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Around the galleries

Allen Jones – exploration or exploitation?

— December 2014

Associated media

Allen Jones RA Hat Stand, 1969 Mixed media, 191 x 108 x 40 cm Private collection, London. Image courtesy the artist / © Allen Jones

There is more to Allen Jones’ work than the notorious furniture pieces, says Janet Stiles Tyson – but how much?

There is more to Allen Jones’ work than the notorious furniture pieces that have dominated critical discussion of his current retrospective at the Royal Academy of the Arts. But this is nonetheless a problematic representation of an uneven career.

Although I’d never encountered Jones’ art before—he is not well-known in the USA – I quickly learned about the outrage he has stirred over the course of his career. Nonetheless, I was determined to give him the benefit of the doubt. My determination sorely was challenged, however, by the way the exhibition has been presented as well as by many of the works involved. Not only are the galleries in the Burlington Gardens end of the RA building awkward, but Jones was allowed considerable input into the installation. Given that Jones seems more interested in provocation than in considered outcomes, this was not a prudent idea.

Rather improbably, Jones’ best sculptural work, Secretary (1972), is situated outside  the galleries, adjacent to the rather abject door that is the exhibition entrance. The work conjures up three sexy women whose role in life is to take dictation. They are anonymous and interchangeable, as all we see are their shapely legs (demurely crossed) and their right forearms and graceful hands, emerging directly from the wall. Presumably, this is all the boss sees, as well. I think that the work embodies a complex of ideas lacking in Jones’ other mannequin-like pieces but that, for whatever reasons, he chose not to develop those concepts more fully.

All that said, the installation’s first room is very effective. It has been over-prepared, intentionally, to suggest a boudoir, and it contains two of Jones’ tables. One has a glass top shaped like an artist’s palette, whose notch ‘allows’ the female form that serves as its base to hold its head up. As a commentary on relationships between male artists and their female models, this piece is cruelly effective in a one-dimensional way. The figural base of the other table holds its head down and ostensibly gazes at the reflection of its face in a hand mirror that’s placed on the floor. This installation does what it was intended to do, which is to place rage-inspiring pieces at the beginning of the exhibition so that visitors can see them and leave them behind.

The installation’s third room provides a very effective opportunity to do just that. Filled with paintings that span more than 40 years of production, this part of the exhibition celebrates Jones’ interest in sexual and gender stereotypes – particularly as they are manifested in a culture dominated by advertising images. The colours are vivid, even exuberant, with greens, oranges and reds dominating. For the most part, Jones paints figures whose gender is identified by way of conventional attributes –trouser-clad legs for men, bare legs ending in stiletto-heeled pumps for women – that, if anything, have become increasingly pervasive since the 1980s. The mood of this room makes it easy to imagine how, in the 1960s, when repressive, post-war gender roles were being overthrown, Jones embraced the opportunity to explore historically imposed sexual identities. At the same time, pictures alluding to hermaphroditism suggest possibilities for blurring or disregarding gendered binaries. Taken collectively, the works here exude optimism and an infectious generosity that seem quite at odds with so many other works, which embody a sense of myopic hostility. 

After the paintings, the room that holds up best is a bi-level space filled with drawings, which were intended to provide insight into Jones’ creative context and process. The storyboards that track the build-up of Jones’ compositions are particularly compelling and their absence of colour invites focus on Jones’ deft manipulation of line and shading. This context would have served well for the long, encased shelf of maquettes from Jones’ studio that is presented in the exhibition’s second room.

The exhibition’s fourth and sixth rooms are given over to sculpture and to works that occupy a transitional place between painting and sculpture. One group of sculpture is relatively abstract, fabricated from brightly painted, curving steel panels that evoke dynamic figures. In them, gender is indicated in shorthand form and the focus is on reciprocal action. Even when not compared with Jones’ mannequin-like figures, these simply formed, crayon-colored works possess a naïve charm – almost as though passages of paint from Jones’ two-dimensional works had broken free of their matrixes. As such, they persuasively argue for a relationship between Jones’ paintings and his sculptures.

Interestingly, these aren’t the works most often cited as bridging the gap between image and object, painting and sculpture in Jones’ oeuvre. That honour goes to Standby (1991-92), which comprises a paint-covered mannequin, placed in a corner between two free-standing, also brightly painted, walls. I can see the pivotal role played by this piece, but that doesn’t save it from being the very rudimentary bit of exploration that it is—and hardly the work of a sophisticated artist.


Janet Stiles Tyson
Spring Lake, Michigan, USA
Independent art historian

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