With work by Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneemann, Bruce LaBruce and more on show, a new exhibition at Sadie Coles in London explores the underground of sex
In Carolee Schneemann’s 1995 work Vulva’s Morphia, the late American artist mounts a humorous takedown of sexism, patriarchy and art-world inequality. With 36 colourful panels depicting women’s vulvas in close up via photographs, diagrams and paintings, the work tells the ironic story of a vulva learning about its place in the world. “Vulva decodes feminist constructivist semiotics and realises she has no feelings at all,” reads a line of text on the work. “Even her erotic sensations are constructed by patriarchal projections, impositions, and conditioning.” With works like Vulva’s Morphia and Fuses (1965) – a piece of video art documenting the artist having sex with her then-boyfriend James Tenney – Schneemann proffered her belief that women’s sexuality was a valid artistic topic. Today, some viewers may still dismiss the work as “pornographic” – a classic art-world slight – but that would be to miss the point. Instead, here was a woman in charge of her own image, carving out a unique take on female sexuality. In 1970, Laura Mulvey coined a term that is now widely used to describe such things in film, art and porn: the female gaze.
Vulva’s Morphia is currently on show in Hardcore, a provocative new group exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ in London’s Soho. With work by over 18 artists including Schneemann, Cindy Sherman, Bruce LaBruce, Joan Semmel and King Cobra (documented as Doreen Lynette Garner) – none of them on Coles’ gallery roster – the show addresses thorny topics like sexuality, intimacy and power dynamics (most of them left-field) head on. “The concept of Hardcore is not to scandalise or titillate, but rather to represent without judgement,” say curators Sadie Coles and John O’Doherty of their cross-generational show. “Art should always provide a safe space to explore complex topics.”
On entry into the gallery, a black whip suspended from the ceiling sets the unsettling tone of the exhibition. Made from black rope and leather belts, Monica Bonvicini’s BDSM whip swings back and forth courtesy of a whirring mechanical contraption on the ceiling, providing an ominous soundtrack that cuts through the whole show. Most of the works here explore the darker, more transgressive aspects of sex, like sadomasochism, BDSM, fetish and kink. Three works from Sherman’s iconic series Sex Pictures – grotesque, nightmarish images of skewed plastic dolls engaged in pornographic tableaux – are on show, along with Monica Majoli’s Rubberman Head, a haunting, shadowy watercolour based on images from the mid-90s LA fetish magazine Rubber Rebel, and two photos by LaBruce of nude gay and lesbian couples donning machine guns and helmets, blood splattered up the walls behind them.
“These artists examine more nuanced aspects of psychology and sexuality and rebuff notions of taboo to test the parameters of the human experience,” continue Coles and O’Doherty. “They draw to attention the politics of control, social hierarchies, subjugation and trauma.” Doreen Lynette Garner’s fleshy sculptures, which allude to slavery and racial violence in the US, are more difficult to categorise; In the Feast of the Hogs is beautiful yet repellent, with the insides of a strung-up silicone pig’s carcass glinting with crystals, beads and pearls, and a severed hand holding a knife poking out from beneath some boarding.
The most hardcore – so to speak – work in the show is Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose’s Supermasochist. Most famous for his turn in Nine Inch Nails’ shocking, universally banned 1992 music video Happiness in Slavery – shot in black and white due to its gory depiction of violence – Flanagan devoted his life to a 24/7 sadomasochistic relationship with Rose. He suffered from cystic fibrosis, dying at age 43, and the image in Hardcore merges sexuality and sickness, with the artist donning a hospital gown, surgical blue gloves, an oxygen mask, and some agonising steel S&M apparatus.
But the show is not all darkness. Joan Semmel’s For Foot Fetishists, a tender oil painting, frames the artist’s naked body laid in bed from the waist down (a women’s alternative to Courbet’s invasive L’Origine du monde), while Miriam Cahn’s paintings bask unabashed in erotic territory.
On the ground floor of the gallery, Isabella Burley of Climax Books has curated a special selection of titles and ephemera in response to the show, all of which are for sale – a creative bibliography of sorts. Founded in 2020 with a focus on rare, countercultural ephemera, books and magazines on art and photography – Burley was formerly editor-in-chief of Dazed, and is currently chief marketing officer at Acne Studios – Climax Books has been selling titles by artists featured in Hardcore for years. “It really was the perfect invitation to collaborate, and a dream come true,” says Burley on the install day. “It’s always been one of my favourite galleries.“
Things for sale by the artists in Hardcore include a rare book made by Schneemann with her menstrual blood inside – “it’s such an amazing art object,” says Burley – a VHS tape of Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, books on Stanislava Kovalcikova and Darja Bajagić, and various titles on Sherman. Elsewhere, Burley expanded on the themes of the exhibition, picking niche literature, periodicals, magazines and books tapping into sexuality, subculture, feminism, autobiography and queerness. “Having the books and ephemera down here adds another layer to the artworks upstairs,” Burley says. “Sadie and John have interpreted the theme in such a nuanced way, and having this quite eclectic range of books from younger emerging artists and writers with some really classic, iconic pieces of ephemera like Catherine Opie’s Dyke Deck felt like an interesting dialogue with the show.”
Titles by Kathy Acker, Richard Kern and Nan Goldin are on display, while Burley says she “couldn’t be at Sadie Coles and not include a Sarah Lucas book”. Given the natural crossover between Climax Books and Hardcore, what does Burley make of the show upstairs? ”I have so much respect for Sadie and for her programme, and this show feels so monumental,” she says. ”It’s assertive in a way that a lot of shows in London haven’t been recently.” One could say the same of Climax, with its focus on autonomous, spunky women who do things their own way – people like Schneemann and Sherman, who paved the way for women artists grappling with self-image, sexuality and power.
Hardcore at Sadie Coles HQ in London is on show until 5 August 2023.