If you like Banksy, then you will love Nancy Fouts. The two artists share that same subversive humour, cleverness and imagination. With Fouts, however, you get a new dimension, literally, as she expresses herself through a variety of styles of sculpture as well as painting.
In particular, she loves to juxtapose seemingly disconnected objects in order to subvert their function in a playful way. As she puts it, “the real and the surreal go together”. So, a gun is covered in rose thorns to make it impossible to use without hurting oneself, a hummingbird’s long bill acts as a stylus on a record turntable, a rabbit is wearing curlers, a peacock’s fan becomes an Indian chief’s headdress, a lovebird plays with the ring pull of a grenade, a crow wears a ponytail and so on and so forth. As Sir Peter Blake once said, “she makes everyday objects extraordinary”.
There are echoes of Marcel Duchamp here, and she nods to him with Marcel Duchamp’s Lost Case, a leather suitcase full of smokers’ pipes, a sort of contemporary art in-joke.
Fouts shows great versatility in her craft. She taught herself taxidermy, for example, for the making of the birds and animals she uses. Her sculptural detail is often meticulous and her reinterpretation of old art works is extraordinary as well as amusing.
This new exhibition, Nancy Fouts, Down the Rabbit Hole brings together more than 50 of the artist’s works constructed over the last decade with some new ones not seen before. Aside from nature, recurrent themes are religious iconography, art history and time.
The window of Flowers Cork Street Gallery contains an old-fashioned grandfather clock in which the swinging pendulum has smashed through its glass panels. An hourglass is filled with sand at both ends and entitled Love. It has nowhere to go, timeless. A rocking chair is merged with the electric chair, complete with straps – you can lull yourself to death.
There’s a certain childlike creativity permeating the show. Fouts once said that a kind of innocence allows you to see more in something than a smart wise person who only sees things in a certain way.
Religion is the perfect vehicle for the iconoclast and Christianity bears the brunt. Jesus in crucifixion pose is seen wearing boxing trunks and gloves, and elsewhere he is performing a high-wire act. There’s a table-football game in which Jesus is playing in goal to teams of blue and red nuns. A group of Madonnas are displayed as skittles.
Unlike Banksy, there’s no overt political messages in Fouts’s work with the exception of a bible that is peppered with bullet holes. This reminds us of the close relationship between religion and guns in the American south where Fouts was raised, though she has lived in London since the 1960s, having attended Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art.
It’s ironic that the least playful objects on view are three large collages comprising a broad assortment of religious icons together with coins, medals and various other religious ephemera, all carefully arranged in a process that must have taken her ages to complete. But having worked for decades in advertising and commercial work – she has designed album covers for Jethro Tull and Steeleye Span, for example – she now has free rein to do exactly what she wants.
And one of these things, her art history theme, is both ingenious and fun. Just as she merges an owl with a butterfly in the nature theme, she has painted an LS Lowry within the background of a Breughel. Blinded by the Light takes a Joshua Reynold’s portrait and has the subject shielding his eyes as an exterior light is aimed at him. Night Scene, based on The Empire of Light by Magritte is a painting illuminated by a real electric light at its centre, while Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre is copied but given a 90 degree angle so that it can be hung in a corner.
And on your way out, the “x” of the exit sign is a cross being borne by Jesus.
Nancy Fouts, Down the Rabbit Hole is showing at Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London W1S 3LZ until 12 May 2018
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.