Abjection and the Uncomfortable

An Overview of this Intriguing Art Movement.

Cindy Sherman. Self Portrait. Untitled Woman in Sun Dress. Cc 2003 Jenny Saville. Self Portrait. Sally Mann. Body Farm. Cc 2000-2001
Cindy Sherman. Self Portrait. Untitled Woman in Sun Dress. Cc 2003
Jenny Saville. Self Portrait.
Sally Mann. Body Farm. Cc 2000-2001

It is interesting how our minds work. My pervious posts all discussed the beauty and the almost sublime preoccupation artists have with the nude figure, yet art history has also be fraught with ideas of the contrary. Many may think that Abjection is art is grotesque, in poor taste and utterly revolting, and honestly, they would be right. Abjection art is just that; made to gross out the audience, make them feel uncomfortable and in still a sense of distress and discomfort.

As defined in Art History, Abjection is that which is, lowly, prohibited, marginalised or excluded, but which simultaneously evokes a sense of small attraction or allurement with that; that unnerves us by perturbing our normative conceptions of how things should be. In theoretical notations, Abject Art was discussed on two major occasions in the past. Georges Bataille postulated this notion during the times when paintings and drawings mutilated the body and no longer revered it as a sanctity. His postulations were reviewed rather bittersweet, noting his research but not dwelling on its impact as to understanding the artists’ intent in these works. Artists like Otto Dix, Willem De Kooning and Francis Bacon all exemplified this notion of the grotesque.

Nearly fifty years onwards, Julia Kristeva revisited the works of Bataille and further attempted to explain this phenomenon. She argued that abjection comprised of two major parts: the Subject and the Object. The Subject being the “self”, that which a person considers to be part of their own identity, both physically and psychologically. The Object, being the “rest of the world”, or “the others”. Kristeva explains that abjection lies somewhere between these two realms; that a state of disruption between the “self” and the “others” is Abjection. Artists like Jenny Saville, Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, Kiki Smith and Andres Serrano all play true to this ideology.

Why is it that so many artists were preoccupied with this ideology; something so vile and frankly disgusting? Why make art that was grotesque instead of beautiful? The answer lies in the social context to which these portfolios were produced. Take for instance Jenny Saville’s work, on the cusp of the plastic surgery revolution and the constant preoccupation with mutilating the natural body to make it beautiful. Her females are over exposed and bulging, distorted and torn even, painted in a loving but heinous manner. Cindy Sherman (who in my opinion is the master of the self portrait), points out the female is a way that no other artist has ever been able to achieve. Her women are at their worse, even though society sees them as at their best. They are pitiable and sad, but somehow they are ok with their misery and the audience finds that completely off putting.

Cindy Sherman (1954-Present) Master of the Self Portrait” 


The portrait is probably one of the most targeted genres in modern day art. Many artists have attempted to put into picture, the stereotypes, the popular culture and the mainstream personas of the modern world; but none has done it quite like Cindy Sherman. She turns the camera on herself, but her work is not autobiographical in nature, she uses herself as a vessel for interpretation and exemplifying the erroneous nature of stereotypes in mainstream society. Her work surrounds the roles and the differing genres of women in society.

Sherman’s work possesses a blunt and dull form of abjection. A type that makes you uncomfortable like a splinter in your finger, a level of discomfort that is bearable. Despite the fact that her subject matter is very serious, dangerous and worrisome, she portrays it in a manner that is not threatening to the audience. The colour palettes and the sometimes over saturated hues, masks the real intent. Only when the audience takes a moment to internalize the entire photograph to they then realise what they are looking at. This to me is the genius of Cindy Sherman. She hides the grotesque is plain sight. She makes the viewer open their eyes to the real horrors that are the gender stereotypes that we face daily.

The women she portrays are both strong and meek. She reveals their inner thoughts through expression and the use of framed backdrops that emphasise the turmoil or the security her subjects feel in their own skins. Sherman’s vast portfolio has been divided into many parts; she has done portraits of women from all segments of society [the gold digger, the career woman, the homemaker, etc], she has done a portfolio of women as portrayed in film called “The Still Series”. She has also done a very dark and haunting series called “The Disaster and Fairy Tales” where she depicts death, decay and grotesque masked with glitter, candy coloured palettes and whimsical abstraction. She has also used prosthetics and mannequins in vulgar and exposed poses. There is much to be said about Sherman’s work, but what stands out the most is her lack of fear to be different. To me, this is what sets her apart from a lot of other artists that attempt to depict similar subject matter.

Photography has a level of honesty that other genres of art making may lack. Despite the highly dressed and composed nature of her photographs, there is a sense of unpretentiousness and clarity in her work. If you have not been exposed to Sherman’s work, please give it a look. She is probably one of the most interesting photographers of our time, along side Sally Mann.

Sally Mann (1951-Present) “Photographer”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sally Mann is a world renounced American photographer best known for her large scale black and white photographs of children and in more recent times, of the landscape in death and decay. Her works can be described as hauntingly beautiful. Full of mystery and story, with intrigue that the viewer can’t help but stare long and hard at these mesmerising and unsettling pieces. Her collection entitled, “At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women” brought her to instant recognition for her signature and controversial content. She photographed young girls on the cusp of puberty in poses and actions that were highly charged with brooding moods. Her photographs felt slightly intrusive of these young girls, as if someone were watching them in private thought. The unsettling feeling of looking at photographs of these young girls, while stirring unsettling arousal and intrigue, only added to the controversial nature of this portfolio. The book contained 65-Black and White prints. The photographs were taken at her family’s vacation cabin with her three children, all under the age of 10. The children were photographed doing the things the young girls did when on vacation at the cabin, including skinny dipping, dressing up, napping and playing board games. Many of the photographs were of her daughters nude, which this shook many of the viewers. These photographs spoke of much darker themes, namely insecurity, sexuality, loneliness and death. Much of the reviews branded the work are child pornography and were deterred from many galleries both in the United States as well as abroad.

Mann’s method of Abjection is one of intrigue and curiosity. The viewer is pulled in by the monochromatic palette and then stays for a while trying to understand what they are looking at. Her work reels you in slowly and holds you there for a moment; like a stranger peering into a window of an abandoned house, with all its trappings lying askew. The bleakness of the colour palette, gives each piece a haunting and rather threatening nature. This makes you question what you are looking at and thus pulls you in further.

Another memorable collection is that of “Body Farm”.Photographs were taken at the Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee; a Research and Development facility for Forensic Anthropology. The collection contained warped and shattered images of decaying human bodies against a wilderness backdrop. Mann ceased to amaze the critics, for this body of work was as shocking and controversial as previous portfolios. From an artistic point of view, the subject matter is marginal to the emotion and mood of the overall image; a sense of silence and stillness consume these photographs. Each piece is not a homage to the remains, rather it is to a decaying attachment to life. The conclusion to something we preserve and revere as free from being absolute. These images are actually not haunting, but rather posses a sense of finality. They are still in their demise and are real and tangible as a living person. It is difficult to describe the feeling upon realising the finality of death, and these photographs attempt to do just that. They are a realisation that death is final for the human form, where are time passes and death will remain the same. Decay is death over the expanse of time, something as human we do not like to dwell on.

Sally Mann’s portfolio is one of darkness and realisation, but in a way that is as we should view the world. The images are moving and resonates with the viewer, as all good art should. If you have never seen any of her works, please take a moment to appreciate, for you will not be disappointed. However, I urge my readers to view these photographs with an open mind (as all art should be viewed), but notice that with her work, you have to listen to the emotion of the image rather than fixate on the subject matter. That to me is Sally Mann. Photographs that really paint a thousand words.

Jenny Saville (1970-Present)  “Figure Painter”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I don’t think that I have ever come across an artist so intent on female depiction like jenny Saville. I first saw her work at university in an art history class and was stuck by her technique and signature style. Her work is my no means lovely to look at, actually the sight of it is quite off putting, but that’s the point. Saville’s portfolio is nothing short of intense, brilliant and overwhelming. Her work instills a sense of hurt, discomfort, and uncertainty in the viewer. There is no beauty in Saville’s women, rather, a sense of yearning to be accepted, to need to be okay with their physical presents, almost as if they are pushing in the viewer’s face their ugliness and forcing the audience to be okay with it.

Saville’s work arrived on the scene on the cusp of the plastic surgery revolution, when the beauty industry was focused on surgically tweaking of the body to the idealised form of beauty. Saville was intrigued by this phenomena and focused her work on women who were not seen as thin and beautiful and rather how the world viewed them; bulbous and excessive even though they weren’t. She would use low camera angles, and foreshortening in her nude photographs to depict excessively sized arms, legs and torsos. Later on she would photograph herself lying on a glass table and photographed from below, with her body being smashed and flattened into lumps and spread like forms, intensifying this idea of perceived fatness and unsightliness.

Saville’s painting techniques is highly academic. She follows the traditional format of nude figure painting, with ground and layers to create luscious, voluminous and textural skin. However, her murky and muddy colour palette produces sickly, wrinkly, bulbous skin that is unsightly and so visceral that the viewer feels as though the woman in the picture plane is somehow real, calling out. If there was one word to describe Saville’s technique, it would be dynamic. Her brushstrokes and colour blending is almost tangible. Foreshortening and over emphasis on certain body parts only plays into this idea that the women are actually sitting in front of the viewer while the viewer makes descriptions and opinions of their girth and form. Saville is not afraid to be outrightly degrading to her figures. She paints them with tender care and respect, but their poses and forms are quite the contrary. Her women are no short of pitiful and the onus is on the viewer. Saville also paints her women much larger than life. Her paintings are on average over 7ft. tall and in their presence are very commanding; you can’t evade them. They are commanding and striking. There is a sense of display with her females. They seem to be put on show, as you follow them through the gallery.

Saville has been placed into the same category as other British artists, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Her work dares to be different in a way that I think is still very unique. You can tell that there is much love and tenderness that goes into her females, and to me this sets her work apart from other artists that depict the abject in a painterly way. If you have not seen any of Jenny Saville’s work please take a moment to appreciate. This is the final instalment of “Abjection and the Uncomfortable” Series and I hope you enjoyed the reading.

Please subscribe to my blog to get updates on the next series I have in store.

Saabira Razac