The British sculptor Marc Quinn, whose work is on view at the Mary Boone Gallery, is an artist with a résumé guaranteed to command both attention and revulsion. In 1991, he caused a sensation in London with a portrait sculpture of his own head called Self . It was one of a series of works that the artist himself characterized as “sculptures on life-support systems.” This one, you see, was made from eight frozen pints of his own blood.
If, from this queasy-making fact, you suspect that Mr. Quinn’s exhibition might have something to do with Charles Saatchi’s gang of Y.B.A.’s (Young British Artists) who were responsible for the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art a few years ago, you’re entirely correct. Mr. Quinn thus joins the company of Damien Hirst, Dinos and Jake Chapman, Chris Ofili and sundry other Sensation alumni whose work has lately titillated so many jaded sensibilities on this side of the Atlantic with an eager embrace of perverse, degraded or otherwise repulsive subjects.
Be assured, however, that there isn’t a drop of blood to be seen in Mr. Quinn’s show at Mary Boone’s, nor is there anything as off-putting as those sliced-open animals in formaldehyde that have won Mr. Hirst a devoted international following. Mr. Quinn is out for far bigger game: nothing less than immaculately carved white marble figures of nude bodies that can be seen to enjoy, as the artist himself claimed, “a direct physical link to the neo-classical perfection of Canova,” and even a significant relation to the Venus de Milo.
To this formidable attraction, Mr. Quinn brings considerable mastery of his medium and a hearty appetite for provocation. In other words, he has what it takes to meet the Saatchi standard of titillation, which requires a work of art to have some conspicuous element of perversity, kinkiness or shock. In The Complete Marbles , as this exhibition is called, Mr. Quinn concentrates on mutilation. The most distinctive feature of the Venus de Milo, after all, is its armlessness. This and other examples in the sculpture of classical antiquity have inspired Mr. Quinn to explore the aesthetics of lost or amputated limbs in a series of white marble nude portraits of specific people who, as a consequence of either birth defect or amputation, are obliged to cope with this impaired condition.
What’s especially jarring-intentionally so-is the dramatic disjunction between the flawless purity of all the white marble “flesh” on display and the inevitable feeling of dread we experience upon encountering so many otherwise perfect bodies devoid of hands, feet, arms or legs. As viewers, we’re made voyeurs of a succession of personal catastrophes-an experience that bears a distinct resemblance to involuntary encounters with pornography. The pathos of the physically handicapped is thus shamelessly exploited in the name of a moribund classical tradition.
In an extensive interview with Neville Wakefield in the as-yet-unpublished catalog for The Complete Marbles , it is suggested to Mr. Quinn that he’s “fetishizing” the tragic subject of missing limbs. He’s also asked if there’s “a sexual content to these works.” In response to both questions, the sculptor gives his interviewer lengthy and elaborate non-answers. Mr. Quinn is an accomplished casuist, as adroit in adorning his work with high-minded rhetoric as any other member of the Saatchi gang of Y.B.A.’s. We get the expected references to Duchamp and Wittgenstein, a topical allusion to 9/11-which produced, we are reminded, a greater number of mutilated bodies than even a sculptor like Mr. Quinn could hope to match-and the artist’s claim that his mutilated figures “are very definitely celebrations of wholeness, not evocative fragments like a Rodin.”
He concludes his repertory of explanations by claiming: “The marble sculptures really are about how biology isn’t destiny …. Marble is the classical material for heroes of ancient times and these people [i.e., the subjects of the portraits] are modern-day heroes because they have dealt with their bodies and inner worlds. Their free will has conquered biological destiny and so they become celebratory.” This is followed by some tosh about “Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle.”
This interview is itself an amazing performance, and so is The Complete Marbles , if you have a stomach for it. Not surprisingly, it’s also a runaway success. On the day I visited the exhibition, less than a week after the show opened, seven of the mutilated figures had already been sold at $125,000 each. The era of amputation chic has opened with a bang!
Marc Quinn: The Complete Marbles remains on view at the Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea, 541 West 24th Street, through Feb. 28.