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Allen Jones: Pop Art meets Miley Cyrus?

Published 28 November 2014

Like many of today’s pop culture icons, Allen Jones’s work has sparked celebration and uproar. Chris Fite-Wassilak introduces an artist who made us blush 40 years before Miley.

  • Allen Jones presents a world in motion. His figures, painted or sculpted, are always dancing, strutting, voguing. They are fashion models, dominatrices, and jazz hounds; the men wearing hard-shouldered suits and the women balancing on stilettos. They are straight-faced, poised and self-assured, surrounded by mirrors, leather and sheer, posing against painted backdrops, the colour at times taking over parts of their bodies.

  • Allen Jones RA, Three-Part Invention

    Allen Jones RA, Three-Part Invention, 2002.

    Oil on canvas. 183 x 274 cm. Private collection. Image courtesy of the artist. © Allen Jones.

  • You are already familiar with his work; you just might not be conscious of it. A contemporary of David Hockney and Peter Blake, Jones similarly defines himself foremost as a painter. But his work also drew on the pulp plundering of artists like Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, who used science fiction magazines and advertising images in their collage works to help pave the way for British Pop Art. Jones sought to renew the tradition of the human figure in painting, taking inspiration from pin-up calendars, adult cartoons, and fetish magazine illustrations. This later led to the figure jumping off the canvas as stylised mannequins, most infamously his 1969 furniture series, with dull-eyed women skimpily dressed in bondage leather posing as a hatstand, table, and chair. The works incited uproar, defacement, as well as inspiring the interiors of the Korova Milk Bar in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Even recently, a reworking of Chair by Bjarne Melgaard, in which Jones’ upturned female figure was recast by the Norwegian artist as a black woman, sparked outrage when Dasha Zhukova was photographed seated on top.

  • Jones's work is filled with female figures that are almost too immaculate, imagining an archetype that approaches the robotic spouses of The Stepford Wives

  • Filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey famously commented on how Jones’ work represented women according to the projections of the male psyche. His work is filled with female figures that are almost too immaculate, imagining an archetype that approaches the robotic spouses of The Stepford Wives (1972).

    But perhaps, like the outfits of Madonna and Lady Gaga that have taken on Jones’ exaggerated female figure, we can also understand it in the same way Miley Cyrus spoke of her tongue-out, twerking stage antics at the Video Music Awards in 2013: “I wasn’t trying to be sexy.” Whether or not Jones would enjoy the comparison, what he offers is a reflection of the mechanisms of attraction, a sort of performance of a hyper-staged dance of life. It would seem Jones’ preoccupation is this sense of exposure: a body wearing a skin-tight outfit leaves nothing undisclosed, but still hides something.

    The painting First Step (1966) is a pair of slender legs from the thigh down, the steep heels propping up the feet appearing to stand on the shelf that juts out from the bottom of the canvas. The back leg, stepping forward, is wrapped in grey tights, the front leg seemingly naked but for a few folds that revel a semi-transparent material. A thin sheet seems to be binding the two legs together, making a curious, shaded triangle in the space between the calf and the shin. It is this space, where surface, figure and material meet, that seems to be Jones’s enduring interest.

    Allen Jones RA is at the Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens, from 13 November – 25 January 2015.
    Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer, critic and curator