Flesh: An Exhibition of Contrast

Adriana Varejão’s Green Tilework in Live Flesh (2000)

Flesh is an exhibition that challenges our perception of the substance of living forms, an exploration of identity, functionality, and fragility in human, plant and animal flesh.

The diverse subjects and forms the viewer is introduced to present the use of ‘flesh’ as an abstract term that umbrellas both our typical associations of the term as being an animalistic, pinkish, muscular substance, such as Berlinde De Bruyckere Romeu (mu deer) seems to portray, with a wider and perhaps more symbolic range of pieces such as the still life depictions, such as Frans Snyders- ‘A Game Stall.’

To compliment this diverse choice of subject matter, the pieces are grouped in no order of timescale, but instead are curated effectively with artworks from different periods in history to harmonize together to evoke the exhibitions key themes. One of my personal favourite examples from the exhibition that illustrate this sense of timelessness is the positioning of an image from the San Lucchese Altarpiece ‘The dead Christ with the Virgin and St. John’ (1340-1350) depicting a wounded Christ slashed across his chest on a luminous gold panel, besides the modern day sculpture by Ron Mueck- ‘Youth,’ (2009) that depicts a young man in modern dress, stabbed in the chest in a place that mirrors Christ’s wound. Such a daring contrast cleverly shows the ageless fragility of the human body and cruelty it endures past and present.

Flesh is a form that can be described as contrastable; it is both delicate and enduring, pure and contaminated, symbolic and passive and artistic yet bare. The idea of contrast is prominent throughout the collection: in Biblical works flesh is brutalised and disgraced through images of crucifixion as mentioned, but then also glorified through paintings of the Virgin Mary’s illuminating skin. Likewise, the cold monotone photographs of punctured skin next to Bacon’s warm and fleshy tones in ‘Portrait of Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch’ spectate the malleability of the word flesh.

The layout of the exhibition is also very clever. The pieces in the right hand room are rather primitive and explore animal and fruit flesh as well as flesh as an abstract form drawing on its tactile features, whilst the left hand room focuses more on human flesh, identity and issues of health and impairment. This diverse body is bought together by a dramatic centre piece in the main gallery: Adriana Varejão’s ‘Green tilework in Live Flesh’ that depicts a vulgar array of bulging organ like substances from underneath domestic green kitchen tiles. I think this piece captures the overall feel of this exploration of 600 years of flesh: both thought provoking and shocking.

Jessica Jenkinson

Flesh- York Art Gallery- September 23rd 2016-March 19th 2017.

More information available at: http://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/exhibition/flesh/

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