Sexish
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Sexish

Featuring works by: Maryanne Casasanta, Orly Cogan, Cathy Daley, Julie Moon, Ilona Szalay, Dara Vandor and Janet Werner
Curated by Rebecca Travis and Robert Birch
10 December 2015 – 23 January 2016 at Birch Contemporary

Art historically, depictions of women’s sexuality and beauty have been rendered predominantly by and for men – think the multitude of Classical and Renaissance nudes, Manet’s Olympia, Renoir’s bathers, Jeff Koon’s ‘Made in Heaven’ series with his ex-porn star ex-wife, and John Currin’s recent pornography-inspired oil paintings, to name but a few. This imagery has both responded to current fashions and sensibilities, and aided in constructing contemporary notions of female beauty, sex and eroticism, but from men’s perspective and desires. Critics claim that the contemporary art world remains a male-dominated industry and, despite ground won in gender politics, it would still seem that the majority of artists for whom sex is a successful message and subject are men.

The tide, though, may be turning. Sexish brings together works by seven female artists that muse upon aspects of sensuality, sexuality and the female form, a small survey symptomatic of a wider reclaiming of the female sexual image in art. Sexish’s offerings are by turns overtly erotic and quietly sensual, openly suggestive and coyly covert.

Janet Werner’s subversions of the traditional portrait genre often challenge or play upon conventions of beauty, while Julie Moon’s ceramic ‘amorphous forms’ subvert classic ideals of the female figure, and in Maryanne Casasanta’s intimate, close-cropped photographs, the artist’s own body becomes an abstract form.

Perhaps surprisingly for an exhibition exploring sex and sensuality, there is as much a focus on clothing as nudity. Cathy Daley’s iconic ‘little black dress’ series mines contemporary vocabularies of glamour, fashion and popular culture to examine the iconography of the feminine as it exists in the cultural imaginary. Orly Cogan’s needlepoint works likewise evoke common female archetypes. Working with existing vintage fabrics and found embroideries, Cogan sees her works as ‘collaborations’ with women from previous eras, modernizing the traditional medium and fulfilling a space between the dichotomies of soft and tough, dirty and clean, fantasy and reality.

Dara Vandor also explores the realms of fantasy, erasing the figure altogether and instead making meticulous drawings of delicate lingerie and folds of sumptuous silk. The works play upon the erotic and power-based connotations inescapably associated with certain fabrics and garments. Power and control similarly play an important part in Ilona Szalay’s oil painted scenarios. Her female subjects are often engaged in some form of power play, with themselves, with others, (and ultimately with) the viewer.

We are told that “Sex Sells”, and perhaps it does – at least according to the preponderance of in-your-face sexual imagery in advertising, films and in visual art. But for whom does it sell, and whom to? Who benefits from the transaction of these obvious and often overly illustrative sexual depictions? How is its aesthetic derived and who controls it? Sexish seeks to step away from shock and awe, and encourage discussion around these long standing questions. It is an exhibition framed by the female gaze – women as seen by women, with a title deliberately eluding a fixed or determined state – mirroring its continuously evolving and unresolved subject.

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