Published by Photomonitor
Weight Bearing. Hayley Morris Caffiero. Courtesy of TJ Boulting.
In channelling the spirit of Carolee Schneemann’s landmark performative series, Eye Body, the eponymous group exhibition presented at London’s photographic gallery TJ Boulting, simultaneously paid homage both to non-conformist, creative introspection six decades on, as well as to one of the oldest forms of the photograph itself: the self-portrait. Much like the space itself, the exhibition was a descent into the memorable, the meditative and the intriguing, spanning two rooms, featuring the works of twelve female and queer visual artists. With the central theme of identity explored by way of topics such as mental health, feminism, gender roles and maternity, there was no doubt that the works presented were excerpts from autobiographical, visual short stories; intimate, self-made vignettes, deserving of being told, in the absence of both shame and censorship.
A diptych of self-portraits by American artist Haley Morris-Caffiero, from the series Weight Bearing, demanded visitors' full attention, serving as the exhibition’s entrée. Using fleshy prosthetics to both constrict and obstruct her body’s manoeuvrability, the artist relays a poignant dialogue regarding eating disorders; the visual absurdity of the burdening forms, hinting at what feels like at times, black humour in the face of an arresting and emotive topic— uncomfortable and yet impossible to ignore. Directly across the room, British artist Rose English, with her equestrian-themed works, too blurs boundaries between the serious and the light-hearted, often using play as a central tool. Her image Rose & Porcelain Horses, for instance, featuring the artist, nude and posing as if being followed by miniature toy horses, references a pre-adolescent innocence, by way of both the imagination and the contextual innocence of the naked form. It is Rose on Horseback with Tail however, that hints more toward play as a sexualised act, as well as ideas regarding the fetishised female body— a naked figure, complete with a PVC harness and artificial horsetail, atop a live horse, the combination subverting an otherwise innocent pastime.
Gabby Laurent, Blocks. Courtesy of TJ Boulting.
Both Sudanese-Australian artist Atong Atem, and Indian artist Poulomi Basu brought the experiences of marginalised women of colour to the exhibition— the former by recreating the likenesses of family members found in old family photo albums, with the latter by exploring both the effects of trauma, politics and their intersection with the female form in Asia. Atem’s vibrant, transformative diptych of self-portraits, with their near-editorial aesthetic, present both pride and vulnerability, much like the work of Basu, her images from the series Fireflies giving the female body, away from confinement— metaphorical, spiritual and physical, the ability to be reclaimed.
Where both Daisy Collingridge and Mitchell Moreno made use of the grotesque (the former by way of Squishies— soft, wearable sculptures that embody exaggerated forms, the latter by way of horror-inspired performative images made in his apartment), it is veteran, Dublin-born artist Trish Morrisey, whose work left the largest impression. Using a seemingly banal and benign form of the photograph: the holiday snapshot, her four semi-staged, unframed images taken from her series Front, unfolded as psychological, performative pieces. Having ambitiously sought out female subjects found in groups along British and Australian beaches, and requested to swap places with them, she sits, posing with complete strangers— temporary friends, family members, and partners, audaciously requesting each ousted woman to take the resulting photograph on her 5x4 camera. Adding to the overall feeling of unease and tension was her emotionless gaze within the majority of the images, staring ahead at the camera, all the while playing the interim roles of mother, lover and acquaintance, all in the name of art. Aside from a desire to infiltrate, orchestrate and replicate, this deep-dive of sorts arguably examines the lives of strangers and the autonomy of everyday societal relationships, romantic, familiar and platonic, which themselves too often lack the authenticity that Morrisey, during her role as actress-artist, does too here, in her own artistic right.
Given the breadth, the scale and the full spectrum of voices within Eye Body, it can’t be ignored that some of the strongest voices weren’t given the space to be heard, amongst them being Gabby Laurent, her series Falling Pregnant conceptually riffing on both humour and absurdity in relation to pregnancy, alongside the ongoing theme of Falling, which appears throughout her work at large. Yet, despite arguably not being a direct tribute to Schneeman as far as aesthetics and theory are concerned, Eye Body succeeds in its ability to both challenge and to champion the essence of the self-portrait as a means of self-expression and self-discovery, all the while anchored to a boldly transgressive, admirably fearless authenticity.