Installation view of TAL R’s “Sexshops” at Victoria Miro, London, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.


Tal R

Victoria Miro
Israel United Kingdom

TAL R, Paris Chic, 2017, pigment and rabbit skin glue on canvas, 172 × 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London.

Tal R’s fixation with sex shop facades is a bit of a curiosity. The location’s appeal for the artist surely rests in its titillating suggestion of the indulgence and stimulation that lies within. On two floors of Victoria Miro’s warehouse space in London, the Israel-born Danish artist’s paintings of such shopfronts were marked by an extreme flatness; even in the paintings in this collection that suggest architectural space, tempered patterning breaks down any illusion of depth. The shopfronts recorded by Tal R are all surface; the pleasure is purely optical, derived from the color and spatial arrangement. The paintings provide only the slightest hint about the goings-on behind blacked-out windows and curtained doors. According to Martin Coomer’s text that accompanies the exhibition, Tal R’s friends send him photos of sex shop facades, supplying the artist with source material. The shops’ names indicate locales in Europe, America and the Middle East, though the consistency in Tal R’s canvases prevent this set of artworks from becoming a global travelogue.

In 1969, Denmark became the first country in the world to legalize pornography. This kickstarted the spread of sex shops in Europe, but even Vesterbro—the original red light district of Copenhagen, the city where Tal R lives and works now—has experienced gentrification. This is a phenomenon that the artist observes in other venues too: Dirty Dick (2017) shows a premises in Paris that has been turned over to become an upmarket bar. The painter uses an assortment of colors to relay a scene of faded grandeur. Tal R’s treatment of the subject even made me feel faintly nostalgic. Showing in London, the sex shop facades evoke the rapidly fading bohemianism in Soho, where for a time the tawdry confrontations of book shop owners and distributors with obscenity laws—sale of hardcore pornography in the United Kingdom’s licensed sex shops remained illegal until 2000—merged briefly with the London avant-garde circle’s claims for expressive freedom. I remember as a student going to a screening of the 1976 Franco-Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses at an art house cinema in Soho that was mostly frequented by the dirty mac brigade.

TAL R, Dirty Dick, 2017, pigment and rabbit skin glue on canvas, 193 × 238 cm. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London.

Tal R’s stylistic references include the lively flattened rooms of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso’s fleshpot paintings. Both modern masters were able to fold in the brothel as part of modern iconography, and Tal R builds upon this exercise with a painting method that gives the canvas a raw and under-finished surface evoking some instances of early modern art. The dull pinks he traces on three figures gyrating in the windows of Paris Chic (2017) recalls Picasso’s The Three Dancers (1925), and the matching color palettes reinforce Tal R’s borrowing of compositional elements in most of his sex shop paintings, including the frames within frames of windows and doors, as well as the areas of patterning that break up their compositions. Despite their vibrancy, there is no Dionysian energy in Tal R’s scenes. Even when we step behind the facade in Allenby and Red Allenby (both 2017), we are only offered views of a sparsely populated lobby. The scenes are quaint. Those expecting some sign of instant gratification instead find just another antechamber.

TAL R, Allenby, 2017, pigment and rabbit skin glue on canvas, 240 × 188 cm. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London.

TAL R, Red Allenby, 2017, pigment and rabbit skin glue on canvas, 200 × 167 cm. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London.

Chez La Souris (2017) has a set of biomorphic shapes that float across the window as if they have wandered in from one of Joan Miró’s paintings, and it is amusing to read Tal R’s interpretations of sex shops as a deflation of the preoccupations of the Spanish Surrealists. There is a collision between the outer and inner life, though Tal R keeps our gazes on the surface. If there are Oedipal fantasies and fetishized psychodramas being played out behind the sex shops’ veiled doors, we will never know. Beyond what we see, the artist provides commentary on the mechanics of commercial galleries, which also rarely expose the inner workings within their trade. Over at Frieze London this year, the organizers created a section specifically to showcase art by nine feminist artists whose works were once considered too explicit for public presentation. In comparison, Tal R’s paintings are rather tame.

Installation view of TAL R’s “Sexshops” at Victoria Miro, London, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

Tal R’s “Sexshops” is on view at Victoria Miro, London, until December 20, 2017.

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