JOHN DOUBLEDAY "LANDSCAPES AND ECHOES"
The Beecroft Gallery, Southend on Sea, 10th February - 7th April 2018
The idea of the female body as resembling the landscape is a familiar one - curves mirroring hills, sand dunes. But I wonder if this notion has become problematic? The complexity of female physicality in public space fluctuates in and out of popular dialogue.
Everything is down to context, obviously.
John Doubleday is a sculptor, best known for commissions placed at London’s Leicester Square and Baker Street - bronze works of Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chaplin. “Landscapes and Echoes”, features works which address his personal vision, although there is a succinct display of sculpted commissions in the window - a small bust of Queen Elizabeth II, for example. But the exhibition focuses primarily on his own conceptions, explored separately to the institutional commissions for which he is known.
Interesting, then, that it is his profession as sculptor which is referenced with this statement at the opening of the show - which seems to be an odd angle to take considering the content of his paintings...
"It is the business of the artist to work with the material that is available and to bend it to the desired purpose of creative endeavour."
Ultimately, this is an empty phrase - it doesn't really say anything. But I can't help but apply it to his subject matter, his "materials", his models...
Included in the exhibition is a loop of two films - one is an interview between Doubleday and Kevin Marsh, director of the Beecroft, taking place in the artist’s studio. Doubleday gives commentary on the body of work, describing the paintings as being in reference to forms suggested, "not quite there". But it’s pretty easy to distinguish between the female forms and the landscapes. Perhaps, then, his intention is to highlight the similarities in form between the natural landscape and the female nude. Ah yes, that cliche. Putting the “Mother” into “Mother Nature”.
Just to offset what could potentially be read into this - I’m not denying the spiritual or otherwise perceived links between womanhood and nature. And environmentalism is an intersectional feminist issue.
But where does Doubleday’s proposal stem from? Is the clue in the execution?
During the interview, Doubleday described a couple of relief bronzes, both of which involve landscape “...merged down into the figure, and the figure sort of merges into the landscape. So what you are seeing is a sort of combination of sensations, of figure, which is a - if not really specific figure - but just the idea of persona and context.”
So far so vague. But in describing the following bronze, he has this to say:
“With this, the rising moon comes over the landscape, and the figure is really the landscape itself; almost as though the Mother Earth, which is a rather hackneyed idea. But there’s that sense of almost passivity, of acceptance, and context. Sexual politics is quite interesting, I think; the relationship between male and female, and the tension that exists between the two. So for me, representation of the female figure is always a representation of the incomprehensible, something you can never really quite understand.”
It’s difficult to separate this from the idea of the woman as Other - problematic, let alone old school. In addition, surely these kind of thoughts on the female body as unexplainable, incomprehensible, occultishly in sync with nature; stems from centuries old ignorance.
So this makes me think that Doubleday, painting and sculpting nudes to blend with backdrops of hills and water sources - does so purely from a misogynist standpoint. Here's one painting which seems to illustrate this quite well.
Maybe this is Male Gaze 101. But the models are prone, poised. Ornamental, not organic.
This interview loops alongside a promotional film, regarding an ice sculpture Doubleday completed atop a Swiss summit. In the context of “Landscapes and Echoes”, I can’t help but make the macho connection - the man as artist, master; carving nature to his will.
At this point it may not surprise that this all hangs in great contrast to the show on the basement floor of the gallery, "The Agency of Visible Women" by the Essex Feminist Collective. Particularly a piece by Ruth Jones, in which a soft pink road map fades gradually across a row of white cloth, hung like flags of surrender. Intended as an address on a woman’s capacity to exist with physicality and autonomy in tact, “Taking space: interferences and redactions” (2018), is tucked apologetically in the corner of the space, to the side of the stairs
If there is a cohesive relationship between the female body and landscape, then surely it can’t still be rooted in some idealised symmetry of a nude laid down to match mountains, or in Doubleday’s clumsy overlay of ornamental bodies onto pleasing landscapes. Surely the narrative has shifted, instead borne from the violent loss of agency in spaces (public or otherwise); the perpetuated encouragement to take up less space, present oneself as inoffensive, to disappear.
In which case this adds an interesting angle to Doubleday’s paintings. He paints them in, makes them disappear - but only just. These bodies still pertain to a Western ideal. The breasts and genitals are still in tact. The forms are still pleasing in as much as the female body can possibly serve a misogynist.
Doubleday here, of course, grants himself identity and context (his favourite word).
Why am I even writing this? There is no conclusion here. It is a shame that programme space is still lent to male enjoyment of the female form. I am not even surprised that the female nude in itself is still regarded, patronisingly, as an art within itself - separate to body positivity, female self-identity, self-celebration. Separate to anything resembling autonomy. Owned entirely within objectification.