Perky and Pinky – a series of works by artist duo Robbins and Roberts – was the inaugural project at the new Hardwick Gallery. Through their absurd circus of the everyday, Robbins and Roberts aimed to ‘explore feminist themes and gender-specific symbols in a playfully anarchic manner’.
Arguably the centrepiece of the works exhibited was a life-sized plaster cast of a woman, poised on a plinth and on all fours as if ready to jump through a series of bunny ear hoops. She was styled as a poodle with floppy ears, pom-poms and pink pants.
‘Perky and Pinky’ exhibition stills, 2014
Images of Allen Jones’ controversial fetishist sculptures of ‘women as furniture’ immediately sprung to mind. These works caused a storm of feminist protest when they were first shown in the 1970s because of their objectification of women and their emphasis on the female body as perceived in the male imagination.
Allen Jones, Table, 1969
During the 1960s and 70s, Feminist artists reacted to masculine domination of Western art by reclaiming the female body and depicting it through a variety of lenses, including performance art. For Feminist artists at that time, performance was a way of claiming control over their own bodies and questioning issues of gender. Feminist theorists have also described femininity itself as a performance – an enactment of gender, which women are obliged to perform in order to conform to cultural and social expectations. For example, being stereotypically ‘feminine’ would imply being both decorative and passive.
So where exactly did Perky and Pinkys’ provocative poodle woman sit within this debate? Lucy Gresley met with artist Lorraine Robbins to find out more.
LG: You talked about making your Poodle as an act of reclamation because someone had insulted you using the term ‘dog’. Can you describe how you came to make this work in more detail?
LR: The poodle was a piece I’d made before but looking slightly different. It was for a show that I curated in response to Lynn Chadwick’s work. We all selected a particular piece – the piece I chose was called Beast VII. That’s how it came about that the sculpture was on all fours. I thought it was very masculine and angular; it was post-war work .. from the 1950s.
I almost wanted to go into the gallery and be myself perched on a plinth .. making people feel uncomfortable by my fleshiness, as a response to this very masculine work. I was thinking about the word ‘dog’ .. and the word ‘beast’ as well .. because I’ve heard young people use the word beast in the same negative way as I know the word dog. So it’s playing into that idea of reclaiming something that’s negative.
Lynn Chadwick, Beast VII, 1956
Lorraine Robbins, Beast 43, 2011
I’d also taken students on a trip to the Louvre in Paris. There was a Tony Cragg exhibition at the time and that visual impact stuck with me .. all the white classical sculptures against his big, rusty, abstract works.
LG: Does your poodle intentionally reference other art works – such as Allen Jones’ sculptures of women as furniture?
LR: No. But it’s funny that Allen Jones had that big exhibition recently – I was quite surprised. I read somewhere that he said that he wasn’t critiquing the objectification of women but he argued that he wasn’t objectifying women either. He said that he was trying to make stuff that would sell basically. But it’s weird because it could be said that it’s really similar to my piece but I find his work really shocking – I’m really shocked by it.
It’s almost like a fantasy isn’t it – because it’s made by a man? And that you could be in a situation where you’re having your drinks on that table. So it is really about intent. I think he did intend to see them as furniture. I am also commenting on women being on all fours, on that position, but not on his work.
LG: Was it important to use your own body to make this work?
LR: At around that time I’d been doing a lot of drawing of women from porn magazines. Initially, I thought that I was placing the women in a safe place by changing the context within the drawing; but then I started to think that I might just be perpetuating the same thing ..
I was always aware of that line – which is quite difficult to tread. That’s when I decided that I was going to use myself instead – so that if I was objectifying anyone, I was objectifying myself. It’s a simple solution to make it yourself so that you can accept that responsibility. And also my first instinct had not been to make a sculpture but to actually have me in the gallery.
LG: The Perky and Pinky exhibition aimed to explore feminist themes. In what way do you see your Poodle as a feminist work?
LR: Well, the idea of a clipped poodle – they’re quite ridiculous really aren’t they, with their pom-poms and things? And poodles would perform in circuses and they might be dyed pink as well. Its not for their sake – its for someone else’s .. so they’re kind of overdressed in a way – almost like dogs in drag. So I was thinking about that .. about things you might feel like you have to do as a woman. And I was reflecting on negative experiences I had had .. and that thing of being on all fours which is a really vulnerable position to be in.
The poodle piece is a parody or mimesis: it points out what’s happening by showing it. But that’s a really difficult thing to do – it’s dangerous isn’t it? Because that might be totally lost altogether and people might take it literally. For me, the idea of mimesis is that you take it a step further or exaggerate it, so that it is pointed out how ridiculous a situation it is. Obviously, she’s on all fours, which would suggest that idea about a dog but its also being emphasized by the poodle costume. Also the hoops that go with it make it impossible. You can’t jump through them .. there are just too many. And I’ve made work before using bunny ears (that people wear on hen nights) because I have a cognitive dissonance about them .. I think two things at once. As a woman, you don’t want to be judged purely on your looks but you do want to be appealing. Because you feel that’s how the world works.
I was also aware that if you make something that’s grotesque or definitely saying one thing, a lot of people just won’t engage with it at all. Like when young girls don’t identify with Feminism. So I wanted to draw people in – to make it appealing so that they could have a conversation about it. Otherwise, you’re just talking to the people who feel the same as you anyway. It is a dangerous area but it’s more interesting to walk that line – because once people know what something is, they can dismiss it. Because once somebody thinks ‘I know what that is’, they can put it in that box and just leave it there. There’s more of a conversation when things are around that fine line.
LG: In your description of the Perky and Pinky exhibition, you used the term ‘abject performing poodles’. Can you describe what you mean by this?
LR: I was thinking of the performing animals .. about them being abject – being behind bars, accentuated by the ridiculousness of being dressed up .. like their miserable, pathetic situation.
But also, by putting the woman in that provocative position, I am raising questions about femininity .. For example, in the college where I used to work, we had a Venus de Milo in one of the rooms. And you would just walk past it constantly, not questioning ‘why is there an image of a naked woman in here?’ It seems ok because it’s art and it’s a very submissive pose – its not aggressive. Its kind of very easy to look at. Because its ‘tasteful’, it’s sort of acceptable and not questioned.
I made another piece – a drawing of myself – and I was crouching with a chimpanzee mask on. The people that worked at the museum where it was being shown refused to invigilate the show because my piece was in there and because they said it was rude. And I was so shocked because I thought it wasn’t. It was questioning the nude. Of course, the pose wasn’t what we’re used to in art – you know me reclining on a couch or standing or even sitting with the artist painted in the picture as well. But you can’t be in poses that have anything to do with a pornographic pose – that’s not acceptable. So I’m trying to pick these things apart.
At the same time I’ve also heard that someone came into the gallery in Stroud, saw my work and said ‘Oh my god – that’s really shocking’ and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that piece… which in a way is how I wanted people to respond. And the woman running the gallery had said ‘Oh no – it isn’t meant to be like that! It’s just meant to be a bit of fun!’ And I thought oh no! I intend my work to be quite serious, although people sometimes take it in a light hearted, one-dimensional way.
Lucy Gresley, artist/researcher
Lorraine Robbins is an artist and curator based in Gloucestershire. She makes up one half of the duo Robbins and Roberts (with artist Soozy Roberts).