Skin deep

Ever seen the beauty of acne, or the fine patterns painted on the body by psoriasis? John Stones looks forward to two exhibitions that explore skin, that most versatile of membranes, in its historical and medical – as well as artistic – context. There’s a lot more to body art than tattoos, it seems

The mummified body of Alpine shepherd Oetzi has revealed many fascinating facts about our ancestors who lived 5000 years ago, not least a penchant for tattoos. His remarkably well-preserved body is covered in them, demonstrating that the graphic imperative need not be restricted to paper or inanimate surfaces, but, of course, applies to the skin that covers our bodies too.

The interface between biology and design, now being explored with increasing zeal and sophistication, has tended to focus largely on the three-dimensional and structural – think, for instance, of Joris Laarman’s bone-inspired art furniture. And yet from Photoshopped portraits to tattoos, from plastic surgery to make-up, there is also an intimate connection between graphics and the surfaces of our bodies.

Picking up on this are two intriguing shows opening either side of the Atlantic. Dead or Alive, at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, is the more general show, including a variety of installations and objects constructed from organic materials. Particularly striking are two self-portraits. One, by Cuban artist Fabián Peña, shows a skull painstakingly made up of tiny cockroach wings, while in another Dutchman Levi van Veluw covers his face in vegetation and fauna, merging the genres of landscape and portraiture.

A show opening in June at London’s Wellcome Collection is set to delve into this subject further. Simply titled Skin (and designed by Jesus Moreno Associates and Maison Beton), it’s largely historical in focus, but will be liberally interspersed with contemporary art and design. ’The show looks at parallel aspects of skin – on the one hand, there is allure and beauty, and then there is also the aspect of being repulsed,’ explains Lucy Shanahan, one of its curators. ’For instance, some skin conditions have very beautiful patterns – there is an Ingres-like drawing by Thomas Bateman of a woman with psoriasis gyrata on her back. There will be a lot of historical medical illustration, much of which is very beautiful in its own right.’

Tattoos are such an overwhelming subject that the curators have largely fought shy of including them. Included, however, are some Maori examples as well as 19th-century human tattoo specimens with rather dubious provenance – skin samples cut from the corpses of convicts and sailors.

Less macabre is the work of Rhian Solomon, which draws on geometric designs by pioneering Russian plastic surgeon Alexander Limberg to assist in surgical procedures. These are part of Skin Lab, the interactive side of the show in which visitors will also be able to try the Skinbag body suits developed by Olivier Goulet.

No less remarkable are the biologically inspired ceramics of Tamsin Van Essen, whose pots mimic skin conditions, some with a flaking glaze like psoriasis, others with acne-like pustules.

These same themes are being played with in the commercial world of fashion, but to very different ends. Take the extraordinary collaboration between make-up artist Alex Box and celebrity photographer Rankin. It began with Box bravely scribbling over some of Rankin’s images, which led to an exhibition and a book. At the end of her course in fine art, Box recounts that she ’started making things with skin, using body colours, advertising images and incorporating make-up into that’. The results are just as entitled to be seen as graphics as they are fashion, art or photography.

If skin is delimiting, a border or barrier, these works suggest that skin can also be point of convergence between a variety of disparate fields and is anything but superficial.

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