A half century and more has passed since the Swinging ’60s, Carnaby Street, teddy boys, even the Stones, all potent reminders of a British cultural liberation that was, admittedly, often perceived negatively—particularly in the stellar example of Allen Jones. His hyperstylized robotic woman–as–idol remains a constant iconographic feature of his work, as this fifty-year survey, organized by Sir Norman Rosenthal, former longtime exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, amply documents. The show affirms anew the familiar trajectory of an artist first met as outcast who in time becomes a panjandrum of sanctioned taste. (A presentation of the artist’s Maîtresse works, 1975–2015, a group of paintings and drawings derived from a movie poster, were concurrently on view at Michael Werner’s London outpost.)
A backward glance is much in order. The most controversial of Jones’s works are a group of women respectively titled Hatstand, Table, and Chair, all 1969. These notorious sculptures—comprising Finish Fetish fiberglass mannequins shod in the six-inch spikes of thigh- or knee-high boots, shaved of all body hair, devoid of corporeal blemish, leather-bound, and cramped into servile positions germane to their functions as furniture—are still rightly decried as objectifications of women, or as functions of the male gaze. As luxurious objects of desire, they are supremely ambiguous, presenting the dominatrix as servant, though the ambiguity does not cut against the grain of objectification.
A more recent sculpture of a woman is the finely fabricated Light Green, 2001. Displayed in a neon-lit case, she takes a rigidly frontal, Egyptianizing stance, her garments yet another skin, her shoes golden, her Cabaret bob a helmet. To be sure, we “get” Light Green. Its referential richness—it draws on historical sources ranging from Ingres’s La Source (The Spring), 1820–56, to Helmut Newton’s sleek, long-limbed models of multivalent sex appeal—has a detoxifying effect.
Despite Jones’s lifelong commitment to the ice-goddess paradigm, his work also exemplifies a more rugged experimentalism: Anglo Pop figuration (think David Hockney) is seamlessly fused to English Color Field painting (think John Hoyland), all secure and bright, and nourished by pioneering French colorists (think Robert Delaunay). This cascading amalgam of precedents is wonderfully represented by a painted-plywood construction, Third Man, 1965, and by the painted-steel construction Artisan I, 1988.
Such work is—in its impulsiveness—arguably more engrossing than the artist’s post-2000 output, which consists of somewhat monotone figure paintings much committed to the theme of the theater. Among the notable later works is Interval, 2007, an ambitious sequence of three abutting canvases of declining size. Populated by Jones’s somnambulistic women, these tableaux re-create one’s entry to a theater’s box seats (loge in French). The first of the three canvases depicts the entrance to la loge; the second peers into the box seats themselves; the final canvas presents the view onto the stage. Can it be pure happenstance that La Loge, 1874, among the finest of Renoir’s Impressionist paintings, is a star holding of the Courtauld Gallery’s collection in London? At Michael Werner, another painting referring to theater, Ovation, 2010, depicts Jones’s ice goddess looking out into the audience—the star onstage viewed from the rear, her adoring fans represented via an array of fiberglass masks within a surrounding red penumbra.
Today, easy access to Internet porn has perhaps inured us to the suggestive overtones of Jones’s representations; indeed, they may now seem almost quaint. His admirable classical drawing has further obscured his works’ erotic baggage, thus leading to a promise fulfilled, not debased, and showing anew how deeply art comes from art, even of a kind once deemed indigestible. Good Show.