Monday 2 September 2013

Review of Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper) at the ICA

Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper)
Curated by Sarah McCrory
19 June – 8 September 2013

Turning the corner towards the ICA’s lower gallery this summer, the visitor finds himself entering the target range of an immense, phallic gun. This is sadly somewhat unsurprising, however, given the ICA’s apparent remit to present art which will shock: such extreme efforts to bamboozle have come to be rather commonplace within its walls. Indeed, this whole exhibition, consisting of works on paper by eight artists from the 1940s to today, seems hell bent on creating a scandal. Perhaps it is simply trying too hard, then, since, despite the serious intent of the artists to challenge weighty political issues such as war and feminism, I was left, to be honest, little more than bored.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a belief that as long as it is making a political point, it doesn’t matter whether or not your art is any good; puerile scribbles will suffice. And this is very clearly the case with Judy Bernstein (born 1942), artist of the aforementioned gun, Fuck by Number (2013). The enormous drawing, in black charcoal and red paint, depicts an erect penis/gun, with its testicles as the barrel, shooting an American flag, and surrounded by statistics from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, showing their horror and futility. Around the corner are smaller charcoal drawings, likewise conflating sexual violence and acts of war, and littered with crude verses and scribbles like those you might find as graffiti in a public toilet.

Alongside Bernstein are works by Margaret Harrison (born 1940), recent winner of the Northern Art Prize. Her offerings are less violent, but no less explicit. In Good Enough to Eat (2) (1971), for example, a dominatrix is sprawled between the slices of bread in a sandwich, whilst in Dolly Parton/Allen Jones (2010), she kneels on all fours, supporting a table top, as in Jones’ own subversive sculptures. Turning the gender balance tables, there are also works like Captain America (1997), where the comic superhero stands astride, displaying a tiny penis and larger-than-life strap-on breasts. The graphic novel style of these drawings blends well with their mix of humour and biting critique of male power.

Upstairs is largely male dominated, apart from Marlene McCarty’s (born 1957) detailed ballpoint drawing of a gorilla enjoying illicit sexual relations with two female scientists. Mike Kuchar (born 1942) presents equally fantastical scenarios in his homoerotic phantasmagoria, commissioned for comic publications such as Gay Heart Throbs.

As the “old master” of social and political critique through art, George Grosz (1893-1959) also has a work on display: Stickmen Meeting Members of the Bourgeois (1946), in which a group of grey, lifeless stickmen are shown aimlessly following two fat, ruddy, sweaty members of the bourgeoisie, the contents of their bulging stomachs exposed to show plentiful beer and meat.

Antonio Lopez (1943-1987) has been credited with influencing the acceptance of diverse ethnicities into the fashion world, through his hedonistic drawings for New York magazines, whilst Cary Kwok (born 1975), who also trained in fashion, has filled nearly a whole room with biro drawings of men at the moment of ejaculation. This, to me, far from shocking, is merely mildly nauseating.

The final contributor is Tom of Finland (1920-1991) who achieved cult status for his erotic drawings of homosexual male encounters, in which his characters are uniformed servicemen, sailors, lumberjacks and biker rebels. Again, these are technically well drawn, and perhaps they were shocking at the time, but now, in an age of mass graphic bombardment, they come across largely as if they were pages torn from a comic book.

Indeed, this exhibition considers the crossover between the commercial and the aesthetic via the medium of drawing, as well as looking at how this has been used to voice political and critical opinion. In some instances, there is intricate detail; in others, childish scribblings. Quite why there needs, however, to be such an overbearing focus on the pornographically explicit, I am not sure. I’m all for freedom of speech and expression, and even for art that truly shocks, but, in this case I was just glad to reach the end.


Judith Bernstein
charcoal, pastel on paper
41.5" x 29.5"

Marlene McCarty
Group 8: (Karisoke, The Virungas, Rwanda. September 24, 1967. 4:30pm.)
ballpoint pen and graphite on paper
courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Mike Kuchar
Prehistoric Pets
courtesy of the artist, and François Ghebaly Gallery

George Grosz
Stickmen meeting members of the bourgeois
courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York

Antonio Lopez
Gianni Versace Campaign
© the Estate of Antonio Lopez
courtesy the Suzanne Geiss Company

Tom of Finland
© Tom of Finland Foundation, Incorporated

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