Where the bodies are

An exhibition in the Midlands has struck a blow for the beleaguered forces of figurative art. Jane Norrie reports

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 Pounds 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 mache 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 mache 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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