York Art Gallery’s most recent major exhibition, ‘Flesh’, is an eclectic, yet thought-provoking collection. Jointly curated with the University’s own Dr Jo Applin, the show exhibits 70 pieces of artwork across a broad chronological and geographical range: from Peter Paul Rubens to Francis Bacon and more recently, artists such as Jenny Saville. The aim of the exhibition is to highlight the ongoing human fascination with flesh and the scrutiny it has received by artists over the centuries. There were a range of paintings, sculpture and videos for the viewer to engage with.
The first room, ‘Figuring Flesh’, slowly immerses the viewer in the exploration of ideas in the exhibition without being overwhelming. The viewer is introduced to the topic through studies of the nude bodies from the 14th century before progressing to more modern art. The porcelain sculpture of tiny legs was particularly interesting. The jagged shapes created acted in contrast not only with the flowing lines of the legs but also with the viewer’s expectation of how the material should be used. The most enticing piece oversaw the whole room: ‘Green Tilework in Live Flesh’ by Adriana Varejao. In this piece, expanded foam entrails burst through a bathroom wall, packs enough blood and guts to make my own insides feel queasy.
The second room, ‘Anatomy’ gives an insight into the relationship between the human body and medicine. There are studies of hands in different media and William Hunter’s medical textbook on The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774). Most interestingly, this section features a selection of tattoos of deceased prisoners in Krakow at the turn of the twentieth century. Alongside the documentation of Jo Spence’s breast cancer treatment and paintings of plastic surgery, these self-made tattoos speak to wider themes of identity and ownership which dominate the room.
The ‘Still Life’ room enforces the ideas of time and possibly more depressingly, the inevitability of death. The room is dominated by the amazingly realistic wax sculpture of a decapitated deer by Berlinde De Bruyckere, and this set the tone for most of this room. Through a diverse set of media, the themes are coherently apparent between paintings from the Circle of Rembrant and even a film of a decomposing rabbit.
The final room is certainly the most abstract of the whole exhibition. This section explores more the flow and forms that flesh can take. Carolee Schneemann’s film, ‘Meat Joy’ (1964), involves chickens, fish and buckets of paint being flung about while couples writhe to the sound of Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ – it honestly sounds as odd as it looks, but certainly intermingles the different concepts of animal and human flesh that have been represented separately in the other artwork.
The exhibition is accompanied by Steve McQueen’s first major project, ‘Bear.’ This is a black and white film of two male participants, wrestling with one another. Displayed in a dark, confined space, limbs are shown as close-ups on the dominating screen, leaving the viewer not only to focus on the flesh of the naked bodies, but also on their own silhouettes in the room.
However, as York Art Gallery can’t provide vast spaces for exhibitions, there are inevitably some gaps. Although ‘Meat Joy’ provides one interpretation, Stuart Brisley’s controversial 1972 performance in which he soaked in a bath alongside rotting offal is absent. Similarly any works by Damien Hurst, which might otherwise be expected, are no where in sight.
After being drawn into so many different pieces showing the diverse ways in which flesh can be. The exhibition is welcomed in a world dominated by the ideals set out in the media and as a whole left an indelible mark to reflect on our own figures.
The exhibition runs until 19th March. For more information see: https://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/exhibition/flesh/