The relationship between performativity and the gaze has always been central to Jemima Stehli’s artistic practice. Her photographic works of the late 1990s and early 2000s often reference well-known imagery by established male artists which she re-stages with her own body, testing the status of the female subject within the art historical tradition.
Chair was created in reference to Allen Jones’s controversial Hatstand, Table and Chair. Made in 1969 at the height of the first-wave feminist movement, Jones’s waxwork figures, scantly clad in leather and shown in submissive poses which transformed women into furniture, prompted accusations of sexism and misogyny. When re-staging the works almost 30 years later, Stehli was criticized for allegedly participating in her own objectification. From today’s perspective, these photographs must be understood as a complex statement between homage and critique, challenging notions of gender, power, and complicity in the representation of the female nude, and thus reclaiming agency over both the depiction of the female body, and Stehli’s position as a woman artist.
In 1999 Stehli produced a series of works referencing the fashion photography of Helmut Newton, which had been the subject of a similar debate. While his models appeared as powerful icons — tall, strong, captured in confident poses – Newton depicted his mostly naked subjects in an idealised and highly eroticised manner, often invoking stories of female subjugation. Again, it was the tension presented by images of female empowerment through the lens of a male artist that interested Stehli. One of Newton’s best-known works, Here they Come I and II is conceived as a pair; a group of four women is shown in identical poses, once made up in fashionable attire, once fully naked. In the tradition of Goya’s infamous Maya paintings, the direct contrast of clothed/undressed highlights their nakedness all the more. In her 120 Polaroids for After Helmut Newtons ‘Here They Come’ Stehli recreates this juxtaposition. The presence of the cable release however highlights her role as both the model and architect of the shot, taking control over the relationship between the viewer and her image as subject/object.
Flesh is part of a series of works Stehli made between 2000-01 which were inspired by the work of Francis Bacon. While Bacon’s paintings are mostly pervaded by male figures, it is here again Stehli’s own body captured in front of the camera. Despite the figure being at rest, the long exposure creates the effect of a vibrating, primordial energy, which along with the embryonic pose evokes a sense of isolation that is palpable in many of Bacon’s figures. Flesh makes explicit reference to Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981, by the inclusion of an open book at the bottom corner of the photograph. Visual elements of this work are also mirrored with the beige sheeting and the black line created by the cable release cord referencing the background colour and linear structures in Bacon’s painting. In the bottom left-corner of Flesh we see a second open book featuring Stehli’s own works. The placement of her own performing body in the center of this proxy triptych, posited between reproductions of one of the giants of 20th-century figuration and of her own photographs, poses obvious questions about Stehli’s own work and image within the art historical cannon. Although seemingly coincidental, these details have clearly been deliberately arranged to be visible in the frame, reminding us that a fundamental part of Stehli’s practice involves the staging of situations and performing of images, rather than merely depicting them. This self-exposure of her own body invites us to consider the role of narcissism and even seduction as an interesting vessel for Stehli’s critical commentary.