Polly Penrose, Self Obscured @Benrubi

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the smaller project space gallery. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2015. Physical sizes are either 24×20 inches or reverse (in editions of 10) or 50×40 inches (in editions of 5). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The British photographer Polly Penrose isn’t by any measure the first contemporary female photographer to use her own naked body as a subject/object for studies of form and shape. So when we consider her recent work, it isn’t so much that we come from the vantage point that she is doing something that no one else has ever done before. Instead, as we place her pictures in the context of other related images, we can better see how she has brought her own brand of originality to the genre.

Many of the female nudes being made of late have used props of various kinds to partially hide or obscure the body. In some cases, this has the intentional effect of frustrating the male gaze and de-sexualizing the visual exchange; in others, the chosen objects weigh down, tie up, anonymize, or hem in the artist (or model, in a few cases), indirectly commenting on the complex realities of women’s roles, stereotypes, and social options. In still other pictures, the naked body becomes just one part of a layered abstraction, where human curves interact with harder geometries and more machined edges. The recent works of Whitney Hubbs, Melanie Bonajo, Patricia Voulgaris, Jenna Westra, and others have explored some of the contours of these compositional options, all using the naked female body as the central pivot point of the artistic process.

Penrose’s approach is both less conceptual and more dynamic. While her compositions are controlled and in a sense ordered, they have a fluidity of movement and pose that recalls dance. Using different props like partners, she is effectively performing in space, her interactions with the objects frozen for an instant. Seen as still photographs, her positions become sculptural, her body and the relevant prop seeming to actively negotiate a common presentation to the viewer.

The most elegant of Penrose’s photographs here capture her tangling with volumes of paper. Oyster finds Penrose drowning in a mass of crumpled paper, the resulting form not unlike the Winged Victory of Samothrace. In Dandelion, her legs and hips stand ready to move like a sprinter in the starting blocks, her body encased by a cave of yellow paper. Blue Ribbon is more elemental, her legs paired with a rapid gestural wave of blue, while Royal Blue feels more like an elongated sea creature emerging from its shell, the dark blue paper resembling a crinkled origami home.

More playful are her interactions with pool toys and yoga mats, the results laced with strains of quiet comedy and deliberate awkwardness. In Orange Lilo, Penrose seems to struggle with a rubber pool float, grasping and hanging on for dear life even though she is on dry land. In Blue Mats, her hands emerge from two yoga mats held in front her body, the composition turning her into a headless creature made from overlapped rectangles. And in Rolled Up Mats, her body responds to a lumpy pile of mats, the straight line of her spine deformed into a gentle curve. Even more puzzling is Blue Hose, where Penrose hides herself underneath the coils of a garden hose. In each of these setups, Penrose extends her formal investigation of the body, but she does so with a splash of visual humor that keeps the works from taking themselves too seriously.

There is a freshness and subtle athleticism that Penrose brings to these nudes that gives them energy. Her pictures trade in tired seductiveness and give back healthy physicality, and that smart exchange leads to photographs that can be free and experimental without the usual baggage.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $3200 or $6500, based on size. Penrose’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Polly Penrose, Benrubi Gallery

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