“Hardcore” is the 18-person, multigenerational exhibition at the storied Sadie Coles HQ (SCHQ) gallery in London, UK. Curated by SCHQ directors John O’Doherty and Sadie Coles, it was conceived as an antidote to an era of “cancel culture” wherein a puritanical, absolute sexual morality has resulted in timidity in the arts, a realm that should be sacrosanct in exploring what is “difficult” and “nuanced.” While inclusive of some very fine work, “Hardcore” succumbs to the perils of curating against something as opposed to for something.

“A hardcore,” states the British artist and writer Reba Maybury in “Hardcore’s” press release, “rejects niceties because to be hardcore is to never fall into the safe and simple parameters of right or wrong. Today this seems to be an unnecessarily rare, even brave position to take.” As a self-described “political dominatrix,” Maybury may have special insight into the extremes of human sexuality, but the somewhat hubristic, oppositional tenor of Maybury’s manifesto-like screed mirrors the ironic lack of nuance in the exhibition itself. By positioning “hardcore” sexualities as somehow more real or true than comparatively common or gentle manifestations, the binary is not proved inadequate in capturing human sexual experience, only inverted.

There are notable successes in “Hardcore,” works of enduring beauty and power from artists of this generation and those prior: Joan Semmel’s tenderly painted, cropped images of nude anatomy continue to evoke sensorially; Miriam Cahn’s masturbating figure in the drawing selbstgenügsam, 2019, depicts a welcome jouissance; the excellent Czech painter Stanislava Kovalcikova’s hallucinatory compositions evoke tension between curiosity and fear. Meanwhile, multimedia artists Darja Bajagić and Tishan Hsu each engage with the ambivalence of sex in the age of the Internet: Bajagić’s collection of “Ex Axes,” 2023, and photocollage, Ultimate Reality, 2019, are wrought with pornography’s violent undertones, while Hsu’s Double Interface – Green, 2023, is the only work to make explicit reference to the centrality of the screen as mediating interface in sex today—an otherwise conspicuous curatorial oversight.

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, The Brad Johnson Tape [REPAIR], 2017–2022, mixed media, overall dimensions 279 × 545 × 48 centimetres. Photo: Katie Morrison and Sadie Coles HQ, London. © Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Courtesy the artist.

The most common offence in “Hardcore” is the rote employment of signs and materials of sexual subcultures— e.g., Bondage, discipline, submission & sadism (BDSM)— that have historically possessed transgressive cachet. Italian artist Monica Bonvicini’s leather-belt tapestry Beltdecke #6, 2023, and animatronic leather whip Breathing (calm), 2023, and American sculptor Elaine Cameron-Weir’s hairshirt with lucky cilice SS 23 cartoon violence collection, 2023, are each fastidiously constructed and physically impactful but ring hollow in their trendiness and lack of pretext. Meanwhile, the inert, decorative kitsch of contemporary artist KING COBRA’s (Doreen Lynette Garner) sculptures White Bread, 2021, and In the Feast of Hogs, 2022, are more reminiscent of Halloween decor than, say, the bacchanalian horror of those gutted animal carcasses suspended by the Viennese Actionists decades before.

Other works featured fall short with respect to the “urgency” Maybury repeatedly invokes, fixating safely on the sexual politics du jour of the previous century. For instance, superstar feminist artist Carolee Schneemann contributed her notorious grid of vulvas with ironical captions, Vulva’s Morphia, 1995. Infamous in its day for its brazen and theory-inflected approach to the objectification of women’s sexual life and reproductive organs, it now evokes the Etsy cottage industry of needlepoints, depicting lopsided breasts and engorged labia. Definitive progress notwithstanding, the suppression of women’s sexuality and objectification of being have been sanctioned, even celebrated—views expressed in public in the West for at least half of a century now. In relegating so much curatorial space to these symbols of bygone controversies, the curators forfeited an opportunity to exhibit work dealing in the particular sexual dynamics emergent today, particularly from the perspective of a post- Internet world.

The most ambitious work in “Hardcore” is The Brad Johnson Tape [REPAIR], 2017–2022, a multimedia installation by the American interdisciplinary artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Amid the installation’s parts are framed letters, a man’s shoes and a small television featuring a 90-minute VHS recording of McClodden wearing a sailor’s uniform, self-flagellating while reading works by the late, little-known poet and ex-navy soldier Brad Johnson. Here there is at least a justification for the inclusion of the trappings of BDSM (more leather, whips and chains) via Johnson’s sexual proclivities and preoccupation with subjugation. Exhibiting impressive scope and insight, McClodden has collected and meticulously arranged the various Brad-related objects into a kind of shrine, evoking the obsessive nature of the parasocial relationship—a phenomenon that has grown in relevance and prominence amidst the proliferation of digital exhibitionists and their followers (voyeurs). McClodden has characterized her fascination with, and desire for, Johnson as mostly platonic, but in reading his poetry, donning his uniform and engaging in the ritualized practices of his private domain, she embodies the neurotic tension between the desire to possess and to be the love object.

Elaine Cameron-Weir, hairshirt with lucky cilice SS 23 cartoon violence collection, 2023, horse leather trench coat, aluminum, bronze, spray paint, horseshoes, stainless steel, calf leather, studs, dimensions variable. Photo: Katie Morrison and Sadie Coles HQ, London. © Elaine Cameron-Weir. Courtesy the artist, JTT, New York, and Hannah Hoffman, Los Angeles.

A brief glance at the works featured in “Hardcore” would suggest that the central targets of the aforementioned “cancel culture” have been the proponents of anonymous, subterranean subcultures like BDSM as opposed to individuals of varying notoriety who have violated consent in an environment of rapidly evolving sexual mores. O’Doherty’s and Coles’s admonition against the creatively nullifying effects of said culture of paranoia and accusation is laudable, and SCHQ boasts a record of showing truly heterodox artists since their inaugural exhibition of painter John Currin’s work in 1997, but “Hardcore” falls short of both their intentions and history. The overrepresentation of the tropes of BDSM and the resuscitation of second-wave feminist critiques determined this failure. The transgressions of the former have been integrated, first by 20th-century artists such as the BDSM photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and increasingly by luxury fashion houses like Balenciaga. Meanwhile, leather harnesses and whips became routine stage apparel for pop stars in the 2010s, intersecting with the third-wave feminist tendency to reclaim women’s sexuality via brazen exhibition—a tactic that has been wholly co-opted by the market in advertising.

By prioritizing expository, sensationalist works of long-since-accepted subcultures, “Hardcore” mostly fails to challenge the sexual tensions of the present or engage with eternal truths about the human sexual experience and psyche. In other words, “Hardcore” does not go all that hard. ❚

“Hardcore” was exhibited at Sadie Coles HQ, London, from May 25, 2023, to August 5, 2023.

Jessica Baldanza is a writer from Toronto currently living in London, UK.

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