In her mid-career retrospective 'Discreet Objects', Maureen Connor's work is represented by her late 70s clothing sculptures; linen napkin foldings from the early 80s; Duchampian bottle rack pieces from the late 80s; and from her current work, two video installations and a series of steel sculptures dressed in transparent nylon lingerie. Connor's feminist analysis of female body images is unique because, rather than depicting the body, she offers only its remains. Frighteningly elongated and hanging from the ceiling by hooks, scantily clad mangled female figures fill the main gallery like twisted and tortured skeletal frames from some inconceivable chamber of horrors. In No Way Out (1990), a nearly seven foot long curvaceous steel stick figure arches up from the floor, legs spread open, with barb-like hands and feet dug into the wood. Despite its elegant line, the emaciated figure evokes not beauty but the grotesque. This work and the 'Rack' pieces, using casts of human organs with g-strings speared onto them, navigate a space between seduction and revulsion, depicting the female body primarily in terms of discomfort and terror.
Significantly, while her work focuses on the body, Connor absents its primary marker, the flesh: 'Don't we bypass the whole body...? It is always either the mediator between the body and culture which is clothing, or the part which is repressed, inside, the interior of the body' she has said. In Connor's work the body is fragmented: torn apart by the war against flesh and ravaged by the social frameworks that deny its pleasures. Yet, it is still this fragmentary body that matters; not in the Butlerian sense of a body experienced through performance, as the exhibition catalogue suggests, but as Elaine Scarry's 'body in pain', unmade by structures of torture - anorexia, bulimia and fashion. It is a body stretched to the limits, abused virtually to extinction and caged into a submission where, as Scarry writes, pain 'displaces all else until it seems to become the single broad and omnipresent fact of existence'.
But what of this female body in perpetual pain? Connor's tortured body stands for a universal everywoman, a shrunken shrivelled metaphor for a femininity devoid of any power to change her predicament. 'No Way Out' she shouts again and again until you don't want to hear it anymore. Connor proposes a ready-made identity: from now until eternity, women are forever victimised by the existing structures of power. There is no question for Connor that all women seek the emaciated body types she so dramatically exhibits. Does she ask if her work can speak to women whose relationship with femininity is at best tenuous? Ultimately, No Way Out lacks any real redemptive power. In stark contrast to Connor's strategy stands Sue Williams' Irresistible Figure (1992), a female figure so revolting and pathetic, so completely filled with anger, that it invites hatred and scorn and finally denies any sort of identification. But, in Williams' victimised state, there is still the possibility of escape. In Connor's fleshless, de-sexualised work however, masochism rises to the level of destiny. Finally, one wishes Connor would ask if there is any way that women can turn the system against itself as some of Williams' works do, or as did Nayland Blake's recent de Sade installation, in which masochism becomes a trangressive force that links up with a polymorphous sexuality to subvert the very constructs of power that are its origins.