Roxana Halls’ paintings are often characterised by an insatiable curiosity for key cultural trends, and her latest exhibition Appetite is no exception. Questioning the repertoire of legitimate actions available to women today, her subjects highlight the resultant self censure and fear of inappropriateness. In a contemporary culture that influences and polices women’s behaviour, their response to messages of Eat/Don’t Eat are like simmering saucepans, or boiling kettles about to blow their covers. Caught in the act of mastication, they forget all social etiquette, advancing aggressively upon the edible.
Featuring such uncharacteristic, devil-may-care attitudes to appetite, the works are wry observation of the push and pull of modern society’s expectations: the subjects swing from quiet introspection to wild exhibitionism and back again. Leaving behind their unmanageable emotional excesses, they are freed from overwhelming fears, open mouthed in anticipation of a feast: a beauty queen takes the first bite from her prize bouquet; a golden haired girl floats away from a telephone conversation; arms snake out from under a tablecloth like an octopus or Indian god. Peering in with curiosity, we find that we are not the audience after all but that popcorn-stuffing theatre-goers watch us through their 3D glasses.
Inspired by J. M. Charcot’s defined phases of a hysteric episode, the arresting centrepiece Twelve Hysterical Women is a tongue-in-cheek take on the The Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière- from the dramatic lighting and oval framing, to models chosen for the aesthetic rather than the symptomatic. Although witch hunts are in the past and ‘hysteria’ is no longer an acceptable diagnosis, the idea of female repression and its consequences is still relevant. ‘Hysteria’ has simply fragmented into a variety of modern ailments- from eating disorders to post-natal depression. The strange female body, with its dangerous sexuality and emotional tendencies is still seen as a thing to be kept under strict control- and naturally becomes rebellious.
Halls considers herself as an artist working within the feminist tradition, yet she does not force-feed us the moral of the story. Unlike Charcot’s medical specimens, the women are presented without judgement; staring out defiantly to challenge us about our own self-imposed boundaries. These women have recovered from a paralysing state of longing, caution is thrown to the wind and true natures are unleashed. You can try to suppress them, or keep them safely within their frames- but you should expect eruptions of indecorous behaviour verging on the absurd. This exhibition must be for those who have an insatiable appetite for the truth – and they will leave feeling hungrier for it than before.
Roxana Halls: Appetite
Hay Hill Gallery, 35 Baker Street, London W1U 8EN
26th August- 27th September 2014