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Rose English, “Rose on Horseback” (1974)
Rose English, “Rose on Horseback” (1974)Courtesy of the artist and TJ Boulting

These transgressive artworks straddle performance and self-portraiture

‘Performance itself is an activist medium’: Eye Body is a group show featuring work in which the artist is also the subject

“Covered in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, plastic, I established my body as visual territory,” observed Carolee Schneemann, looking back at her 1963 artwork Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera. In this – one of her most enduring works – the American artist painted her body and employed a medley of props for a series of performance-based photographs. “Not only am I an image maker,” she said, “but I explore the image values of flash material I choose to make work with.” Adopting the moniker Eye Body, a new group show at TJ Boulting is bringing together 12 artists whose practices, largely photographic, echo Schneemann’s transgressive actions. 

“It’s been brewing for a long time,” explains gallerist and curator, Hannah Watson on a Zoom call. “I work with lots of artists that use themselves in their work, and I’m always quite interested in people terming it self-portraiture – because it’s not, it’s performance. In fact, most of the time they’re something totally different.” 

Juno Calypso, presenting Silhouette II (2022), has long utilised wigs and masks to invoke a character she calls Joyce, while Daisy Collingridge physically steps into the candy-coloured fabric sculptures she terms Squishies (named Burt, Hillary, Dave and Clive respectively). Elsewhere, Sam Keelan plays the role of a man separating his toy collection from his ex-husband’s in Courtroom (2020), and Atong Atem photographs herself in character as family members from personal albums. “We sing songs to tell history and we dress up and sit for photographs to mythologise our histories,” she writes in the accompanying press notes. 

“Performance itself is an activist medium” – Hannah Watson

“Something that gets associated with Juno and Haley [Morris-Cafiero]’s work is this idea that if you're a female artist and you’re in your image, you’re making a statement about being a woman, feminism, independence, beauty…,” says Watson, reflecting on how the work is received. While feminism and identity are prominent themes in many of the pieces, the performances also explore gender, queerness, body image, activism, humour and personal history she notes. “With Juno, she’s creating characters. She’s in all of her photographs, but purely because when she started out – photographing other people – she found it so intensely awkward. It was liberating for her to be on her own and literally use herself.” In speaking to Morris-Cafiero she says, Watson learned that her core references were not photographers, but performance artists such as Laurie Anderson and Adrian Piper. 

“Performance itself is an activist medium, and a lot of the artists have that element in their work. It’s not about making a pretty picture a lot of the time, it’s actually something quite bold and statement-like,” continues Watson, who was also inspired by Performing for the Camera, which opened at Tate Modern in 2016. 

For Rose English, presenting two horse-focused pieces from the 1970s, the work foregrounds how women’s bodies are often fetishised, while Morris-Cafiero’s Weight Bearing series examines the role of societal expectations in relation to body image. 

“Carolee Schneemann represents a lot of things in terms of feminist art history and performance,” says Watson. “And reading about Eye Body was interesting because, for her, it was about painting; her physical use of her body was a kind of exploration of the physicality of what paint and painting was. She was pushing that idea, but the cool thing was this idea that you're in the image and you make the image, and using that kind of dichotomy to do what you want to do.” 

Ultimately grounded in the sometimes confrontational partnership between performance and photography, Eye Body looks to where the emphasis is presumed by the viewer. In the series Front, Trish Morrissey approaches groups on the beach, swapping places with [usually] a mother within the party, and asking her to take their picture. “Just because you’re in the photograph, people say, ‘Oh, you're taking photos of yourself’, but Trish is not that person,” explains Watson. “She says, ‘I’m not this psychopathic woman who’s infiltrating families on beaches. It’s a performance, it’s not me.’ And performance is this ephemeral thing, so how do you capture that? How do you make concrete your ideas? Through the photograph. So the show is about having the work seen in that light, just switching the context slightly.”

Eye Body is running at TJ Boulting from March 29 until April 29 2023.

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