Keep your Timber Limber draws in politics of conflict and sexual taboos at ICA London

By Mark Sheerin | 25 June 2013

Exhibition review: Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper), Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, until September 8 2013

Colour drawing of a fat family followed by a fat father and child followed by a stick thin family
George Grosz, Stickmen meeting members of the bourgeois (1946)© Courtesy David Nolan Gallery, New York
No getting past it. War on terror has displaced 2.2 million refugees, killed 231,000, and has costs approaching $6 trillion. In case you were tempted to ignore these salient facts, Judith Bernstein, now 70, has scrawled them all around a stiff 15ft phallus which ejaculates a US flag.

Set wide on a partition which almost blocks your entrance to the gallery, the limber piece of timber here is the first of many in the ICA’s current show. Shock might be too strong a word for the result, but discomfort is on the cards, certainly.

Bernstein’s confrontational mural is an update of one made in protest at Vietnam. Conflicts may change, but the message remains the same. This is a "fuck by number(s)" and, to be realistic, it is a rape. We are not so much shocked by war these days, merely stunned into acceptance.

If you make it past this monstrous shafting, Margaret Harrison’s poppy drawings expand on a feminist message. One take, Dolly Parton/Allen Jones, finds the singer songwriter in a chiffon, ushering our attention towards a piece of Jones' infamous furniture like the assistant on a gameshow.

Jones’ glass-topped mannequin on all fours is another rape of sorts. It would shock you in IKEA, but here in the home of the British avant garde it confirms suspicions raised by Bernstein: women fare especially badly in this patriarchal system and/or war machine.

Pencil drawing of two muscular bikers in a gym
Tom of Finland, Untitled (1963)© 1963 Tom of Finland Foundation, Incorporated
So far, so phallocentric, but part two of the show offers an unexpected twist. In the upstairs galleries, macho aggression gives way to gay eroticism; the cock becomes an instrument of harmless pleasure. These works on paper offer their own form of challenge to the straight-eyed visitor.

Thick veins and foreskins are rendered in fetishistic detail by cartoonist and filmmaker Mike Kuchar. Masturbating subjects spurt glue-like splatter in the ballpoint drawings of Cary Kwok. And by careful shading and attention to sartorial cues, Tom of Finland renders a fantasy world of bikers and sailors.

The biggest potential shock comes from three drawings by Kwok which depict a priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist. While that may sound like the set-up of an off-colour joke, the punchline here is that each one is in the throes of orgasm. In-yer-face sexuality could not be pushed any further, surely.

What strikes you about the Tom of Finland works, meanwhile, are that, until they get their clothes off, his uniformed young men look so clean cut. The light touch in his meticulous drawings is a rare thing to find in erotica of any persuasion.

The queer and feminist perspectives gathered here are immediate and vivid. In work by Bernstein and Kwok, you feel the artists have reached an endgame of expression. Masturbating men of faith and monumental, military hard-ons are surely the last word on social injustice.

Except not. The touchstone of this spirited and leftfield show is a 1946 political cartoon by George Grosz. It features a father and son from the bourgeoisie being followed by a family of dark skinned famine victims. A cross-section of the father’s belly reveals a leg of ham and a clutch of dumplings.

This too speaks directly to our times, and yet it pre-empts the rest of the work in this show by many decades. It was the last word then; it is the last word now.

Political work like this stays fresh. But the question remains, is it getting through and to who?

  • Open 11am-6pm (9pm Thursday). Admission free. Follow the Institute on Twitter @ICALondon.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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