Reconfiguring the figure in contemporary art

Reconfiguring the figure in contemporary art

At Timothy Taylor, New York, a new exhibition, ‘Reconfigured’ – featuring work by Polly Brown – invites us to re-examine the body as a subject

In ‘Reconfigured’, curated by Rose Easton, the work of ten UK-based artists spanning painting, sculpture, photography, print, film, and animation, challenges our preconceptions of how the body can be depicted in contemporary art. 

Photographer Polly Brown’s work often reveals elements of a body – frequently her own – in conceptual, often humorous compositions. As she explains further, ‘the use of the figure in my pictures has mainly been one of functionality. A hand or foot is there to activate the scene; a flailing limb purposefully left in the shot points towards the kinetic. The body is often simply another prop, a tool to further the set up of the picture.’

Polly Brown, Kerosene, 2021, part of the exhibition reconfigured
Sensitive Trigger, 2021. Silver gelatin print, glass, triangular wooden frame, part of the exhibition reconfigured
Top: Polly Brown, Kerosene, 2021. Silver gelatin print, soot, glass, wooden frame. Above: Sensitive Trigger, 2021. Silver gelatin print, glass, triangular wooden frame. Photography: Theo Christelis. Courtesy the artist and Timothy Taylor, London / New York

Brown produced a new body of work for ’Reconfigured’, loosely responding to the 19th-century French author Felix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines. Here, we see sculptural still lifes blur our perceptions of the figure and extract just a whisper of narrative to draw us in. The photographer speaks about the new series in the context of her wider practice: ‘The process of making this new series has evolved and formalised my works’ relationship to the body. I saw these new works more as obscured portraits.’

In ‘Reconfigured’, The body becomes not just a prop, but also a blank canvas. ‘Using sculptural elements (soot, clay, metal and wood) combined with prints and domestic props, I found I could use the figure to convey whole narratives,’ she says. ‘I liked how this reductive style mirrored the writings of Fénéon. Characters and their fates could be symbolised in small gestures or poses. The body was at once a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker.’ 

Deep dive, 2021, Silver gelatin print, glass, pewter puddle (melted jugs, plates, buttons, wine cup, candlesticks and tea pot), part of the exhibition reconfigured
Deep dive, 2021, Silver gelatin print, glass, pewter puddle (melted jugs, plates, buttons, wine cup, candlesticks and tea pot). Photography: Theo Christelis. Courtesy the artist and Timothy Taylor, London / New York

As Easton says of Brown’s work, ‘when thinking about different ways to consider the body and its many guises, I have always enjoyed Polly’s treatment of the figure in her ongoing practice — abstracted, playful, awkward, with a gentle hint of irony.’ 

‘Reconfigured’ – which also features contemporary art by Isabella Benshimol Toro, Onyeka Igwe, Gabriella Boyd, Matt Copson, Patrick H. Jones, Olu Ogunnaike, George Rouy,  Mike Silva and Jala Wahid – offers an distinctive and unexpected exploration of the figure, as Easton concludes, ‘especially in this contemporary moment’. §

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