Body parts

John Coplans, Frieze, No.8, 2002

Thinking about the fragmented body in Gary Hill‘s Inasmuch As It Is Always Already Taking Place made me think about the self portraiture of John Coplans who repeatedly photographed his own – aging – body for (almost) the last two decades of his life. Several things interest me about Coplans’s work. Firstly, there’s the way they don’t conform to expectations of the nude in art. As the Guerrilla Girls have established, the nude is generally female and in an increasingly youth-centred culture the ageing body isn’t often the subject of attention. Here the focus is on the ordinary.

Self-portrait, 1985

Coplans always photographed against a white backdrop and used even neutral lighting, making the images ostensibly objective but the poses undermine this and it’s this combination that makes the pictures so fascinating. The head is always out of frame, meaning that – though the work is in a sense about identity – it’s impossible to get sidetracked by preconceptions based on Coplans’s facial features or expression which are generally the way first impressions are formed (indeed, researching this post I saw a picture of Coplans and realised to my surprise that, having known his work – and thus his body – for twenty years or so, I’d had no idea at all what he actually looked like).

Feet Frontal, 1984

In a way this is body as object, indeed there are often similarities with classical sculpture. Through shifts in scale the body is defamiliarised with hands and feet vastly larger than life. For all the questions it raises about our attitudes to the body and age, in the end one of the things that makes this work most enjoyable is the humour of it. Throughout the work playfulness is very evident; in some cases though this moves up a notch making for images that are laugh-out-loud funny.

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