It’s only just gone ten o’clock in the morning and already we’re deep into sexy time on the Finchley Road for this raunchy retrospective of the Berlin-based American artist Dorothy Iannone. The show starts tamely enough, with Iannone’s ongoing ‘Movie People’ series of heartfelt line drawings featuring her favourite films about unconditional or sacrificial love. She depicts Jake Gyllenhaal in a manly embrace from ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and Marlene Dietrich waiting for Gary Cooper to return from the Foreign Legion in the 1930 weepy, ‘Morocco’.
But what’s this? John Malkovich performing cunnilingus on Debra Winger in ‘The Sheltering Sky’? I know it was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, but this seems pretty hardcore, even for him. Now that I’m looking closer at these miniature Hollywood effigies, I can see Charlie Chaplin, Henry VIII and JFK have all got their dicks hanging out of their trousers…
Naked and unashamed, innocent and aware, Iannone has been ploughing her particularly perverse painterly furrow since the 1960s and, now aged 80, she has lost none of her verve or, it would seem, her sex drive. She’s the opposite of a strident man-hater, but is still a feminist in the way she exercises control over her own image and confirms woman’s pivotal role in history.
Her hippy-dippy, free love aesthetic and gratuitous eroticism may account for her relative obscurity in the art world, but her rediscovery is not due to a change in the fickle palates of today’s audiences. Rather it’s Iannone’s enduring passion, emotion and refusal to reference Western art that still sets her apart. Her figures and their genitalia are almost hieroglyphic, the images build up imagery like totem poles, while the paintings are laced with a complex mixture of text and decoration that’s more likely to be found in medieval tapestry or berber rugs.
In a three-panel screen from 1977 called ‘Follow Me’, Iannone inserted a video monitor showing her face as she reaches orgasm, reciting the title’s mantra. Her career has been as joyous, liberated and love-fuelled ever since and, to quote her fictional character Trixie in another painting: ‘She hovers, swoops, soars and even chuckles because, after all, the whole world still seems open.’