Is Allen Jones Still Sexy After All These Years?

Perhaps we are now too comfortable with the artist's fetishizing of the female form.

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Allen Jones, First Step (1966).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, Interval (2007).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, Interesting Journey (1962).
Private collection © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, Darcey Bussell (1994).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, London Hollywood (1979).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, Fascinating Rhythm (1982–83).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones.
Allen Jones, Body Armour (2013).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones.
Allen Jones, Curious Woman (1965).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, Third Man (1965).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, The Artist Thinks (1960).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, Stand In (1991–92).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones
Allen Jones, Chair (1969).
Courtesy of the artist © Allen Jones.

On hands and knees, doggy-style, head bowed, dressed in leather boots and gloves, a leather corset, bare breasts, and bright yellow hot pants, the mannequin contemplates her lifeless reflection in a vanity mirror, her stiff level back the prop for a thick glass coffee tabletop.

Some artists must rue the day they made a particular work. Because if you know nothing of octogenarian British artist Allen Jones’s work, you’ll probably still be aware of his notoriously iconic 1969 sculpture Table, along with her “sisters” Chair and Hatstand: docile female dummies that let the then-subterranean proclivities of BDSM show through the chirpy, colorful veil of swinging-’60s hedonism.

Jones’s sculptures turned him into the whipping boy (no pun intended) for the nascent feminist art critics of the 1970s. And those works have never stopped generating controversy since—remember Dasha Zukhova’s ill-judged photo shoot early this year, sitting nonchalantly on the bent-double submissive figure of Bjaarn Melgard’s Blaxploitation reworking of Jones’s Chair, with the white mannequin converted to an Afro-sporting black woman, to Twitter-rage howls of “racism”? You can blame Allen Jones.

So the Royal Academy’s retrospective of this most awkward-to-place of British artists makes a big effort to remind the unfamiliar viewer that Jones isn’t all about pert nipples and kinky boots. Let’s not be coy about this, though: Jones’s favorite subject is, if not women, then the female form, in all its male-objectified, stereotyped glory. If you’re into taut buttocks and calves, high heels, cinched waists, tight cocktail dresses and grapefruit breasts, you’ll drift around this show in a state of vaguely aroused reverie. If you’re not, then it’s probably worth stepping back and seeing where Jones was coming from and where he went, either side of the high point of his infamy.

And what this show in fact reveals is the journey of an artist who travels from the cutting edge of fine art to a different place altogether, making a steady return to ‘popular culture’ in the true sense of the term. Not ironic, not critical, not distanced; instead, the celebration of the sensibility of popular culture—conservative, nostalgic and affirmative—given shape in a figurative high-style whose power is that of cartoon illustration and design at its best.

Though Jones got expelled from the Royal College of Art, he was one of the hot young British Pop artists in that scene with the likes of David Hockney and RB Kitaj in the early 1960s. Given this fact, it’s fascinating to see in the exhibition’s first room Jones’s energetic grappling with a cacophony of influences; it’s as if the young painter is weighing up the various attractions of American abstract painting against the buzzy possibilities of British Pop. He is staging a battle between high modernism and popular figurative art, and it produces some weird and remarkable results, particularly the puzzle-like, jangling canvases The Battle of Hastings (1961) and Thinking About Women (1961–62), admixtures of color field and fragmented figuration.

By 1963, with the loose, painterly Man Woman, Jones starts to find his gender-binary mojo, with archetypal signs for male and female—high heels, tights, trousers, ties—turning up among the flat forms of bright color. But it’s with First Steps (1966) and particularly Sheer Magic (1967) that Jones’s turn to a taut, hard-edge graphic style produces the first appearance of his iconography of fetishism. With Sheer Magic, a black, ultra-high heeled leather boot emerges like a sinister, triumphant dominatrix from the center of an idiotic, swirly Austin Powers–style rainbow spiral, as if declaring “it’s time to do what I say, boys” to a flaccid, impotent modernist painting.

Jones’s paintings from then on are an uncomfortable game between an impolite, non–fine art erotics and a jocular, spoofing conversation with the history of modernism, though because works from the 1970s are oddly thin on the ground, it’s hard to get a sense of what Jones really did during that chaotic decade.

Certainly the show doesn’t go near Jones’s extensive portfolios of found S&M images and drawings which the artist produced during those years. Instead, the show skips quickly forwards to the 1980s, which sees the artist shift onto mellower, more decorative ground. Gone are the bondage heels and leather, replaced instead by a more neutered and acceptable female archetype—the showgirl, the circus artist and the ballerina, in a hazy, sultry palette of warm yellows, hot oranges, and cool blues and turquoises.

What also makes a return is the male figure, still little more than an assemblage of suits, hats and ties, but now appearing as magician or pianist, and reunited with his female opposite, intertwined, embracing, clinching a kiss, dancing hip-to-hip like tango dancers. Jones’s paintings and sculptures from the 1980s onwards are schmaltzy, corporate, postmodern retro, full of a nostalgic yearning for a bygone 1940s-ish world of cabaret glamour and bohemian elegance. It’s a utopian vision of happy couples, rendered in the paintings with cartoon-like acuity by contours drawn out of a luxuriant backdrop of now-obsolete abstraction. It’s a vision of a reconciled world that exists in the past, tapping into the wellsprings of populist nostalgia for a better time where men were men, women were women, but everyone was nice to each other. It’s like a Bryan Ferry album as painting.

In amongst that, though, Jones still cares, ambivalently, about the history of modern art. The recent triptych Interval (2007) seems to satirize not only the artist’s own sense of estrangement from “official” art history, but also the suppression of pleasure as an unproblematic virtue in contemporary art. In what might be an old picture palace cinema, an audience of languorous men and women barely pay attention to a black-and-white movie screen, on which turns out to be an indistinct reworking of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Waiting for the film to start again perhaps, various spectators turn to the skimpily clad ice cream girls, one of which, with a knowing glint in her one eye (the other blanked in a haze of paintwork), holds up a double-scoop ice cream cone, an inverted cock-and-balls for which an anonymous male arm reaches out. Sex and sensuality are there to be had if you want it, Jones seems to be saying, but in art it’s forever kept at arm’s length, denied fulfillment.

Maybe that’s what is enduringly troubling for many about Jones’s art. It’s self-indulgent and narcissistic and wants easy pleasure without the pain of having to worry what others think. It plays with an androgynous, utopian hedonism, but it pulls back to a fantasy world of female tropes that indulges only straight men. It’s why, in fact, all Jones’s figures, male or female, are ciphers, not particular human beings but hollow suits of armor or inscrutable female totems.

In a final room Hatstand shares the space with more recent, equally poised android-like females, clad in skintight green or brown, tiptoeing. They could be sex robots from the future, for all one cares, but nearby is A Model Model (2013), one of a number of works made with supermodel Kate Moss. A Model Model portrays Moss as an armless bust rising from an iridescent flowing dress, eyes closed, sphinx-like. But another painting, Kate in Red (2013), has Moss on a stage in a red dress, teetering on high heels, arms outstretched to balance, looking over her shoulder to the viewer. It’s not a great likeness of Moss, but there’s the twist. Outside the endless flow of high-fashion photography, who knows what Moss really looks like? Somehow Jones has managed, finally, to paint a real person, slightly off-balance, not doing her job of becoming a perfect image for the camera, or the viewer. It’s a jolt, a sudden intrusion of wonky reality in this fantasy land of perfect bodies as perfect objects. But such is the hold that the ideal image has over reality. And it’s because we’re inevitably ambivalent about the ideal—who doesn’t want perfection?—that we’re constantly remodeling ourselves, between reality and fantasy. If that’s a fault, then it’s one Jones is only too happy to share with us.

Allen Jones’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens, runs November 13, 2014, until January 25, 2015.

JJ Charlesworth is a freelance critic and associate editor at ArtReview magazine. Follow @jjcharlesworth on Twitter.

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