Keith Farquhar, ‘Cycling Shorts’, 2010, inkjet on cardboard cut-out and cardboard plinth. Courtesy HOTEL London

Entering More Nudes in Colour, feels like gate-crashing the sanctum of an unknown cult. Under Studio Voltaire’s ecclesiastic roof stand 19 life-size cardboard cut-out torsos arranged on cardboard plinths, in a tight circle, in the centre of the gallery. Jointly commissioned with Tramway, Glasgow, they are the newest additions to Keith Farquhar’s ongoing series of cut-out works. The simple self-supporting structures, commonly used as in-store marketing or theatrical scenery, each feature a different photographic reproduction of a paint-spattered nude and are turned inward toward the circle’s invisible centre-point. As a group they simultaneously objectify the body and, despite being severed at the neck, are imbued with a sense of personality and life through their individual physical characteristics that reject the ubiquitous perfection of both the classical nude and the contemporary, marketing-driven, body ideal.

The atypical installation immediately questions how the viewer should interact with the work: are we, for instance, allowed to enter the circle? The act requires a tight squeeze through one of the narrow gaps between the works, risking knocking over the lightweight sculptures. Farquhar does seem to be inviting us to take the risk only by allowing an unimpeded view of the figures from within the ring. This, together with the invocation—as the viewer negotiates past the figures—of the personal space that the subjects who posed for Farquhar’s lens once commanded, implicates us in the theatre the artist has conceived with a sense of uncomfortable jeopardy. The movement necessary, as one turns to take in the encircling figures, is however strikingly at odds with the stillness of the 19 compatriots, marking the viewer as the dominant performer in this small drama. The fact that all but one nude is female also plays on the idea of a conflicting, unequal, power balance, as Farquhar brings to the foreground art historical notions of the male artistic gaze upon, and use of, the female subject, through direct application of paint onto the women’s bodies. The artist has objectified them, first by using the models as stand-ins for a conventional painting surface, and then further silencing them by their resurrection as sculptures.

Deftly, Farquhar avoids the odious undertones of misogyny that could impeach him here, by allowing the individuality of the photographed women to persevere through the work’s production: different paint applications seem to represent the models’ individual personalities, the height of the cut-outs is varied, physical differences and unique titles are accentuated to further underline their individuality. In allowing one male figure to be depicted, perhaps a selfportrait, Farquhar further democratises the work, undermining his traditional and supposed position of control, both as a man and as the artist. The gender politics at play here has been investigated previously in his work: More Nudes In Colour appears to partner an earlier installation, ‘Atomised’, 2005, which featured a tower of factory folded sweatshirts, and commented on issues of contemporary masculinity. In both instances gender identity is packaged, fabricated and processed with the motifs of consumerism, be it mass-produced clothing or the paraphernalia of in-store marketing. The artist addresses much in this deceptively simple installation. As well as his commentary on gender and sexuality, there are strong art historical references made in his choice of subject matter. One could easily identify a battle between the classicism of the bust, as exemplified by the matt-grey colouring of ‘Foundation’ and the paint application in ‘Purple Tuft’ that brings to mind the daubings of tribal body art. Some proclaim a cheekiness of spirit to them—‘Bare Bum’ and ‘Blue Sky’—others have darker, sexually ambiguous, undertones nodding to the rituals of actionism. A figure covered in a dark, oily substance brings to mind environmental disasters—as recently seen off the Gulf of Mexico—and the performative protests that are frequently enacted as a reaction to them.

As each sculpture asks us to make connections ranging from the pragmatic to the frankly tenuous, one wonders whether Farquhar is merely collating a raft of semiotic exemplars, allowing the installation to mean anything to anyone. Yet he does it with a skill and subtlety of hand that gives the installation a purposeful simplicity—analogous to the simple flat-pack manner of construction—in which he bundles his tangents and references into an easily consumable package. It is a small, but effective, satire on the insatiable desires of the postcapitalist viewer.

Oliver Basciano is a writer based in London