Fiona Banner, Frith Street Gallery
Review by Maria Walsh

Art Monthly, June 2006


Description is never neutral. The stakes involved in this mediating process are exposed in Fiona Banner’s descriptions of female nudes, mainly handwritten in spidery capitals. While scrutiny of the female body by painters as diverse as Egon Schiele and Lucian Freud borders on the obsessive, distinct boundaries are maintained between the intimacy of cultural forms such as pornography. Banner’s processual descriptions explode such boundaries, integrating slightly pornographic terminology such as ‘crack’, ‘pubes’, and ‘arse’, with words alluding to nuances to colour and light that flit across perused, posed and posing, female bodies in Nude Standing, 2003-05, Nude Reading, 2006, and Nude (standing, kind of contrapposto), 2006. What is exposed in Banner’s interrogation of language is how the divested interests of the pornographic viewer intersect with the invested interests of the disinterested art viewer. Of course, we now consider art viewers of female nudity to be as overwhelmed by sensation as any consumer of pornography, but this is not Banner’s point purely and simply.

Banner’s use of language is repetitive, the descriptions swing between the erotic and the banal, with the latter winning out as one loses one way in the jam-packed striations of text, the words becoming unfocused and disengaging. For example, in Nude (standing, kind of contrapposto), a small screenprint, the text is just large enough to read but so densely compacted that one concentrates instead on the uniform mass of text which wavers ever so slightly at the edges. Punctuation marks also begin to acquire more stature, this piece using a lot of commas and upper and lower case to determine possible beginnings of sentences. One could see this procedure as maintaining the realm of art-informed disinterest where the materiality of the object or image is paramount. However, even here, we are not necessarily immune from the pornographic gaze which is equally uninterested in narrative. While Banner’s compacted texts begin to close the gap between form and meaning, so that the presentation becomes the meaning, the pornographic text also works in a similar way in its liberalisation of fantasy.

On the other hand, while much art that reifies the materiality of excludes the idiosyncratic register of the body, Banner’s Nude Standing, which extends from near the ceiling to the floor, incorporates this. The uneven cascade of horizontal lines suggest that the artist’s hand not only tired of writing in perfectly straight lines, but that, in having to finish the work near the floor, her own perspective was lost in the task of squashing fragments of text into the frame. The likeable fragility of this piece contrasts greatly with the overbearing ponderousness of Tornado Nude, 2006, a tornado fighter plane wing with small text incised graffiti-like and large text stencilled on both sides. This object combines Banner’s passion for descriptions of war and pornography based on film explored in earlier work such as Arsewoman in Wonderland, 2001, and The Nam, 1997. The wing looked a bit like a film prop reused to sculptural and architectural effect, the top part of the wing jutting through a hole in the upper gallery floor, the bottom of the wing reaching down to stand on the floor of the gallery below. While this intervention and the latent violence of the incisions were striking, the piece itself lacked the liveliness of the dialogue between form and content in the works and paper. The piece is not without its witticisms though. Before the top part of the wing disappears through the hole in the upper gallery floor, the words ‘arse white’ appear.

In Bird, 2006, where descriptions of a bird, in this ornithological sense, were rendered on the wall in masses of text shaped vaguely like male genitalia, or maybe just the underside of a bird, the obvious allusion to concrete poetry transformed the tension between form and content into something overly illustrative. Bird, and many of the other works on paper, also deployed the device of whiting out text beneath the top surface, implying censorship of one sort or another. Mostly the text underneath, in being a repetition of the top layer, served to thicken the top layer’s materiality, doubling its manual repetition. Except in Homus Erectus, 2006, where bits of whited-out handwritten text peep out between the lines of large stencilled grey text describing a man, ‘hand on cock’. These fragments were much ruder than the grey stencilled text, but their legibility seemed overtly coy in questioning the boundaries of inflammatory language. Even here gender politics raises its head. The ‘hand on cock’ in Homus Erectus is followed by the diversionary turn of phrase, ‘as it happens’, whereas the female body is sequentially revealed and pinned to the surface in the process of being disseminated by language.

Maria Walsh is a writer and teaches art history & theory at Chelsea College of Art & Design.