A passion for the body: The work of Alvin Booth

©Peter Hamilton 2016

During his emergence as a leading contemporary artist over the last three decades, Alvin Booth's work has focused almost exclusively on the human body as his subject, most often through representations of the female form. At the heart of these works, made in a range of media that include photography, film, printmaking and sculpture, lies his constant search for ways of expressing the elusive concept of beauty. Booth’s first artworks (whole-body casts of female models) were made in the mid-1980s, and inspired initially by an encounter with a sculptor in Oxford — whose credo was that all of her works should have the label "Please Touch" on them. The idea that art could be sensuous in the fuller sense — "touchable" and also playful — was a revelation to him.

​The sting in the tail, however, is that far from being conventional representations of beautiful women, the work Booth is best known for also negotiates the inherently hazy artistic line between sensuality and voyeurism, a route all-too necessarily taken in a postmodern society. Despite the allusion to surrealism in this work, Booth is not too concerned with calling on Freudian notions to justify the symbolism of his art. He is more interested in how it might amuse and delight the senses.

​ The work shown by Alvin Booth at Acte 2 in this exhibition take two main forms: his crepuscular ‘Nocturnes’, and a novel group of anthropomorphic sculptural pieces that give a nod to fashion and furnishings but remain firmly in the world of Duchamp, Dali and the late Louise Bourgeois. ​In both cases, Booth's fascination with illusion, puns and word-play come to the fore. Initially his ‘Nocturnes’ seem the very negation of photographic pictures for at first sight there is nothing to see but a large frame of black plexiglass.  But as darkness falls, the glass begins to emit some light and an image of a dancer's beautiful form slowly emerges from the gloom, to float sensuously in its own frame of wonders.

​The process involved in making these prints alludes to the mystery and promise of "graphene", the new miracle material.  But as Booth seems to be saying in this work, emergent technologies may offer us revolutionary processes and new insights, but at base we remain embodied creatures, and our art will always be concerned with our physicality and sensuality.

​In Booth's inventions, the female (and sometimes the male) body is all too ready to give up its secrets as a source of sensual delight, so that it can be transformed into an object of amazement. The breast (not conventionally part of what we might think of as soft furnishings) has become in his imagination an integral element of a large and comfortable sofa — the ultimate “Reclining Nude” as its title might suggest.  

​The high-heeled shoe for instance — although long considered to be laden with erotic associations for both women and men — has also been re-conceptualised by Booth. Using an enlarged mould of the male member his re-modelled high-heels, each one ingeniously cast as an outsize penis with its heel formed by a scrotum, crystallise and fix their erotic charge in what is at one and the same time a ludic but entirely functional item of a wardrobe.

​The ideas underpinning these works are those of appropriation and re-creation. They generate a sort of reverse ergonomics of sensuality and gender, where the body parts associated with sexuality and physical pleasure are re-conceptualised by Booth as things to be given useable if novel forms.