Margaret Harrisons Bodies, exhibition review by Kim MunsonThe Bodies are Back by Margaret Harrison Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco. February 10-April 16, 2010 In The Bodies are Back, an exhibition that closed recently at Intersection for the Arts, British artist Margaret Harrison returned to a body of work that she had abandoned in a firestorm of controversy in 1971. Recognized as a pioneer of feminist art, her work tackles complex gender issues in a unique and often humorous way, reconfiguring well- known comics characters, art world icons and objects of consumer consumption to point out the arbitrary nature of the gender roles society assigns to us. In her use of color and line, the influences of 1970’s comic books are clear in her work. While she studied at the Royal Academy of Art (London) in the late 1960’s, a time full of turmoil in reaction to the Vietnam War, she was fascinated by the work of EricStanton, intrigued by the sexual freedom seen in underground comix, and surrounded by pop artin every direction.When she launched her first solo show at London’s Motif Gallery in 1971 she incorporated all ofthese inspirations and made them her own. She included a gender challenged version of CaptainAmerica, a series of nudes represented as products, and two pieces commenting on Playboypublisher Hugh Hefner. After one day, the London police shut down the show for indecency,eventually offering the explanation that people didn’t find the nude women offensive, but HughHefner in a corset and stockings was too much. Harrison heard through the grapevine that thePlayboy organization was actually involved, and by an odd coincidence, the Hefner drawingcould not be found when the gallery re-opened. Stunned by the controversy, Harrison moved onother work, and left this theme alone for years. In the 1990’s she returned to this topic. The exhibition at Intersection combined new work with pieces from the 1971 show, ringed around the gallery more or less chronologically, allowing visitors to see how this body of work evolved over time. The infamous Hugh Hefner piece (Hes Only A Bunny Boy, But Hes Quite Nice Really 1971, 2010 on the left), recreated for the show, started things off on a satirical note. Looking at it now, with the corset, erect nipples, strategically placed bunny head and pipe, it’s hard to imagine this drawing causing a big scandal. In 1971, Harrison included a painting of Captain America (Captain America 1, 1971) in high-heels with strap on breasts to comment on machismo and the US involvement in Vietnam. Captain America 2 (1997, at top of post) continues to questioncultural assumptions of gender, as the star spangled Avenger looks like he is springing into action after raiding Marilyn Monroe’s closet. Whats That Long Red Limp Wrinkly Thing Youre Pulling On (2009, on the left) is part of a new series of paintings that depict comics characters or other pop culture icons interacting with other well known works of art. In this painting, Lady Deathstrike contemplates de Kooning’s
Woman and Bicycle (1952-3) while Captain America crouches at her feet. She holds a red cape,wrapped around his neck, much like a leash. When I asked her about this painting, Harrison toldme that she chose Lady Deathstrike not because she is a villain, but because she is a strong,driven female character, and that the de Kooning isn’t meant to be representation of a painting somuch as that it is meant to be a reflection of cultural attitude or expectations. Generally, deKooning’s women are pretty fierce looking and this one has always seemed to me to be the mostwelcoming piece in the series. If we take the de Kooning at face value, a nice (very tall) lady outfor a bike ride on a summer day, what do we find when we contrast her with the dominatingLady Deathstrike? What’s up with the cape/leash? How is the Captain America characterreflected in the de Kooning? It’s definitely a painting to ponder. And Harrison herself prefers tomaintain the mystery of it. It’s a show that left me with much to think about, and I may neverlook at Captain America the same way again.This review was originally posted on May 20, 2010, and can be found on my blog at http://kmunson-mac.blogspot.com/search/label/Margaret-Harrison, where you can also find related posts and links. This review was also printedin the International Journal of Comic Art. I’ve presented on this at the Popular Culture Association conference and an in-depthessay will be posted soon.