The Female Body, Drawn and Quartered

The Encoded Body exhibition by Pamela Stretton, reviewed by Mary Corrigall, Culture, The Sunday Independent, 29 April 2007, pg 10

Delving into the politics of the female body may well be familiar territory but Pamela Stretton has developed such a unique aesthetic and medium of expression that she has invigorated this popular trope. Instead of retaliating against or subverting the "male gaze", Stretton conjures the "female gaze"; that commanding, critical voice that has internalized external messages about the body.

Like artists William Kentridge and Tanya Poole, who have both created a distinctive medium to suit their subject matter, Stretton's novel mode of expression doesn't function as a superfluous device designed to elicit attention; it is an integral part of her artworks. This renders her process of art-making as significant as the iconography that she employs.

Like an intricate mosaic, her artworks consist of thousands of small pieces collaged to form a cohesive whole. This method of art-making forces her audience to view her work from two perspectives: from afar to view the way in which each piece contributes towards a complex larger image and close up to study the sum of each part.

This duality juxtaposes the manner in which the female body is perceived in public and private realms. From afar, Stretton presents isolated elements of a woman's body: legs, a collarbone, waist, eyes and lips. With each segment of the body disconnected, she reveals the way in which society has deconstructed the female form; it is read as a collection of parts rather than integrated being. This not only underpins objectification of the female physique but emphasizes feelings of detachment that women experience in relationship to their bodies.

Unadorned, naked and anonymous, Stretton presents the female body as available for public scrutiny and consumption. Although the artworks are photographs of Stretton's body, she doesn't assert ownership of this personal domain.

She suggests that society's obsessive analysis of the body doesn't allow women to claim possession of their physical beings. Robbed of individuality, her body parts are submitted as generic forms that exude no personality or character beyond their exterior configuration.

Like visible pixels in a digital photograph, the collaged technique creates a visual disturbance. This disruption is what compels viewers to study Stretton's images more closely. It is then that the thousands of smaller images come into focus, uncovering the systems that govern every inch of the female body.

Measuring Up (2005) consists of images of a tape measure. Similarly, More or Less (2005) is made up of minute images of a scale.

Continuously weighed and measured, the body becomes an object rather than operating as a being with agency.

When such stringent control is exerted over the body, it is reduced to lumps of flesh much like meat that is sold according to its weight in supermarkets.

The Packaged Meat Series and Prime Cut (2006) underscore this concept. Prime Cut shows the image of a collarbone which has been fashioned from a collage of images of text relating to the sale of meat. Familiar labels such as "rump", "sell-by" and "passed" classify every inch of flesh.

In such a context, the body cannot function as an essential aspect of the self; it becomes an unruly element of the self that must be controlled.

Although the body can be rejected, it cannot be discarded. Don't Look Down (2007) addresses this conundrum. Featuring an image of an eye desisting from looking down at the body, Stretton suggests that dismissing the body is manifested in the denial of its existence. This sheds light on why it has become necessary for the psyche to sever its connection from the physical entity that it is attached to.

Stretton's original technique has required a clinical approach to art-making: each image has been plotted on the computer, measured, dissected and then reassembled. Not only does this advance her intent to create distance between herself and her art, but it also mirrors the way in which the female form is scrutinized in popular culture.

When one views Stretton's artworks close up, it becomes impossible to identify the visual cues that give definition to the body parts described; one gets lost in collaged images. It is a confusing and disturbing vision in which the body has morphed into a vast landscape that is no longer associated with physicality.

Stretton proposes that society's demands on the female form are so intrusive that they have permeated every aspect of the physical and emotional self. And it is here that we see Stretton articulating the destructive nature of the female gaze; which she described as a penetrating stare that ignites continuing skirmishes between the flesh and the mind.

2006 All rights reserved. Origination by Di Conradie.