ART / Ooze of delight

Women artists are poking fun at convention. Rose Jennings reports
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The Independent Culture
"My friend Billy had a 10ft willy. . ." begins the limerick in the catalogue. Well it's one way to explain the adjoining picture - a computer-generated, toweringly erect cheese souffle. And who wants everything explained anyway?

This is the line taken by Leah Kharibian, the curator of "It's a Pleasure". This exhibition shows work by nine women artists, all of whom, according to Kharibian, "allow pleasure a prominent place in their work and in their attitudes to making it".

What does pleasure mean in the context of contemporary art? Not much, perhaps, to the older, more painterly wing of the viewing public, for whom the occasional chance exposure to establishment Modernism continues to suggest only numbness and lack of effect. Wander round a few of the alternative venues, however, and pleasure is very much on the agenda. West Coast Neo-Decadents, women looking at images of men, Modern Bestiary (all those shows of seemingly unconnected artefacts): the styles might be various but the message is always the same. Enjoy! Then again, hasn't there always been a powerfully sensual strain in European art - from the Surrealists through to what Lucy Lippard called Erotic Art (the touchy-feely constructions of artists like Eva Hesse)?

"It's a Pleasure", while referring to many of the contemporary "debates", also plays with many of these older influences. There's a kind of jokey languor about much of the work, an easy inclusiveness. Jemima Stehli's wonderfully nickable potatoes (wax modelled, brightly coloured) might recall, perhaps, some of Louise Bourgeois's more spud-like pieces - while also sounding an anxious note about biotechnology. And is Hermione Wiltshire, who shows the souffle video, laughing with or at the idea of wimmin-centred art processes (or penises, for that matter)? Elsewhere Nicola Petrie's candied-fruit chandeliers and Emma Rushton's anatomically correct toy baboons recall Surrealism at its most sour-sweet: the child-woman bearing the poisoned gift.

One of the largest pieces in the exhibition, at nearly 6ft high, is also the least easily explicable. What the hell is that pinkish, gooey, mushroom-like thing? It feels hard, but light, like spun sugar. And what are those mauve-grey blobs over on the far wall? Rubbery, aureoled, like nipples - but wet-seeming too, like those gleaming gobs of freshly hawked snot that you step around in the road. Are they by any chance related?

Even from this thumb-nail portrait, goo-enthusiasts will almost certainly recognise the work of Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, who started out as a painter but who now works predominantly with industrial compounds and catalysts not normally associated with paintings. The nipples, where the effect is achieved by mixing resin with industrial hardeners, have already been widely exhibited, but the foam mountains are new.

Here the material is a fast-setting polyurethane resin which foams up to 30 times its original size when you add a catalyst. ICI sells it for building insulation, while in the United States a similar material is being developed by a defence lab for"non-lethal deterrence".

At the John Jones gallery in London later this month you can see a whole gallery full of these foam mountains. The colours vary, from a custard yellow through to a rather beautiful dirty strawberry. the largest measure over 15ft in diameter. The effect is like walking through a factory after some terrible industrial accident. And the excitement lies in the sense of inappropriate use of a volatile and therefore regulated material.

Then again, why shouldn't art have access to new technologies, to the "smart" materials that are changing our world? Beats dusting any day.

n `It's a Pleasure', Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, to 19 Feb. Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, John Jones, London N4, 26 Jan to 25 Feb, then Spacex Gallery, Exeter, 7 April to 13 May