SKIN exhibition – Ferens Art Gallery – City of Culture – Hull 2017

Tonight, I had the pleasure of attending the private preview of the City of Culture’s SKIN exhibition at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. This is an event that has been in the works for a long time, and incorporates artwork from Lucian Freud, Ron Mueck and Spencer Tunick.

The private preview took the shape of a wine reception, a short introduction with speeches from the important organisers. It was great to hear about how the exhibition started, the impact of the various contributors and the people who were vitally important.

The exhibition including classic works by Lucien Freud examining intense human relationships such as between mother and child, lovers, artist and subject. His paintings are particularly interesting due to the layers within them. For instance, Large Interior, W9, 1973, features Freud’s mother sat on a chair and a lover half-dressed on a bed behind her. The woman and mother are not engaged with each other, looking in different directions and seemingly unaware of the other’s existence. The image does not look like it had been painted as such (I doubt Lucian Freud set up his mother and girlfriend in the same room to paint in such a way). So why paint them together? To reveal the contrast in generations of women? The lover is confident, undressed; the mother is fully clothed and hunched in a chair. What’s really strange about this is the pestle and mortar that lies almost underneath the mother’s chair. What does this represent? What comes to mind has nothing to do with culinary ventures, but is perhaps a metaphorical image, the phallic image of the pestle representative of Freud, and the curved, rounded feminine shape of the mortar representing a woman. What’s more, the image can fit both the relationship between mother and child, and also the more sexualised relationship between lovers.

Turning to Ron Mueck, who’s sculptures were some of the most breathtaking I have seen. As well as classic works including Wild Man (2005), Spooning Couple (2005) and Mask II (2001-2), the exhibition also featured an exclusive and never-seen-before piece of work called Poke, designed and inspired by Hull. It is a sculpture of a naked boy holding a large stick above his head, that reaches out in front of him. At first glance, it looks like a fishing rod, no doubt paying homage to Hull’s maritime reputation. It is also about challenging boundaries and overcoming the limitation of time and place, which is what City of Culture is all about.

In the other work, what struck me firstly was that none of the sculptures were life-size. Some were much larger in scale, others were tiny, miniature human replicas. Everything else is entirely realistic. It has a magnificent uncanny effect that I thoroughly enjoyed. However, they do have very different effects. Personally, I responded more to the sculptures that were larger than life, and I wanted to have a think about why. Firstly, I think that visually they packed more of a punch. But, more than this, I found that the miniatures, although very realistic, reminded me of dolls and other such small figurines like puppets and marionettes. The larger scale images, therefore, were further from the norm. We are used to seeing a scaled-down version of the human body (however morphed they appear) but it is very unusual to see huge sculptures of the female form, or, more uncanny yet, just the human face, in Mask II. This was my favourite sculpture in the exhibition: fantastically detailed and realistic. It shows a man’s face, horizontal, seemingly lying down and sleeping. The face is squashed on one side where it lies on the pillow. The artwork is dubbed a self-portrait, which is what makes it so interesting. When we think about the ‘mask’ we put on, we probably wouldn’t think about a sleeping face. But the peice is clearly a mask, it is hollowed with a white underneath, all on display. On one level, it is like seeing inside someone’s head, but not quite… It is more similar to the difference between sleeping and waking. It is as if he has woken up, taken off his sleep mask and replaced it with his day mask, whatever that might be…

Last but not least: Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull 2016, which involved more than 3,200 people. This is a great example of actually making the city of culture about Hull people, which is what Hull 2017 should be about.

Participants volunteered their time and bodies, turning up in the early hours of a cold morning to paint themselves in various different hues of blue, and arrange themselves in different locations in Hull. The resulting images were spectacular, daring and a true testament to the people of Hull as well as it’s beautiful geography. One well-positioned shot saw a sea of bodies down a narrow street with a Boots store in the distance: a blue banner with the word “beauty” in white letters. Couldn’t have planned it better.

All in all, an inspiring evening. Make sure you get yourself down to SKIN, 22nd April-13th August, 2017.

Layla Hendow

PhD researcher at University of Hull

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