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Issue 237

The Pleasures and Horrors of ‘Hardcore’

A grotesque new group show at Sadie Coles HQ, London, addresses sexual power dynamics but tends toward outdated provocation


BY Thomas McMullan in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 01 JUN 23

‘Hardcore’, a new group show at Sadie Coles HQ, explores sexual power dynamics through the diverse practices of 18 artists. Many of the works contain suggestions of bodies rather than direct representations, including a leather jacket bound in chains (Elaine Cameron-Weir’s Hairshirt with Lucky Cilice SS 23 Cartoon Violence Collection, 2023), stainless-steel coat hangers holding underwear (Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Comfy Bikinis, 2013) and a suspended wall piece comprising a black fabric woven from men’s belts (Monica Bonvicini’s Beltdecke #6, 2023). Works such as these imply that the residue of bodily experience can reside within garments or objects. At the same time, Bonvicini’s floor-to-ceiling mechanized flogger, Breathing (Calm) (2023), sets an industrial tone, its whirring motors sweeping it across the gallery’s concrete floor. Tishan Hsu’s Double Interface - Green (2023) is another bodily abstraction, this time across a green silicone interface with nipples, eyes and orifices distorted so that the fleshy control panel appears to glitch digitally.

Green canvas with screen of a shadow pressing its hands to the window.
Tishan Hsu, Double Interface - Green, 2023, UV cured inkjet, acrylic, ink, silicone on wood, 85 × 120.5 × 12 cm. Courtesy: © Tishan Hsu and Miguel Abreu Gallery; photograph: Katie Morrison / Sadie Coles HQ, London

Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s mixed-media installation The Brad Johnson Tape [REPAIR] (2017–22) – which features dried roses and a sailor’s hat alongside written material, photographs and video footage – draws on her earlier work, The Brad Johnson Tape, X – On Subjugation (2017), now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The London iteration evokes the yellow T-shirt she wore during a performance in which she read aloud ‘On Subjugation’ (1988) by the gay, Black American, poet Brad Johnson, while cutting her face and arms with a razor blade, self-flagellating, masturbating to climax and suspending herself upside down. Since a gallery employee threw away McClodden’s T-shirt from the original performance, she includes a blue version here, noting in the accompanying essay: ‘The shirt was the only thing from that experience that contained my figure.’ 

Brad Johnson
Tiona Nekkia McClodden, The Brad Johnson Tape [REPAIR] (2017–22), mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Katie Morrison 

Elsewhere, the buttocks of a figure in Stanislava Kovalcikova’s painting You Will Know Her by Her Hair (2023) features smiling ghosts, like memories of old lovers. In her essay ‘Hardcore’ (2023), the artist, dominatrix and writer Reba Maybury muses on orgasms as moments free from morality. ‘The brain forgets itself,’ she repeats as a refrain. Kovalcikova’s fable-like paintings realize Maybury’s sense of bodily presence. So, too, do Miriam Cahn’s canvases, which are at turns sinister and humorous: Fleischbild/famillienbild (Meat Picture/Family Picture, 2017), for example, depicts a man and a woman fucking beside a child-like figure, the woman’s face overdrawn with a cartoonish, mindless smiley.

Person lying underneath another body screaming
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #257, 1992, chromogenic colour print, 172.7 × 114.3 cm. Courtesy: © Cindy Sherman and Hauser & Wirth

The tension between dissociation and presence emerges as the most vital thread of the show. Still, at moments, it is lost amongst pieces that play with schlocky grotesqueries and outdated provocation without saying much new about the power dynamics of sex. As a result, works such as In the Feast of the Hogs (2022) by King Cobra/Doreen Lynette Garner, a beautifully intricate sculpture of a split animal carcass, ends up feeling inert in this context, its violence dulled by its surroundings. 

Fake meat cut like toast, wrapped in fur.
King Cobra/ Doreen Lynette Garner, White Bread, 2021, bamboo, resin clay, hair weave, acrylic, silicone, tattoo ink, mirror plinth, 17 × 38 × 24 cm. Courtesy: © KING COBRA and JTT, New York; photograph: Katie Morrison/Sadie Coles HQ, London

Arguably, it is Cindy Sherman’s trio of prints that best lives up to the promise of the exhibition title, riffing on the iconography of porn with explicit photos of mannequins. Untitled #257 (1992) is a wonder, its threesome all shadows and sickly greens, like a painting by Henry Fuseli, the central face contorted in a moment of what could be pleasure, horror or both. It is a visceral image of sexual power and powerlessness. Only after a while do you notice the hollowness of the squatting figure’s ankles.

'Hardcore', is on view at Sadie Coles HQ, London until 5 August 

Main image: Joan Semmel, For Foot Fetishists, 1977, oil on canvas, 91.4 × 127 × 4 cm. Courtesy: © Joan Semmel, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and Alexander Gray Associates, New York; photograph: Dan Bradica

Thomas McMullan is a writer and artist. His debut novel, The Last Good Man (Bloomsbury) won the 2021 Betty Trask Prize. His short fiction and poetry have been published in Granta, 3:AM Magazine and Best British Short Stories, and his journalistic work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, frieze, ArtReview and BBC News. He has also worked with theatre companies and games studios in London, Amsterdam and Los Angeles, including Punchdrunk, The Chinese Room and Roll7 (Bafta: Best British Game, 2023).