Anthea Hamilton at Thomas Dane Gallery, London

through 18 May

By J.J. Charlesworth

The Prude, 2019 (installation view). Photo: Andy Keate. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London & Naples

In black-and-white photographs, a naked young man lolls about a modernist domestic interior. He’s almost part of the furniture, standing calmly beyond a dining table, or with a leg propped at right angles on the rail of a balcony, or slumped on a sofa, or decorating himself with a set of shiny metallic discs (RPD9, 8, 7 and 2, all 2019). He’s neither macho nor effeminate, just passive: inertia’s his thing.

Inertia is somehow also the key to Anthea Hamilton’s mischievous, witty complication of gender with sculpture’s potency or restraint, in a show that spans Thomas Dane’s two London galleries. In the first (where the photographs hang) are totemlike sculptures on plinths. Carved in fine wood or marble, these are cartoon profiles of a block-heeled chunky shoe or boot, below a wavy-outlined leg (Walnut Wavy Wizened Boot and Wavy Socks and Sandals Boot, both 2019). It might be a woman’s platform-soled boot from the 1970s – it’s certainly no Allen Jones-style fetish stiletto heel. And as the wooden one riffs on Constantin Brancusi’s wavy columns, it’s about as erect as things get around here; everything else tends towards the soft and the supine.

Hamilton’s comedy of sculptural dysfunction isn’t straightforward. In both galleries are butterfly wing-shaped soft sculptures made of stuffed textile are printed with wing designs (Folded Wing Moth, 2019, and Peacock, 2018). Transposed Lime Butterfly (2019) fragments the image of a whole insect into a kind of kaleidoscopic mosaic. In the larger gallery, another giant butterfly slumps up against the hard angles of a slanted, brushed-steel partition, whose silvery tartan tessellation is repeated around the walls of the gallery as a vinyl, overlaid with bright orange African daisies. 

At each turn, then, every claim to the straightforwardly literal presence of solid sculpture is corrupted and messed with, by the infectious presence of imagery printed on soft materials, making a mockery of the sober uprights, verticals and geometrics. Slumping, sagging and sitting win out over solemn postminimalist stiffness; three ceramic-tiled, Tetris-block-like sculptures imply a function as bench, chair and, lastly, sedan chair – that absurd baroque vehicle in which lazy aristos would be raised on two poles and carried about by hapless flunkies. Even these rigid forms become theatrical pastiches of their dour ancestors.

That this burlesque has some bearing on gender stereotypes is reaffirmed by the show’s giant overseer – a wall-vinyl reproduction of one of cartoonist Robert Crumb’s fantasy-Amazonian women. Fur-covered and grinning as she strides forward in a short white dress, chunky sandal heels and white socks, she’s anything but passive, or asexual, and might be the wearer of the sculptural boots seen earlier.

But Prude’s effect isn’t really a teach-in about imploding gender binaries. Instead Hamilton manages a more sceptical quizzing of the over-earnestness of any single aesthetic assertion, of concepts bereft of experience, or, conversely, of the risk of valuing feeling more than thinking – hence the tangle of cliché, digital fakery, domestication and failure at play. If Hamilton is playing the prude, it’s a masquerade against the priggishness of ‘serious’ art.

Anthea Hamilton: The Prude at Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 7 March – 18 May

From the April 2019 issue of ArtReview