Jonathan Payne, a Los Angeles based sculpter, has unveiled a series of new art pieces under his Fleshlettes portfolio(Contains Graphic Images). Each sculpture shows ‘remixed’ human body parts, from tongues sprouting teeth to eyeballs emerging from sunken flesh.
The pieces are created from polymer clay, acrylic, and super sculpy, but with the most significant material being the use of human hair. The intense realism of the pieces contribute to that which makes the pieces so arresting; namely the combination of visceral disgust at the grotesque portrayal of the flesh and the unreality of the combination of flesh in perculiar ways.
This use of ‘body horror’ in art is not new, as both fine art and history of art applicants will know; the 15th and 16th century art of Bosch and Grunewald are classic examples of the mixing of bodies and exaggeration of the boundaries of the body not only of humans but of animals. The body horror of these two artists demonstrate a centuries long obsession with the grotesque and underbelly of society.
History students can trace the etymology of the grotesque to Nero’s reign in Rome, whereby his Golden House was uncovered and the subterranean galleries described as grotesque from the word ‘grotto’ meaning cave, because the underground corridors seemed like caves. Grotesque as underground therefore has a larger meaning outside of Nero’s palace.
English students may be familiar with literary critic Bakhtin put forward the grotesque body as a literary trope in his study of Rabelais’s work. Bakhtin saw the use of the grotesque body as signposting degradation; the material level of primary needs in literature, such as eating, drinking, defecating, and sex, signalled to Bakhtin a celebration of the life cycle. The exaggerated body, fully living and acting on base needs, therefore was ambivalent between the positivity of life and birth and renewal and the chaos of death and decay and waste.
Bakthin’s assessment therefore explains in some way our simultaneous attraction and repulsion to exhibits such as Jonathan Payne’s; pieces where we are drawn to their realism and repulsed by that very same thing.