It seems that any debate about the artistic merits of Allen Jones’s works are almost entirely overwhelmed by the public reaction to his infamous female nudes. Drawing on the imagery of bondage and rubber fetishism his highly sexualised sculptures were a sensation when first revealed to a shocked sixties public, whilst fifty years or so on from their creation, they still stir strong views from people who tend towards the love/hate ends of the spectrum.
This is a pity because his work represents an important contribution to british pop art of the era. Jones’s paintings in particular have been the unfortunate casualty of this on-going controversy. These works are bright, exuberant and original , fully deserving inclusion amongst the very best artists of the pop generation. He slips in easily alongside his superstar contemporaries Kitaj and Hockney, who he effortlessly matches in colour, exuberance and originality. Even the likes of Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and Richard Hamilton seem conservative in comparison.
In this long overdue exhibition – Jones’s first major show since 1995 – we find not only the renowned ‘furniture’ works, but also large steel sculptures, canvases and the rarely-seen storyboards Jones uses to plan many of his compositions. Ranging freely across a variety of media, this is a life’s work of incredible depth and ambition; work that is sometimes provocative, always striking, and charged with the energy and vitality of human life.
His large canvases are largely gathered together in room three of the exhibition where works from the sixties through to the present day are shown together in a non-chronological hang. Assimilating his broad knowledge and understanding of the traditions of European art, he confidently applies them to his work where one immediately detects an absorption of the works of the Abstract Expressionists and the Surrealists as well as the palette of the Fauvists – as an obvious homage to Matisse, he even entitles one painting of a female torso: Luxe, Calme et Volupté.
From the canvases we move on to two large spaces filled with his sculptural works. To illustrate the natural connection of Hamiltons 3D works to his paintings, the first one of these was largely occupied by highly original sculptures where two dimensional sheets of wood and steel have been cut, twisted and folded. With this seemingly simple process, Jones has created complex, dynamic and stylish objects that illustrate his consummate talents.
The final large gallery consists of his most controversial female sculptures. Standing terracotta-warrior style paraded across the room they are rather unnerving and one’s unease at viewing them works is immediate. Is he brilliantly revealing the male voyeuristic gaze and exposing how men really look at or think about women. Or does he simply just enjoy creating fetishistic sculptures of women?
Although his public statements have been equivocal, one has to suspect the former. This is what he said about his ‘furniture’ works: “presenting the figures as objects that would demand an immediate, non-art response: ie, chair – sitting; table – using. I attempted to dislocate the normal expectations when the viewer wishes to confront a work of art.”
Allen Jones is at the Royal Academy until the 25 January 2015. For more information visit www.royalacademy.org.uk