The great journey into space.
Cut short by a fatal car crash in 1972, Evelyne Axell’s career burned fast and bright. At the age of twenty-eight, the Belgian artist abandoned a promising career in acting and took up painting, enlisting Rene Magritte for a year of bimonthly art lessons as she developed a style characterized by lusty, unembarrassed sexuality, vibrant colors, and groovy, psychedelic Pop-Futurism. Axell’s well-received show at Broadway 1602 in 2009 introduced her to New York audiences. This more recent exhibition, “The Great Journey into Space,” again emphasized her utopian inclinations, while problematizing claims that her vision of utopia is straightforwardly proto-feminist.
The show’s centerpiece was Valentine, 1966, an assemblage striking for the unsolemn way in which it commemorates its lofty subject, Valentina Tereshkova, the pioneering Soviet cosmonaut and first woman in space. On a gold-leaf-coated canvas, a toy space helmet hangs beside a white female silhouette with arms raised seductively above the head. Running down the length of the woman’s body is a zipper sewn directly into the canvas, as on a catsuit-which audiences were invited to unzip, exposing a painted cleavage, belly button, and pubic hair. The elongated V of naked flesh is as playfully erotic as it is formally evocative: Coupled with the curved flaps of unzipped canvas, the shape looks streamlined and aerodynamic, a sleek abstraction evoking a rocket ship’s liftoff.
Empowerment and objectification jostle uneasily in this conflation of sexuality and speed-as in, say, Barbarella, it appears that objectification is the price a woman pays for her liberty, her untetheredness from earthbound banality. Axell would reuse the motif of the eroticized female astronaut again, most scandalously in Happening, 1969, at Galerie Foncke in Ghent, for which she instructed the wife of a famous collector to walk through a boisterous crowd wearing only a futuristic helmet. Then, Axell knelt before the naked woman and slowly dressed her, starting with underwear, followed by nylons, a bra, and a zip-up dress. This reverse striptease is documented in eight photographs here, three of which are the basis for Preparatory drawings for “Assemblee Libre, ” 1970. In this series of three drawings (which, in turn, would be the basis for a 1970 painting on fiberboard, not on view here), details from the photos are blacked out or rendered with flat fields of color, becoming abstract shapes sometimes outlined with felt-tip pen. If Happening made the anonymous female body into raw spectacle for a gawking crowd, these drawings are like a succession of hallucinatory afterimages.
Yet there’s little sense that Axell’s recycling of the photos critiques the affirmation of the male gaze achieved by the performance. Though her psychedelic imagery could be utopian, it often reiterated the commodification of the female body. Several nude self-portraits, for example, which have been built up from swirly lines made with felt-tip markers, look like screen-printed posters. In Le Desir (The Desire), 1969, drawn with various shades of black, Axell coolly reclines, the lenses of her wide-rimmed sunglasses bright blue, her vulva emphasized with dazzling red. Beginning in the late 1960s, Axell experimented with various plastics. She used Plexiglas, Perspex, Formica, and Clartex, often taking up a new material when one she had been using was commercially discontinued. (Her enthusiasm for these industrial substances was so acute that, in 1970, she made plans for a twentieth-century archaeology museum with a department dedicated to the “Plastic Age.”) The doublesided La Cloture or La Cloison (Closing the Partition), 1967, shows the artist playing with the qualities of translucency attained by applying auto enamel to Clartex. A trippy blue haze billows behind Matisse-like silhouettes of frolicking nudes, who are surrounded by bright bands of red, orange, and yellow-an artificial idyll. Axell, above all, was an artist enthralled by the liberating, Dionysian possibilities of the synthetic.