Shamelessly, they flaunt their strange forms and bizarre reproductive equipment.
I’m talking about the flower paintings, with stamens and pistils thrusting, in Marc Quinn’s exhibition at White Cube, Hoxton Square, London, (through June 26). The same might apply to his sculptures of human beings.
They include a man who has -- through tattooing, surgical adjustment and what can only be called extreme dentistry -- remodeled his face to look like that of a cat, complete with divided upper lip and feline teeth. Present too are semi-nude marble statues of Chelsea Charms, an American model who allegedly possesses the world’s largest breasts, weighing in at 26 pounds each (and expanded by cosmetic operations). She resembles a surreally hyper-inflated Venus de Milo.
Prominent in several works in bronze are Buck and Allanah. The former looks like a tough, muscular man with shaven head, beard and tattoos, but he has a vagina. The latter is as curvaceously feminine as a fertility goddess, yet sports a penis. Then there’s a marble of Thomas Beatie, bearded and masculine in appearance, except for being pregnant.
In this context, the late Michael Jackson, featured in a couple of gigantic black-and-white marble heads, and the actress Pamela Anderson -- of whom there are twin bikini-clad figures in bronze -- stand out for their startling ordinariness.
So, you might think, welcome to the wackiest post-modern freak show. Quinn, however, has an answer to that. “I would say it is a reality show,” he says in an interview. “This is an interesting aspect of now, and an interesting moment in the history of the world, culturally. It is a period in which, due to advances in surgery and hormone therapy, etc., people can take charge of and transform their biological bodies.”
These new sculptures are a continuation of a theme that Quinn has been exploring for some years. Initially, he made a series of marble works that had neo-classical smoothness -- or slickness, if you don’t like them -- portraying naked people who for one reason or another didn’t correspond to the Grecian ideal. One of these, “Alison Lapper Pregnant,” representing a female artist born without arms and with truncated legs, was on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2005.
The new works are similarly classical images of people who have voluntarily metamorphosed themselves into novel shapes. Quinn, born in 1964, says they “are naive artists, using their bodies as their medium, who have decided to transform themselves so the outside of their bodies reflect how they feel inside.”
He met his models via the Internet. “I would just go to Google and type in ‘extreme plastic surgery’ or ‘man becomes woman’ or something like that. If something interesting came up I’d e-mail the person, explain who I was, what I was doing and ask if they’d like to sit for me. Invariably, they agreed.”
Pamela and Michael
“Some of them are in porn, some performers in other ways,” Quinn says. “I wanted to have a spectrum from the most extreme to the most mainstream.” Obviously, Pamela Anderson and Michael Jackson come into the second category (as in this company who wouldn’t?)
In a way, this is a traditional subject. Classical mythology is full of heroes and nymphs turning into animals as well as gender swaps. Quinn muses that the metamorphic humans in his exhibition echo the past and also presage the future. “Probably this is the very beginning, and in five hundred years will look very primitive.” Cat’s teeth anyone?
“Allanah, Buck, Catman, Chelsea, Michael, Pamela and Thomas” is at White Cube, Hoxton Square, London, through June 26. Information: http://www.whitecube.com. Prices of the artworks range from 50,000 pounds ($72,300) to 350,000 pounds.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, Bloomberg News’s arts and leisure section. The opinions expressed are his own.)