There are some artists who set out to be controversial, either to get a message across or to get noticed. Generally, these are works which are controversial for the time, but as time passes and culture changes, most of the scandalous artworks seem a lot less risky. Allen Jones is not one of those.
Born in Southampton in 1937 and was bought up in Ealing. He graduated from the Hornsey College of Art in 1959 and very quickly became one of the first British pop artists, combining different visual languages to uncover the historical compositions to demonstrate the meaning of the work.
During the 60s, Jones worked on the three pieces of art which gained him the controversial notoriety which he is known for. These were “Chair”, “Table” and “Hat Stand”. These are sculptures which were designed by Jones, then cast in clay, finally finished by a company that made mannequins. Each set of three were duplicated six times, which were completed in 1969.
They first went on display in 1970, and they were met with an array of attention and criticism, which before I go into, lets take a deeper look at the pieces…
You can see a woman, put into the position of a chair, her legs have been bound at the top of the thigh around her back, and at the knees preventing her from breaking the position. A cushion on a piece of Perspex has been put on her thighs and her arms have been used to steady her torso. Her only items of clothing are the latex knickers, gloves, and boots. Her ankles and calves are parted so that she can see the person who will sit on her. She has a fully made up face.
Here we can see the woman has taken on the base of a table – she is again clad in latex boots, gloves and knickers along with a half corset. Perspex has been placed on her back to form the tabletop, and a mirror has been placed below the woman’s face so she can see herself and what is being put on the table, and the people using the table can see her face.
A slightly different format for the clothing in this sculpture, as the woman isn’t constrained by anything except her clothing so we can see a harnessed knickers and collar affair, with thigh high boots and she has been granted a small mercy of a cheer short cut coverage for her breasts. The viewer here can see all of the woman in detail and should the urge take – they can hang their hats on her hands/head.
I don’t think you need to be a feminist to see what the issue is with these sculptures. Woman being used as furniture – inanimate objects that can be seen and used and not heard is pretty much the message that these sculptures give off. Therefore, it should be no surprise that these works incited anger from the up and coming feminist movement of the 1970s.
The sculptures were received with viewers feeling that there were a sadomasochistic and fetish tendencies being displayed – using the female form as an anchor for persecution of women that has happened over the for as long as could be remembered. Not only is this an unspoken statement about how woman should be seen and not heard, but it also plays into the iconology of women having to be picture perfect to be useful. The press put Jones’ sculptures down to castration anxiety and no matter how you looked at the sculptures, it is difficult to establish another meaning.
At the time of the debut, strong protests against the works were seen from feminist groups, which made Jones a cultural “live wire”.
The sculptures were displayed again in 1978, which received equally negative attention which resulted in stink bombs being let off in the exhibit. Then in 1986 these were displayed at the Tate on International Women’s Day. On this occasion, “Chair” was damaged by paint stripper being thrown at it.
In 2004 art historian Marco Livingstone wrote “More than three decades later, these works still carry a powerful emotive charge, ensnaring every viewer’s psychology and sexual outlook regardless of age, gender or experience.”
These sculptures limited Jones’ exhibition career in the UK and when asked about it in the early 2000s he was quoted as saying “it’s collateral damage. I wanted to offend the canons of accepted worth in art. I found the perfect image to do that, and it’s an accident of history that these works coincided with the arrival of militant feminism.” This is interesting as I have read other interviews where Jones states that he himself is a feminist but refuses to fight for his political say as others have already decided the meaning of his work. This to me sounds like a man who doesn’t wish to justify his actions or give the true reasoning behind his work.
Jones says that he wanted to shock the art world, but not the public in a move to open their eyes to fact that sex sells and it just so happened to very nicely fall into the Pop Art culture of highlighting consumerism, which honestly, to me, just feels lazy. There are many other artists that achieved this with much more integrity than Jones did. As an example, Richard Hamilton’s “Hers is a Lush Situation” created in 1958 demonstrates the persuasion and rhetoric that Buick used in their advertising campaign. It picks up on the erotic play between woman and machine, using a collage of Sophia Loren’s lips to indicate the driver and the United Nations building in New York (which, collaged, doubles as a windscreen) and the machine forms along with the soft curves of the cars body reflecting that of the female form. This is a far more thoughtful and intelligent way of demonstrating that sex sells than Jones’ degrading sculptures.
It also should not be overlooked that Stanley Kubrick used similar imagery in his 1971 film of “A Clockwork Orange” created from the 1962 book by Anthony Burgess. Initially Kubrick had approached Jones to dress the “Milk Bar”. Jones did some preliminary sketches for this, but when the subject of money was brought up, Kubrick responded that he was a world-renowned director and Jones name would be well known from this film. Jones declined the offer, but Kubrick went ahead and used the unmistakably similar imagery.
This reinforced the feeling of women being used as functional objects with Alex putting his feet on the table and milk being dispensed from the breasts of the kneeling female sculptures – this didn’t do much for the overall reputation of Jones.
Both Jones and Kubrick fell foul walking the tightrope of trying to be shocking and just emphasising misogyny, Kubrick to the point where it was felt that he glamourised rape and murder – he subsequently withdraw the film for public viewing, it only being rereleased after he died.
While Jones’ work may have hampered his exhibition status, it didn’t stop people such as Roman Polanski, Elton John and owning set of “Chair”, “Table” and “Hat Stand”, with a sale of the set going for £2.6 million in 2012.
Before a draw a close to this article, I do need to recognise that there are people out there who live the fetish life style and thrive on a submissive/dominant relational arrangement where sometimes humiliation and objectification plays a role in their day to day, but this life style is much more accepted culturally now, rather than in the 1970s when women didn’t have the level of equality that they see today. We need to remember that these sculptures read to the viewers as the absolute in objectification, created from an idea that appeared in a comic strip.
Jones certainly managed to get noticed and cause an art scandal which will probably continue to ruffle feathers for years to come.
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