Marc Quinn's is a world of calculated provocation. He invites us to look again at the essential characteristics of traditional, idealising portrait sculpture of the kind that was common to the Greeks, the Romans, Michelangelo, Rodin, and is still the norm today in rigid, academicising circles. This school argues that there are certain body types, certain bodily postures, and the use of certain traditional materials which have not only represented the acceptable norm for millenia, but which also, by extension, have come to define the way in which we think about issues as wide-ranging as heroism, manly beauty and appropriate behaviour. What we fail to recognise, Quinn argues through his own sculptural practice, is that this kind of sculpture piles convention upon convention and that, in short, it is an exclusion zone. Things need not be this way. What exactly does it exclude? It excludes the kinds of behaviour that the conventional choose to regard as transgressive, beyond the pale, morally outrageous, deservedly marginalised – yes, there are many different ways of putting what amounts to the same point.
In order to defy conventions of this kind, Quinn has done two things. He has demonstrated that those materials that are commonly regarded as traditional can be used in support of an aesthetic which seems to run counter to everything that their use has seemed to embody in the past. And he has brought in from the cold the kinds of bodies that sculptors of a more traditional kind would have chosen to ignore – the phocomelia-afflicted body of Alison Lapper, for example.
In his new show, Quinn introduces us to a range of people whose lives have been radically changed by plastic surgery. In the centre of the downstairs gallery space, rising above all the other works like a David at the Accademia, is a full-length marble portrait of a pregnant man called Thomas Beattie. His head droops admiringly in the direction of his swollen belly, skewing his boxers. A half-smile plays about his lips. Nearby is Allannah, a woman with engorged breasts, pulped lips and a penis, and Buck, a manly man in every respect – he even has the words "Irish Boy" tattoed across his back – except for the fact that he has female genitalia.
Transgressive behaviour then. The melding of identities. Man becomes part-woman; woman part-masculinises herself. Are we shocked or moved by any of this? Not really. Making these kinds of statements is what Quinn does. He has done it so many times before, albeit it in slightly different ways. It defines his identity as an artist. But, having been suitably brought up short, is the work worth a second look? Not really. It feels too smoothly engineered to create an effect. For all its wild transgressiveness, it feels cold, and even – paradoxical though this may sound – slightly formulaic. It feels like a calculatedly shocking wheeze, smoothly, oh so professionally, realised by an extremely talented team of well-rewarded craftsmen. In spite of the fact that these are portraits of very particular people – Quinn has, after all, named them one by one so that we shall not mistake them for anyone else – we go away having felt almost nothing about them as particular individuals. They seem to lack the quirkiness of the actual. In short, they lack the personal touch.
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