Where the bodies are

Figurative painters are having a thin time of it at the moment. Last week even + the traditionally inclined Jerwood Prize for Painting went to one of Saatchi's + children. Gary Hume, who is also being sensationalised at the Royal Academy, + carried off the #163;30,000 prize money for a post-pop graphic executed in + household gloss. So it is fortuitous that a different kind of show has popped + up at Wolverhampton Art Gallery to prove that figurative work has not curled up+ and died amid the tide of conceptualism.Body Politic is made up of work from + 45 Western artists who have all used the human body as a vehicle for social or + political comment. Most of the work is contemporary, though earlier artists are+ included to put the work in a useful historical context. There is some + sculpture and photography, but paintings make up the bulk of the display and + heartily refute the accusation that figurative painting has become nothing more+ than decoration or "wallpaper". Here instead the work is genuinely in your + face, confronting a range of issues from anorexia to demagoguery, from racism + to homelessness. From an educational viewpoint the show is excellently + presented. The display is divided into four sections on society, politics, + religion and allegory, and identity, each coming with a handy interpretive + panel placing the contemporary work in a context with famous paintings from the+ past. Look for instance at the changing politics of war. Nicholas Legrand's + "The Apotheosis of Nelson" (1810) demonstrates the way painting can be used as + propaganda: Nelson's heroic welcome by the gods puts the stamp of heavenly + approval on the British cause. By contrast "Cleansing", Peter Howson's giant + painting of Bosnian refugees, is brutally stark. Rather than glamorising war, + his figures are archetypal symbols of marginalisation, their huge expressive + hands seeming to symbolise their helplessness. The centrepiece of the show is + undoubtedly Ana Maria Pacheco's powerful wooden sculpture, "The Banquet". + Seated round a boardroom table four fat City cats salivate over the + outstretched naked body of a girl they are about to consume. Both a modern + version of "Susannah and the Elders" and a critique of Western capitalism, "The+ Banquet" is a powerful allegory of our times. As you go round the show, its + tempo speeds up. The most lively of the four sections is the final gallery on + identity, which sizzles with visual excitement and challenging ideas. Mark + Wallinger's colourful photos of himself in different cultural guises confront + stereotypes while making you laugh. Nicola Hicks's plaster sculpture explores + the conflicting demands of raising children and having a career; Jo Spence + records her own death from cancer; Bob Robinson displays a gruesome murder put + down to "a time of the month". Body Politic packs a powerful punch, so are + some of the issues too difficult for school children? Not according to + education officer Pauline Thomas. Provided it is handled sensitively, she sees+ the show as a "wonderful opportunity to speak about things that are often + taboo, a chance to speak about them in a positive light with the images opening+ up subjects that are often difficult to bring out in the classroom".Body + Politic is at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until November 29.Papier mach#233; + sculptor Philip Cox will be working in the gallery from October 16 for 10 days,+ then with five Wolverhampton schools during November. Pupils will make papier + mch heads on the theme of facial gestures which will be displayed in the + gallery at the end of the show. Teachers wishing to bring school parties are + strongly advised to visit the exhibition first to discuss the issues with + Pauline Thomas. Tel 01902 312032. Body Politic will move to Derby Art Gallery + from February 28 to April 26 1998

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