All fantasy, all good theater, requires some suspension of disbelief, a surrender to the moment. Total acceptance of what lies before us is what gives works of art their undeniable power. Isabelle Albuquerque’s work induces that suspension of disbelief, conjuring meaning from metaphor, innuendo, and metamorphosis. All of these phenomena come to the fore in a series of figures that manipulate and reconfigure reality. Albuquerque further ratchets up the tension by infusing the conflicts and combinations of her reconstituted elements with the heat of sexuality.
“Sextet,” Albuquerque’s first solo exhibition, focused on six headless casts of the artist’s naked body, from her series “Orgy for 10 People in One Body.” Beginning with 3D-scanned self-portraits, Albuquerque makes human-scale figures, each fabricated in a single material—bronze, cast resin, and wood. Posed in erotic positions around the gallery, these shiny white, black, and gold figures were dramatically charged, embodying female subjectivity and the anticipation of orgasm, idealized and celebratory expressions of female sexuality. The absence of the heads, which was not disturbing (at least to this viewer), not only recalls the frequent use of headless mannequins in store displays and windows, it also allows a fantastical space for your own head. Albuquerque’s focus is on the body itself—if you are female or female-identifying, that body is some version of your own.
Despite the hyper-reality, her work becomes a seductive enchantment. This is particularly true for Body: 5—a reclining hybrid figure with two hoofed limbs and two hands, simultaneously spotted deer and woman. It’s tempting to see 5 in mythic terms, an adorably innocent fawn from Bambi or the Native American Deer Woman. One telling detail, however, removes the creature from this virginal company—she reclines on one elbow with a wedding ring on her delicately flocked hand.
It’s possible that photographic images, reduced to two dimensions and the size of a magazine page, will radically alter perceptions of Albuquerque’s work and lead to misperceptions. Depending on the sensibility and sexuality of the viewer, these images may appear as pornographic or misogynistic. Full of libidinous energy and humor, the works featured in “Sextet” are unabashed female erotica. The evergreen controversy that attempts to define the difference between the “naked” and the “nude” is only part of the frisson generated by these figures. They are oddly classical in the way that they contain and express both nudity and nakedness. Aside from the flocked 5, these are hairless, wrinkle-free, young female bodies; their sexual postures move them into a realm that is simultaneously starkly real and entirely fantastical. In other words, they perfectly encapsulate the condition of being female: a human creature whose every aspect speaks of sexuality yet who is also a thinking, independent being with agency. In harnessing these different, non-exclusive definitions of femaleness, Albuquerque gets to something profound, essential, and deeply queer.