SUSCH.- Muzeum Susch
presents Body Double, a solo presentation of the major Pop Art figure, Evelyne Axell (1935-1972). Axell embraced Pop Art in the 1960s, pioneering an original feminist take on the male-dominated genre. Axell ultimately transcended the established economies of Pop Art iconography at the time, her distinct body of work populated by an all-female universe reclaiming the discourse of womens sexuality.
Evelyne Axells career was tragically cut short by her untimely death in a car accident, aged just 37, meaning her work and contribution to early feminist art and Pop Art was subsequently left out of the dominant narrative of art history, alongside her contemporaries such as Pauline Boty, Rosalind Drexler, Kiki Kogelnik, and Dorothy Iannone, who have only found due recognition in recent years. Co-curated by Anke Kempkes, international curator, art historian and art critic and Krzysztof Kościuczuk, artistic director of Muzeum Susch this exhibition presents several dozen works across the artists oeuvre. Body Double brings together a selection of collages and painterly objects - often created with novel artificial materials, such as her signature technique of painting plastic with car enamel - as well as rare three-dimensional pieces and works on paper, many of which have not been on view in decades. Following a presentation at Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach in 2011, this is the largest solo museum retrospective to be staged outside of Axells native Belgium in decades.
Born in Belgium in 1935, Axell began her career as a TV presenter under the name of Evelyne Axell, becoming a charismatic and acclaimed theatre and film actress, as well as script writer in the Nouvelle Vague genre. Tutored for by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, Axell turned to painting in 1964. Axell filtered the contemporary vocabulary of Pop Art through an own reading of Surrealism. Her daring work was initially met with such derision by male critics that she decided to drop her first name Evelyne to publish professional work under the androgynous Axell in order to escape the associations of her gender.
Body Double offers a close reading of Axells self-articulations and the aesthetic treatment of the meta-autobiographical dimension in her work. The exhibition also highlights the diverse political themes in Axells work, situating her iconography in an international perspective of the time. As an active witness of the era of sexual liberation, Axells explorations focussed on a female body that was both liberated from past painterly conventions of depicting femininity and, ultimately, from the heterosexual and patriarchal matrix of society both historical and contemporary. Throughout her work, Axell forged a signature iconography of empowered female nudes inhabiting spheres of utopian homosociality. As the artist herself said, Despite all aggressiveness, my universe abounds above all in an unconditional love for life. My subject is clear: nudity and femininity experiment in the utopia of a bio-botanical freedom, that means a freedom without frustration nor gradual submission, and that tolerates only the limits that it sets itself. (Axell, 1970)
As its title suggests, Body Double hones in on the - almost obsessively recurring - motif of the double in Axells compositions. These range from identical, idealized female nudes, engaged in a dialogue, caught motionless as if in a Greek freeze, or resembling keepers of a portal to an uncharted territory, to psychologically charged double self-portraits, twin females absorbed in an embrace or a kiss, to figures in which the only distinctive feature is their skin colour resonating with the agendas of anti-colonial politics of the time and the US civil rights movement. The rich iconography of the Body Double culminates in Axells painting, La grande sortie dans lespace (The Great Journey into Outer Space, 1967) in which cosmonautic nudes float in space in a modern pagan circle dance. Transcending Matisses purely aesthetic compositions of cut-out nudes, Axells Arcadian abstraction is a vision of a joyful, non-authoritarian new dimension in which female pleasure can unfold freely.
Another aspect of the double in Axells paintings is the bio-botanique: with surreal beasts, exotic animals, and tropical vegetation that exist as bio-cultural companions to use Paul B. Preciados term. These include representations of transformed ideal egos, stand-ins for human, or eroticized scenes like the Le Homard Amoureux (Lobster in Love, 1967) in whose embrace the female shape dissolves into a human-crustacean hybrid. Even today, Evelyne Axells work remains highly evocative in its transgressive sexual iconography, proto-feminist agenda and liberalist utopian outlook.