Erotic works put these marginalised women in pole position
By Alison Oldham For the last year, pole-dancing has been a part of my life - but only, you will be relieved to hear, in a virtual sense. I have been slowly working my way through DVDs of the sixth series of the Sopranos, and mob boss Tony often conduct
By Alison Oldham
For the last year, pole-dancing has been a part of my life - but only, you will be relieved to hear, in a virtual sense. I have been slowly working my way through DVDs of the sixth series of the Sopranos, and mob boss Tony often conducts his unsavoury "waste management" business at the bar of the Bada Bing club below writhing pole-dancers.
Sandra Turnbull, whose claim to fame is having managed the musical duo Eurythmics, has first-hand experience of pole-dancing in sex clubs, sometimes euphemistically called gentlemen's clubs. This is not as an employee, the status of almost all women entering these establishments, but as an observer and in the name of art. Turnbull has presented the resulting paintings with associated films in All About Eve at Novas Gallery Camden, in Camden Town where she lives.
She intends her exhibition to be a celebration of a woman's right to choose to work as an erotic performer in the sex industry. "The women who inhabit the world of sex clubs are marginalised in society, often ostracised and looked down upon," she says. "I believe the females I have encountered in this environment have made a conscious choice to inhabit such a world."
It may be that the lap-dancers Turnbull met prefer the louche but lively clubs to humdrum workplaces and dance of whatever kind to humdrum work. They may see what is widely perceived as behaviour degrading to women as acceptable exhibitionism, given the hours and pay. They may harbour no thwarted ambitions and see lap-dancing as the best use of their talents. Different strokes for different folks aside, it still saddens me that this is the best opportunity life offers some women and taking it is described as a "conscious choice".
However, my concern is with the artistic outcome of Turnbull's immersion in this milieu. Novas currently has curtained windows suggesting, perhaps intentionally, a private club, which may be why some solitary men entering appear sheepish and others are intimidated. The ground floor is occupied by a "painted diary" - scenes of performers and audiences at the clubs that Turnbull visited and her notes comparing the ways establishments operate in London's East End and West End.
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She is clearly intent on making a dramatic impact by painting close-ups of genitalia, buttocks and breasts with bold colour and at times frenetic brushstrokes to emphasise freedom of expression. Her rendition of human bodies makes it hard to read what's happening in pictures like Man Watches Girl Watches.... Lap dancing involves contorted poses but the distorted limbs and truncated torso of the woman in That Red Chair (pictured) nevertheless jar.
There is a wide variety of styles and some paintings are better than others. Occasionally she gets it right and the best works are in the section In Your Dreams, upstairs. Also arguably the worst - a badly drawn girl seated with legs apart. It brought to mind - as a contrast - the moving Courbet 1866 painting L'Origine du Monde of a similar subject.
This memory sparked a flow of art historical comparisons detrimental to Turnbull - with Balthus' erotically charged figures and Grosz's edgy, pointed images of sex workers. It might seem unfair to match someone whose most serious art training was a period at Central St Martins against such masters but Novas' publicity sets a precedent by citing Picasso as an artist she appeared alongside in Michelle Olley's book Ars Erotica, The Best Modern Erotic Art.
I feel Turnbull's work would benefit from greater concentration on the demands of painting and less on the message. I applaud her efforts on behalf of sex workers - for instance, to draw attention to their lack of employment rights - but remain unconvinced by her version of the Happy Hooker myth.
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