A few years ago, as I was leaving a gallery following an artist’s talk, a woman approached me and handed me a piece of paper. It was a drawing of me. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ she said, ‘it’s a bit of a habit of mine. I enjoy drawing interesting-looking people.’ The sketch was beautifully done – with just a few strokes, she had captured exactly the way I’d felt during the talk: attentive, fascinated. For someone who has been notoriously unphotogenic for most of their adult life, seeing myself through the eyes of another person, rather than a camera, was both a relief and a revelation.
As Roland Barthes famously observed, posing for a photograph is a social game: ‘once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.’ Photography, he writes, lacks the subtlety of the painted portrait. Rather than an impression of the sitter, built up over an extended period of time, the camera subjects them to the cruelty of the instant. For those who ‘know how to work on their skin from within’, offering oneself to the camera is a pleasure. For those who don’t, the bluntness of the photograph can be mortifying.
Eye for A Sty, Tooth for the Roof brought these issues into sharp focus for me. Published late in 2020 by Tarmac Press, it’s a book of figurative studies, the result of a four-month collaboration between painter Danny Fox and multimedia artist Kingsley Ifill. The project, as the pair describe it, is an exploration of the dialogue between painting/drawing and photography, and an exercise in intimacy and trust between artist and subject. Their models – all but one of them female – were friends and fellow artists who visited Fox and Ifill at their rented house in Los Angeles.
Unlike a portrait, the nude is an abstraction – a study of the human form, but not necessarily of the persona that animates it. It’s an uneasy time to be exploring the nude as a subject, amidst heightened awareness of the unequal power dynamic between observer and observed, and of the photograph’s tendency to objectify and exploit. And it’s an especially problematic terrain for a male artist. I had to look through the book a few times to see past all of this. I know Ifill mainly through his multimedia work – dark, brooding images that often hint at unseen violence – and I was surprised by the delicacy of these photographs. Shacked up in the Hollywood Hills with what appears to be a house full of beautiful women, Ifill has shown us the Garden of Eden. There’s no hint of the voyeur or the pornographer in his photographs, just an intelligent eye with an obvious fascination for form. His intent was to find poses that came naturally, with an emphasis to the line that he knew would be important to the drawing: ‘I had a vision the whole time, of forms our figures make when we’re alone, in ways that possibly didn’t exist before the period that we’re living in … for example, watching tv slouching on the arm of a sofa…’. Fox went on to use the photographs as source material for paintings and drawings, but not before transforming the prints themselves with scrawled handwriting, overpainting and fruit stickers.
It’s an uneasy time to be exploring the nude as a subject, amidst heightened awareness of the unequal power dynamic between observer and observed, and of the photograph’s tendency to objectify and exploit.
While Eye for A Sty, Tooth for the Roof offers an updated take on a traditional subject, it also – perhaps inevitably – raises questions around contemporary definitions of beauty, and the fear – particularly pronounced for women in their twenties and thirties – of ageing. Nearly all of the models in the book are the offspring of celebrities, raised under the gaze of the camera, and now professional models or actresses in their own right. As subjects, they’re naturals – winners in the social game of posing. Ifill thought about this often while photographing: ‘It seems to me like those growing up in front of a camera are less aware that the camera is even there. Weirdly, the work of someone like Jeff Koons comes to mind. At what point does his art become so polished that it’s almost punk? And by that comparison I mean, if someone is photographed so much, at what point does the self-consciousness become instead unconscious. Thinking of this reminds me of an essay I read with Susan Sontag quoting Robert Smithson saying something like, “to see one’s own sight means visible blindness”. Maybe hyper self-awareness is another route to the Buddhist’s void of enlightenment and Hollywood is Mahayana’s Mecca.’
Part of me wants to believe this, and looking at Ifill’s photographs, I very nearly can. But when actress Lorraine Nicholson, in her preface to the book, writes about Fox and Ifill’s work as being made at a time when their bodies were ‘ripe’ – ‘after the hardness of childhood had disappeared, yet before our bodies soured’ – I am less convinced that she, at least, took part in the project in blissful unawareness of the camera’s presence. With a few words, Nicholson evokes a chilling image of the body curdling, the fat gathering and clotting, the muscles sagging, the skin thinning like the film that forms on warm milk. Eye for a Sty, Tooth for the Roof documents the short window of time between childhood and a more mature adulthood where the reality of ageing sinks in: not just the realisation that the body we take for granted is mortal and transient, but that we must continue to live inside this body as it melts and transforms, like being trapped inside a slowly collapsing house.
Eye for a Sty, Tooth for the Roof documents the short window of time between childhood and a more mature adulthood where the reality of ageing sinks in.
What’s most troubling, though, is not the image of soured, sagging bodies. It’s the fear, unspoken but implicit in Nicholson’s text, that the decline of her body will also mean a decline in her value. For all but a few in her profession, this is probably true. And increasingly, it’s also the reality lived by women everywhere: one in which definitions of female beauty are mostly created by men, and female ageing is disproportionately stigmatised. So when Nicholson writes of a certain model’s dismay at the inclusion, in one of Fox’s paintings, of a roll of skin running across her stomach, and wonders ‘who, in their right mind, would subject themselves willingly and on purpose’ to the camera’s stubborn veracity, it crystallised for me the fear and shame that so many women – myself included – bring to their own image. Reading her words, it’s difficult to look at Ifill’s photographs without seeing in them the self-consciousness of subjects who have grown up transforming themselves in advance, into images. If there is objectification going on here, it’s not in Ifill and Fox’s images (although the ‘ripeness’ that Nicholson mentions is repeatedly signified in the fruit and veg labels which adorn almost every picture in the book). It’s imposed before and after the fact, internalised by subjects who present themselves in the expectation of being judged.
Eye for a Sty, Tooth for the Roof is a book of beautifully observed nude studies, made by a pair of gifted artists. But it also affirms the logics of an increasingly image-obsessed culture, and I can’t help wishing that Ifill and Fox had used their combined talents not just to explore the nude’s history, but to challenge its present; to look beyond the relationship between artist and model, and towards those who will see images like these and measure themselves against them.