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X-pression: sex and sexuality in art

Part 1: the sexual act

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Jeff Koons

Made in Heaven

sex in art

Koons' 1991 marriage to the former porn star 'La Cicciolina' prompted the apparently celebratory Made in Heaven, a series in which the artist's blurring of high art and kitsch focuses on the couple's own sexual relationship.

Immediately controversial due to its often explicit nature, the works also marked an unprecedented expansion of the ideas underlying Koons' practice.

With Made In Heaven, Koons' characteristic denial of a division between the vulgar and refined squarely confronts social as well as aesthetic expectations.

The notion of 'good taste' is examined not only in terms of the art object, but through a questioning of commonly held assumptions regarding love, romance and sexual activity itself.


sexuality and contemporary art
Images © Jeff Koons

This is perhaps most obvious in the photographic images which, with their kitsch settings and heightened artificiality, are far removed from the raw realism generally associated with pornography.

At the same time, however, their sentimental suggestion of 'conventional' romance - lavishly painted backdrops, flowers, butterflies - are in turn overthrown by the highly explicit sex on show.

Just how sacrosanct is the relationship between man and wife? Koons' decision to configure intimate moments of his marriage as art implicitly addresses the idea of the sacred and profane - a notion that in turn parallels his debate as to what, exactly, constitutes the artistically revered or reviled.

By transforming pornography into sentimental kitsch and unabashedly presenting the results as high art, Made in Heaven becomes one of Koons' most complex subversions of aesthetics.


John Currin

Trouville, 2007 / Rotterdam, 2006

From depictions of huge-breasted women to nubile, unfeasibly long-limbed nudes, John Currin has frequently combined a particular view of female sexuality with trademark bodily distortion.

Sex in art - John Currin

His most recent series of works, however, moves in a newer and more explicit direction by depicting couples actively engaged in sex.

While recognising the controversial nature of his subject matter, Currin also sees it as an opportunity to indulge in favourite themes:

"I love grand, classically nude paintings and there is really no situation where plausibly you have crisscrossing limbs and stuff like that except in pornography."

Currin has also described the works as "In a way ... very un-sexual" - a statement which, despite its apparent incongruity, refers to the notion that revealing all leaves little to the imagination:

"I thought it would be interesting to make (the paintings) explicit and see if there is any mystery or any space left after you completely drain the potential. It's like when you don't show things, you build up a kind of voltage. So what happens if you totally open it up? Is the painting going to have any kind of energy at all?"


contemporary artist - John Currin
Images © John Currin

Currin's approach is certainly an interesting one, and his analysis also provides excellent insight into the concealment strategy he consciously rejects.

Since many of the artists featured here do choose to partially obscure their work, comparison of the two methods allows us to assess the success - or otherwise - of Currin's decision to reveal all.


Sam Jackson

Brazil, 2008 / God Exists, 2008

Sam Jackson, Brazil

The fast-emerging UK artist Sam Jackson often depicts scenes of explicit sex in order to highlight their scarcity in more 'conventional' areas of art such as painting:

"...A central tenet of my work is the elimination of boundaries and taboos in our perception of the human figure, and especially the way in which it has traditionally been represented in the fine arts.

I treat even the most difficult and challenging themes with the same care that I treat the depiction of a face or a hand."

Unlike John Currin's meticulously detailed work, Jackson employs a far more fluid technique which, together with his closely cropped compositions, can sometimes render his images difficult to immediately discern.

Thus inviting closer study, the strategy turns curious viewers into unwitting voyeurs, coerced into confronting the physical and painterly realities the artist wishes to highlight.

Sam Jackson, sex in art
Images © Sam Jackson
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