The decision to stage a serious contemporary art show in Juliet’s House tests the boundaries of irony. The fantasy home of a fictional heroine, the dwelling does have 12th-century origins but the improbably quaint medieval details, including the legendary balcony, were all added in the 1930s.
Yet rather than condemn it as ersatz Gothic tourist fodder, Marc Quinn reads the place as a secular temple to the myth of romantic love. “What people are coming to visit is not a real place, but a place within themselves,” he says, in an interview in the catalogue of his exhibition, entitled Myth, which unfolds over the house’s three storeys.
With its graffiti-plastered courtyard and balcony-snapping tourists, the place does not obviously lend itself to such a lofty interpretation. Yet Quinn has a bold and rangy imagination. Part of the Young British Artist generation, he rose to prominence in the early 1990s with “Self”, a sculpture of his head made from his frozen blood. In 2005, his statue of Alison Lapper, a pregnant friend born without arms, gained worldwide attention when it occupied the fourth plinth – currently devoted to contemporary commissions – in London’s Trafalgar Square. A series of statues of the model Kate Moss cemented his fame.
At its best, his work is brave, punchy and cerebral. At worst, it is hijacked by the phenomena it aims to explore: the commodification of image, the perilous distortions of celebrity and the scientific manipulation of nature.
The instability of his vision is evident in the first work here, “Waiting for Godot” (pictured), a praying skeleton situated in the ticket office. Quinn has made acutely subtle art about death – a sculpture of an HIV sufferer that appears to be marble but is actually made out of wax laced with anti-retroviral drugs, for example – but this isn’t one of them. Robbed of energy by the heavy-handed imagery, it blends too easily into its commercial environs.
Upstairs, the exhibition is dominated by a cycle entitled “Love Paintings”. These large-scale graffiti-saturated pictures were unwittingly created by tourists who signed white canvases mounted outside believing that they were leaving their mark for eternity on the courtyard wall.
The scrawled declarations of love, sketchy valentines and a global roll-call of first names entwine, overlap and collide in a spontaneous, graphic mosaic that saturates the canvas. Visually, the pictures surge with haphazard, gestural power; conceptually, they are riveting. Summed up by Quinn as “ready-made paintings of pure emotion”, they fuse the wilful meaninglessness of found-object art as practised by Duchamp and Rauschenberg with the informal, emotional charge of its polar opposite, Abstract Expressionism.
Quinn studied art history, and his awareness of the critical tradition fuels his best work with a lucid, subversive power. His statues of people with disabilities are motivated by a desire not only to deconstruct classical ideals of beauty but also to highlight how time and rarity-value transform broken bodies into objects of desire. “I had this thought that if a real person came into the room whose body was the same shape as the sculptures, then the public would in all possibility have an exactly opposite reaction,” he observed after watching spectators’ reaction to the Venus de Milo in the Louvre.
Yet the Verona show proves that context can spoil even the most legitimate concept. Presiding over Trafalgar Square, “Alison Lapper, Pregnant” possessed a vital, radical, visual power. Set back from Juliet’s balcony, surrounded by faux-Gothic frescoes and friezes, “The Kiss” (2001) – which shows two disabled people in an embrace – is tainted with kitsch by association. Also stripped of transgressive potential is “Thomas Beattie” (2009), a sculpture of the eponymous transsexual woman who was on course for a sex change before she became pregnant halfway through hormone treatment. Yet in this superficial setting, the bearded figure, in boxer shorts, stroking his bump, feels mischievous rather than revolutionary.
When Quinn produced “Self” and its subsequent variations, including his baby’s head made from its frozen placenta, he broke new ground in the postmodern battle to close what Robert Rauschenberg described as “the gap between art and life”. These works were possessed with a visceral, charismatic beauty thanks to their deliquescent textures and shifting tonal depths.
In Verona, that painterly, neo-expressionist allure is recaptured in a cycle of oil paintings of the human eye entitled “We Share our Chemistry with the Stars”. Inspired by Quinn’s realisation that our eyes are as unique as our fingerprints, the velvety, indigo-black pupils fringed with the iris’s delicate, colour-bleeding tributaries suggest utopian topographies, fantastic river deltas or surreal black holes.
Elsewhere, however, a slick post-Pop aesthetic undermines the artist’s perceptions. Oil paintings and bronze sculptures of flowers frozen into permanent full bloom are the latest in a series that began with the installation “Garden” in 2000. An eerie marriage of art and science that leaves the viewer uncertain as to the boundaries between life and death, image and reality, their philosophical insight is diluted by their sterile, hyper-real, Photoshop-style glossiness.
Nowhere is this tension more acute than in “Siren” (2009). A sculpture of Kate Moss in solid gold, it stands alone in a top-floor room as the 21st-century alter ego of the worn bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard. Quinn says that “Siren” represents “all the abstractions which lure people to wreck their lives on the rocks: money, perfection, unattainable images”.
Yet the supermodel resists deconstruction. Reproducing her in all her flawless, airbrushed perfection, the work feels like a homage rather than a critique. (It is a shame he didn’t include any of his watercolours of Moss, for their unruly, lipstick-smudged aesthetic would have troubled her iconic status.)
Walter Benjamin warned that photography would threaten the aura of the original artwork. But today, the danger is that the reproduction develops an aura of its own.