Dangerous Curves | Marlborough

The title of this show says it all. It looks back to a feminist flashpoint from the 1970s, and how it reverberated down the decades. Specifically, the misogynistic bondage-themed work of artists like Helmut Newton and Allen Jones, featuring muscly naked women in sky-high heels and contorted poses - and the backlash this work caused.

Newton and Jones both feature in the current Marlborough show. As does a pair of subversively referential works from the British performance artist Jemima Stehli, which contextualise and undercut all that pervy masculine energy. Chair, from 1997-98 and pictured below, is Stehli’s version of an infamous Jones sculpture.

Jemima Stehli ‘Chair (1997-98)

First exhibited in 1970, to much fanfare and fury, Jones’ chair (there was also a hatstand and table to complete the set), was a fibreglass sculpture of a woman, flat on her back, arse up, heels to the sky, with a padded seat planted on top. I can still feel the danger of these curves, 50 years on.

Halfway between then and now, Stehli took a photograph of herself in a similar pose, a similar seat strapped to her bum, similar skyscraper heels. Just this time, her body is softer and curvier than Jones’ hardbody. Her hands are slumped, casually. Her expression, staring at her feet, is harder to read - but I think she looks like she’s trying not to laugh.

The expression’s the same in a contact sheet on show at Marlborough, 120 Polaroid’s for after Helmut Newton’s here they come. The endless repetition of the poses in Newton’s Here they Come series - which, just like Jones, featured tough-looking women, stripped vulnerably bare - undercuts the panting seriousness of the original, as well as removing the capitals from the name. Dangerous curves become less dangerous, when laughed at.

Jones and Newton’s disturbing charge might be powerful enough to reach us from 50 years ago. But Stehli’s deliciously subtle mockery, which came later, reached me too.

Dangerous Curves is at Marlborough (London). 09 February - 22 March 2024