I walked past one of Joana Vasconcelos's large sculptures at Haunch of Venison before I realised it was there. As I entered the lobby it seemed that part of the gallery had been cordoned off and I was being led in a particular direction by a series of ropes. It wasn't until I looked more closely at the ropes, the kind you might find sheathed in velvet at a fancy club, that I realised they were made from long thick glossy hair in blonde, brown and auburn, which, arranged in a plaited style, seems like women's hair. The work is called One Way (Una Dirección) (2003) and, with a simple gesture, Vasconcelos highlights the ways in which women can be oppressed, held in place, or, worse, trafficked, and how ideals of beauty can play a part in this. This exhibition is filled with works that brilliantly tackle this kind of territory without being bogged down in it – this Portuguese artist's sculptures always look wonderful, excessive and extremely rich, while posing awkward questions.
In 2007, Haunch of Venison, was bought by Christie's auction house. Then, last year, while its gallery's space in Mayfair's Haunch of Venison Yard was being extended, it moved into the rear part of the Royal Academy building. The gallery has struggled to fill those grand spaces since then, but, finally, with Vasconcelos, that baroque architecture has met its match.
Mary Poppins (2010) dominates the gallery's enormous atrium and grand stairway, and is a like a giant, stuffed puppet creature with octopus legs made from all sorts of soft, childish, pop cultural detritus – stuffed antlers from toy reindeer, harlequin diamond fabrics and lacy pieces of trimming. It is a study in the smothering excesses of nanny-like love, and also of glitzy trashy beauty. The same can be said of a set of Venus-like sculptures that sit at the top of the stairs holding round lamps. The figures are more like Barbies than Botticellis, painted in brash, joyful cartoon hues, but Vasconcelos has covered each statue in a black pattern of intricate crochet. Star and flower shapes blossom from the faces of these painted goddesses, decorating them, while also trapping and silencing them. Here, Vasconcelos's work can be read as a female counterpoint to American Pop artists such as Jeff Koons: both are highly aware of the banal elements of the popular culture from their respective countries (pool toys and naff ceramic statues) while also able to subtly bring out the ecstatic beauty and alarming undertones within them.
Beauty, and our desire to achieve it or own it, is at the heart of this artist's work. Garden of Eden (Labyrinth) (2010) is a hyperreal maze of eerily glowing fake flowers and twinkly lights sitting in the velvet dark. While there are many large works, it's Vasconcela's sensitivity to her materials, however, that lifts this exhibition out of the ordinary. Piano Dentelle (2008) is a large grand piano that has been wrapped in complicated snowflakes of crochet, silencing the instrument's ability to make music, and transforming it into a purely decorative item. There's no denying how exquisitely beautiful, however, the crochet work is here, but it's certainly beauty that has come at a heavy price.
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