18 May–18 September 2016
by IZABELLA SCOTT
This is the first museum exhibition of Latvian-born, New York-based Ella Kruglyanskaya’s work to date, bringing together 23 paintings produced from 2005 onwards. Her confrontational, colourful, paintings, which focus largely on cartoon-esque images of the female body, challenge the inherently sexualised history of the female subject by radical means: exacerbating voyeurism. Over the past decade Kruglyanskaya has come to international attention, and this exhibition follows two recent solo shows in the UK, at Studio Voltaire, London (2014) and Thomas Dane, London (2015).
Kruglyanskaya’s paintings are populated by generic, cartoon women who gossip, sip drinks and sunbathe. These curvaceous, sassy ladies are decked out in noisily patterned garb – tops, swimwear and leggings, decorated with winking eyes and pouting lips that rival their own exaggerated faces. These are provocative images, as Kruglyanskaya ramps up the caricature to the point at which the humour takes a turn towards violence. The two women of Gossip Girls (2010), for example, are paired down to their most basic components: humps and holes. One woman’s mouth is loosened with excitement into a gaping black ring; the other wears a red sweater from which her breasts bulge, nipples on show. The depiction is crude and offensive – and intentionally so.
Kruglyanskaya’s treatment of sexual stereotypes has parallels with the drawings of cartoonist Robert Crumb, whose smutty sketches of women’s arses push familiar fetishes to the point at which they become uncomfortably perverse (think of his depiction of tennis champion Serena Williams with her behind threatening to split her Lycra.) Such is the case in the painting Fruit Picnic (2011), in which two women lie on a picnic rug. It is difficult to puzzle out their tube dresses from the blanket or their devil-red lips from buckles that snap together around their waists in sets of teeth. Here, objectification is taken to its extreme: women’s bodies flattened, quite literally, into fabric. In another set of images, Girls with Guns (2006), pointy-heeled women totter into view with pistols stamped over their shirts, channelling the femme fatale: a pair of fembots with cannon breasts, ready to kill by seduction. In Kruglyanskaya’s image, you can’t tell if the guns are printed on to textile or brandished in their hands. This ambiguity makes the point that, either way, the crass appeal of sexual violence is manufactured, mass-produced and inherent to the way women are visually consumed.
By exploring the violent extremes of flatness – of women as textile – Kruglyanskaya shows up the popular depiction of the female body to be frighteningly farcical. The inclusion in this exhibition of five Bauhaus still-lifes (all 2016) among the bodies emphasises her “joke”. The hard black vessels on show in Cocoa Pot and Lidded Beer Jug suggest a comparison between the female body and desirable homeware, woman and utensil. The jugs wink light from their oiled, metallic cylinders, as if primed for display. Lidded Storage Jar, which looks disturbingly like an urn, looms beside the shrinking woman of Untitled (2012), who hides behind a silk hanky. She is scornful rather than timid, which allows for a moment of heightened irony: shrinking, of course, is just another form of reduction, just another kind of overlooking. Indeed, the few women of the Bauhaus school, the most famous of whom is Gunta Stölzl, were relegated to the production of weaving and ceramic. It was by sheer will that Stölzl went on to become the only female master of the Bauhaus era. Her textiles, like that hanky, were a form of confrontation.
Kruglyanskaya also locks horns with the post-impressionists in her paintings of women at the beach. Large Bather With Paper Cutout (2006) cites Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers of 1905, a triangular formation of 12 nude women, in what is understood to be a triumph of pictorial constraint and closure. She takes on Henri Matisse, too, whose painting of the same period, Bathers by a River (1910), offers expressionless, oval-faced women (well on their way to the women of his later cutouts). Kicking against this portrayal of the female subject, Kruglyanskaya’s sunbathers are neither naked nor passive. In her Bathers (2016), a woman in the sun looks over her shoulder. Her backside bulges out from her swimming costume, and she views it with dark, pointy eyes. In taking charge of the gaze, looking at her own arse – the arse offered up to the viewer’s gaze – Kruglyanskaya creates a sense of confrontation over possession. You can look, this woman says, but this is mine.
Kruglyanskaya delights in double entendre, particularly when it comes to textile: zips double as teeth, melons imitate cleavages. In Lips and Lemons (2011), two women’s sweaters grin and blink to life. Plump lemons sit right over the breasts of one woman like glaring eyes; the other sports a red mouth that erupts with disembodied laughter. There’s an echo of Young British Artist Sarah Lucas’s Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996), in which Lucas leans back in an armchair, legs ajar, a fried egg on either breast in a pose of defiance.
It is women, and only women, who are depicted on these walls, and the absence of men gives the exhibition a special kind of solidarity. But Girl With Sunglasses (2008), a painting given a wall to itself, reminds us of who is doing the looking. Shown in the reflection of chunky mirrored shades is a group of picnickers; among the figures, who should be looking back at us? Two men, squinting in the glare.
Kruglyanskaya’s images lay bare the underlying, universal fetish in which women are reduced to an assemblage of tits, arse, mouth, to the most utilitarian subtraction of all: the face of a porn doll. And indeed, below the gaudy sunglasses of this same image, a mouth wobbles open, small, red and tight, like a heart-shaped arsehole. But to look at this image is also to anticipate a scratch, for the figure raises a hand, so that her red, dangerous fingernails glint beside the fleshy hole. If these are porn dolls, they are seeking their revenge.