A couple of years ago, for this very publication, I lambasted the Royal Academy for its Allen Jones retrospective, which applauded a career that unrelentingly and without deviation objectified women. The point which illustrates his latent misogyny is the fact that while his sculptures may have been seen as subversive to the general anti-woman culture of the 60s at the time, his continuing to pump out impossibly pneumatic, unrealistic woman-dolls for the rest of his career indicates a mindset that remains firmly in tune with the objectification of women. Certainly they lampooned the cartoonish depiction of impossibly busty females in popular culture, cartoons and advertising, but you only need to make this point once. Interviews conducted at his studio presented a withering puny man surrounded by plastic human sized dolls.
Another puny withering man surrounded by bombastic, hyper-sexualised females is legendary comic artist R Crumb,who launches his first exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in London on 15 April. Like Jones, he evokes a bygone era which was thoroughly un-PC through a retro cartoon style. They are like the saucy seaside postcards that were once funny but now seen as thoroughly distasteful, and this is exactly what he is aiming for.
The difference between Jones (who currently has a show on at Michael Werner Gallery, London) and R. Crumb is that he often puts himself in the picture dwarfed by the women he is salivating over, made to look threatened and weak by comparison. I am certainly not arguing that the images therefore empower women, but that while yes, he may produce more oversexed images of women than is comfortable, he sends up his own – and the wider society’s – attitude towards them. A culture that puts women down simultaneously displays its own weakness by its need to control them by depiction in the fantasy manner it needs. There is a reason his depictions are deliberately grotesque and repulsive.
I would also argue that there is greater variation in the cartoons suggesting each one is making an independent point, rather than just a conveyor belt full of women-as-tables-or-coatracks. That shot of Serena Williams reaching for the ball is chosen specifically because it highlights how the media zoned in on this particular image emphasising her booty; the woman punching herself in the face with the caption “Woman voting Republican” is by no means subtle, but the point is clear. It should also be noted that, unlike Jones’s career which looks singularly at attitudes towards women, whether to lampoon it or not (not, actually), the objectification of women is not Crumb’s only target. His Cowardly Cartoonist sketch muses on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy and ISIS terror with its (pseudo) depiction of the prophet’s fuzzy posterior, and his When the Niggers Take Over America spread lampoons the USA’s paranoia.
Subtlety, or Crumb’s lack of, is deliberate and likens him to the close to the bone cartoons of Viz magazine. Except his biting social commentary raises his work arguably into the realm of “proper art”. It has to make you uncomfortable, and not in the creepy way we feel when looking at Allen Jones’s thinly disguised drooling. As one self-portrait says: “I’m not here to be polite”.
Allen Jones Maîtresse Until 23-04-2016 Michael Werner 22 Upper Brook Street, London, W1K 7PZ.
R. Crumb Art & Beauty David Zwirner London 15 April – 2 June
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