It is Caroline Coon’s social commentary that immediately steals viewers’ attention when entering her first solo exhibition, The Great Offender at London’s TRAMPS, originally shown in 2018 at The Gallery in Liverpool. She engineers her fight against patriarchal hierarchies, misogyny, and sexism in arresting works like See, He Is Absolutely Gorgeous! (2002) and He Undresses in Another Hotel Room (2002) to great effect by flipping perspectives on all-too-common narratives. In the former, a muscular, blond-haired man reveals his genitals while toweling himself behind a wall at a beach; behind and to his left, a naked woman in sunglasses can be seen lying back in a state of hyperbolic ogling.
29 September – 22 December
In He Undresses in Another Hotel Room, one of three works on view from Coon’s “Brothel Series,” this power exchange between the sexes is taken to its furthest point. A towering, gratuitously muscular man turns towards a woman sitting on the end of a bed, watching as he takes his trousers off. She is bathed in the glow of a nearby lamp and leans back slightly on her forearms. The straps of her dress fall down her arms and the hem of her dress rides up revealing the tops of her stockings as she leers at his penis.
Any initial humor found in the absurdity of these two hyper-sexualized scenes, perhaps especially for straight male audiences, quickly gives way to uneasiness and introspection, resulting in a sudden and powerful realization that the only way systematic change can begin is from within the viewer.
Alongside this, but less immediate in its impression, is Coon’s style of painting, which is a hybrid of illustrative figuration built upon geometric scaffolding. For the works that are more explicit in their admonishment of certain behaviors, like the two paintings described above, this scaffolding unifies the physical movements of the characters and mechanics of the scenes with the environments they inhabit, affirming how deeply coded they are in our daily lives.
The longer Early Morning, Harrow Road (2008) and Spring Flowers (2003), are studied, however, the more the line between figuration and geometric pattern begins to blur, appearing in areas to oscillate on the edge of abstraction and threatening to relegate these images to simplistic readings, in part because no explicit narrative anchors them from the outset.
In the background of Early Morning, Harrow Road, a bustling, multicultural, northwest London street scene, advertising for a former a fish-and-chip shop can be seen on a building’s brick façade and the Trellick Tower, a historically protected Brutalist tower block, looms. While the viewer, given the immediacy of Brexit, may be inclined to read it as a celebration or chronicle of London’s ever-changing diversity, it is the sole figure who looks directly at the viewer, a young Black man wearing a gray hooded jumper with a quizzical look, who offers something entirely more complex. The painting illustrates Coon’s commitment to ending stop-and-search laws which she feels encourage systemic racism. If the viewer knows the artist’s views, the work begins to fire on all cylinders, transforming into a pertinent cross examination of what is likely to be a majority white, possibly privileged, audience.
Spring Flowers, however, struggles to accept its fate as something altogether more decorative, and the inclusion of a too-obvious allegorical snail clambering up the sideboard of the window, trying to reach a freedom it is unaware it can never attain, feels trite.
So too with Self with Delphinium age 70 (2016), where Coon turns the lens onto her aging body. In tackling the male gaze that perpetuated Old Master painting, and referencing Albrecht Dürer’s self-portraits in youth and old age in particular, Coon raises critical questions: Why not me, why can women not be portrayed like this? “You rarely see portraits of old women, because we go from being whores to being witches,” she noted in an interview in 2018. Yet the illustrative style and the well-worn pose she commands, holding a delphinium in one hand while her other hand locks to her hip in a thrust of defiant coolness, her nude body rife with the lines of time, lends a tone of comic-book style escapism that lacks the hard-hitting confrontation that Annegret Soltau’s “Generative” series (1994-2005) achieves, and this tries so hard to convey.
Coon hits a pinnacle with the standout A Sweet Lob from 25 Yards (2009), which takes aim at the hypocrisy present in football. In the middle of a stadium, naked figures possessing both breasts and penises perform an acrobatic display of tangled limbs and elongated bodies reminiscent of Edgar Degas’s Ballet Dancers on the Stage (1883) as they try to reach a hovering ball. Coon’s ability to simultaneously maximize the sport’s affinity to dance while at the same time lambast its masculine overtones is effortlessly rapturous. The image’s compositional apparatus, and its political commentary in which Coon seeks to destabilize patriarchal and binary sexual stereotypes without feeling didactic or falling foul of references that will soon feel dated, all work without overwhelming the painting’s aesthetic allure; here, they exist in a harmonious and powerful equilibrium.