- North West England
Sue Fox: The GenitalPortrait Series
‘Art’ Manchester to June 5th2008
‘I like the unusual, the taboo, the sexual, theabstract, the absurd, the surreal… anything edgy, uncensored.’
(Sue Fox, Photographer, 2008)
Sue Fox’s current show, The Genital Portrait Series, provokes discomfort on first impressions, seemingto sit precariously between sensual autobiography and pornography/voyeurism.
Fox is an artist best known for Post-Mortem, in which she photographed the dead in mortuaries,funeral parlours and crematoria, (1997), shown at the National Museum of Filmand Photography, Bradford, (now the National Media Museum). Her images of deathwere deeply shocking, Witkin-like in their haunting, scary imagery but alsocathartic and beautiful. The images challenged our ideas of what should orshouldn’t be portrayed.
In her current show she has again taken me out of my comfortzone and achieved another politically, emotionally and artistically provocativeset of images. They prod away at our preconceptions and cultural orthodoxies,perching uncomfortably in a new place in the canon.
If likenesses are to be made, her recent work is in therealm of Nan Goldin’s scrutiny of the relationships of the young andmarginalised, Helen Chadwick’s consideration of sexuality and the literal‘flesh’ of the body, and Cindy Sherman’s ongoing investigation of gender andnarrative through role-play and dressing up.
To make this body of work, Fox has used photography, film,audio, and performance to investigate how we present images of ourselves toattract a sexual mate. Much time was spent on MSN chat sites, delving into thereasons for cyber relationships. She scrutinised the image-making process inwhich the subjects are compartmentalising themselves, psychologically (in a cyber-relationship),and through the piecemeal images they take, choose and send through cyberspaceas a representation of their idealised form.
The series of colour photographs selected for The GenitalPortrait Series is a witty and complex setof images, more intimate than would be expected from the nature of herresearch. The images roam between classical nude portraiture, photos of erecttotemic penises, and performance stills of joyously sexualised dressingup. In one, a computer screen isframed within the image, showing a cyber-buddy presenting his erect penis, hugein the foreground, gleefully offering itself for inspection, (Blue 2008). Inanother she shows a deeply private moment as a man licks his female partner’sclitoris, a look of rapture in his half closed eyes. The photograph is taken bythe female, and therefore the act of looking at the image is also that ofexperiencing the touch, as if looking down at one’s own lover in that moment.She photographs her own vagina with pegs on its labia in a liberated andpersonal depiction, almost a comic moment. She also presents a close up ofherself holding a blood-smeared contraceptive cap in front of herblood-streaked thighs (Blood 2007), an unselfconscious image of female sexualfreedom. She exhibits an almost abstract image of a cervix, seldom seen outsidethe realm of the medical textbook. Peppered amongst these images aretraditional nudes in poses referencing classical painting, though visiblyrooted in the present by extreme tattooing or shaved pubic hair.
By mixing images diverse in their political or personalreferencing, she sidesteps an easy pigeonholing. We are not titillated, nor arewe censorious in our response. Our gaze is not the public one, but a personalone, the artist’s own gaze as she creates images of herself or those she isclosely involved with. It doesn’t feel like exploitation. There is no anxiety.She performs a piece with another artist in which they are tied together,back-to-back, with rope, and they discuss as if in cyberspace, what they wouldlike to do to one another.
Her photographs, in their attention to composition and apainterly aesthetic, are in many ways traditional, but she remains unbound byconvention in her subject matter, she is pushing boundaries, defiantlyfacing-out taboos.
The gallery, ‘Art’,is part of the studio complex of performance artist Michael Mayhew, and is ashe describes, “down a back alley” in Manchester’s Whalley Range/Chorlton area.It is an underground venue where no external rules apply. The conventions ofthe mainstream do not have to be considered. Anything goes.