s most comprehensive of artistic projects, his ‘dolls’, formed the subject of photographs, drawings and sculptures which mined a fertile visual vocabulary comprised of multiple, articulated doll parts. Arranged in sexually compromising positions these works frequently implied a narrative of recent sexual activity, if not sexual violence. For ‘The Vivisector’, Bellmer’s photograph ‘We Follow Her with Slow Steps’ (1937, printed 1963 or earlier), was placed face to face with a Cameroonian tribal sculpture of a slave figure. The former comprised a photograph of an erotically deformed female bust, breasts artificially spread akimbo, with round, suggestive protrusions rising from the top of her head. By being positioned in direct concert with the Cameroonian ‘Slave Figure’ sadomasochistic sexual proclivities, lurking in the dark, were raised like spectres.
In contrast to the main room, painted with a saturated, engorged red, the smaller back room was a more sterile, anodyne grey. Sculpturally arranged in two corners, Sherman’s ‘Broken Dolls’ (1999) climbed the walls like totem poles. In these black and white photographs action figures and dolls engage in mechanised sexual activity or pose with a pornographic enthusiasm. An early precursor, Frederick Sommer’s ‘Valise d’Adam’ (1949), sat politely on an opposite wall. From a collection of found items - a shell, a small doll and other daily detritus - an amalgamated human form emerges, imbued with a mysterious psychic weight.
At its most productive ‘The Vivisector’ traced the porous, if not illusory, boundary between subversive appetites and eroticism, as well as the elusive difference between the consuming power of desire and sexual violence. With exhibitions of this nature, which contextualise a gallery artist amidst canonical figures from art history, it’s easy to be cynical, but not so in this instance.