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Too much flesh?

I’ve just seen the Wicked Women exhibition at the Justice and Police Museum at Circular Quay.

This exhibition is based on the pulp fiction magazine covers of the 50and 60s. You know the kind – they feature trashy, brazen, sexually alluring women poised with gun or knife about to commit some dastardly crime. The ones where ‘bad girls’ had the upper hand over bad boys. They’re fun; colourful and graphic and the image goes hand-in-hand with slogans such as ‘Savage Eve‘, White bikini, ‘Lady Killer‘.

Artist Rosemary Valadon has reinterpreted these trashy covers by repainting them with contemporary women in the place of the brazen floozies.

But I just don’t get it. I don’t really understand the point. At all.

Valadon, R. 'She-tried-to-be-good' (Margaret Cuneen and Mark Tedeschi), 2012

Valadon, R. 'She-tried-to-be-good' (Margaret Cuneen and Mark Tedeschi), 2012

The show lacks something. Perhaps it’s wanting a clear curatorial agenda, perhaps it’s the absence of instantly recognisable high-profile women who fit the bill. Or maybe I’m just put off by the cleavages (impressive in some, unbelievable in others).

The lack of clarity in message is compounded by the choice of media. The size and scale of these oil paintings makes them seem more like ‘serious art’ than humorous satire. The absence of a dynamic slogan or title on the pieces themselves seems to contribute to the failure of the show to make effective feminist comment. Which appears to be the aim according to the discussion around the show. Andrew Taylor’s article Pulp Depiction in the Sydney Morning Herald says ‘Wicked Women is not Valadon’s first attempt at subverting stereotypes by portraying famous women. She drew on ancient Greek and Roman mythology to paint Germaine Greer as Artemis and Blanche d’Alpuget as Athena, to name a few, for her Goddess Series, before turning her attention to fairytales.’

Personally I just find it confusing – rather than ‘subverting stereotypes’ it seems to confirm preoccupation with our bodies, busts and bareness. It might have all been done in fun but I find myself searching for the point, wondering why these clever, intelligent, powerful women, are stripped near naked to become the ‘viewed’. Perhaps it would have been more sassy to replace the women with male counterparts – and render them in highly improbably positions, paint them with cheeks rosy, lips full and buttocks firm and sumptuous sexualising them to the point of ridiculousness. That might have been funny!

Valadon is a highly skilled painter – previous recipient of both the Blake Prize and the Portia Geach Memorial Prize for women. She has a fine sense of colour, creating rich and powerful colour plays on each canvas. This body of work (no pun intended!) also demonstrates her superior ability to render the figure. In pretty much any position actually; in post-coital euphoria, poised to strike, stab or wound, or displaying a precipice of cleavage which take ones breath away, Valadon can foreshorten and compose the figure to create drama and tell stories.

My favourite piece in the show is one without any slippage, cleavage or flesh and it’s extremely successful for the lack of it. It’s of Deputy Senior Crown Prosector, Margaret Cuneen and it pictures fellow prosecutor Mark Tedeshi QC in a drive-by leer. He’s sort of caricatured and Cuneen is all butter-wont-melt-kind of girl. It has a meaning outside the painting – making comment on the professional relationship of the two – both prosecutors, probably both highly competitive, both dealing with bad guys, but here positioned in a potentially compromising situation – as audience we are left wondering what good girl Cuneen will do? It’s the piece in the show that manages to carry the theme well enough for us to get a glimpse of perhaps what Valadon intended.

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