Exhibition review: SKIN DEEP at HAY HILL GALLERY

This week I went to London to catch the end of Jamie McCartney’s solo show Skin Deep at the Hay Hill Gallery in Cork Street. After writing about Jamie’s Great Wall of Vagina a couple of years ago, I was excited at the prospect of seeing the finished work of art in person.

I was not disappointed.

                                               Skin Deep Exhibition at Hay Hill Gallery


Not only did I get to see the Great Wall of Vagina, the show also premières Jamie’s experimental photography work featuring a series of themed life-sized body portraits called Physical Photography Series, as well as his bronze sculptures The Impossibility of Passion, Skin Deep and Reclining Nude.

If you haven’t been already I would recommend you try and catch the show before it ends this Saturday and if you go on Saturday you’ll even get the chance to speak to the artist yourself as he’ll be in the gallery.

Jamie McCartney in front of the Great Wall of Vagina


The Great Wall of Vagina.

The Great Wall of Vagina, copyright of Jamie McCartney - Plaster cast vaginas & aluminium frames
                                               The Great Wall of Vagina, copyright of Jamie McCartney


So I finally got to see it in person. It is impressive and interesting for a number of reasons. First of all it is clear that a huge amount of work has gone into making the wall involving a huge number or women, 400 to be exact! 10 panels each displaying 4 rows of 10 vaginas make up a total of 4o vaginas per panel, and 40 times 10 panels make 400 different vaginas. Pretty impressive to have so many women physically involved in the creation of one work of art. McCartney’s perseverance is also impressive when you consider it took him a total of 5 years to create the finished work of art.

A couple of things struck me as I was looking at the piece. Seeing the individual plaster casts up-close I really got a sense of the skin, folds and all.

To begin with I also thought I saw a wart, however, on seeing more and more vaginas displaying the same perfectly half-round wart, I realised that what I was actually looking at was piercings.

That made me think of two things.Detail of sculpture by Jamie McCartney. Vagina with single piercings (close-up). Copyright by Jamie McCartneyDetail of sculpture by Jamie McCartney. Vagina w. many piercings (close-up). Copyright by Jamie McCartney

First, I wondered how these impressions of piercings might be perceived if the Great Wall of Vagina was to be analysed by people a thousand years from now. Would they understand what they were looking at? Are genital piercings just a temporary fashion phenomenon or something that’s here to stay?

Second, I wondered if the women who have volunteered for this project are a certain open-minded or liberated breed of woman. After all it takes a lot of confidence and trust to lie down and lay bare your most private parts to a complete stranger you have no intention of getting sexually intimate with. But even if it is a group of liberal minded women who have bared their most private for McCartney, there is no conformity in the casts which vary hugely in visual appearance.

Plaster cast showing three vaginas - butterfly, piercing, slimThree different labial shapes; butterfly, protruding and slim.


The wall provides the viewer with an eye-opening aesthetic experience showcasing the fantastic variety in shape size and form of female genitalia. Not only is there great variety between the individual casts when seen straight on, if you look at the panels from below you will notice even more variety.

Socio-political art.

But the wall is not just an aesthetic celebration of the variety of female genitalia. The wall is an important piece of art because it is a socio-political response to the increase in cosmetic labial surgery. McCartney hopes the wall will have an educational impact on men as well as women and there are plans for the wall to tour UK schools accompanied by a panel of sexual health experts.

The educational aspect of this piece is very important to the artist and he wants the wall to be seen by as many people as possible in future. The Great Wall of Vagina is therefore not for sale to private collectors as McCartney want the piece to go to a museum that is willing to exhibit the piece.

But don’t despair if you’re a private collector who would like to buy a panel of plaster cast vaginas. McCartney has produced a number of other panels which range in size from 10 vaginas, displayed in a aluminium frame as either a straight vertical line or as a straight horizontal line, to panels displaying 24, 57 or 70 vaginas. For more information about the vagina panel options click here.

Vagina panel. Plaster cast of vaginas set in aluminium frame. Copyright by Jamie McCartney

This is erotic art…

As I was walking around the Hay Hill Gallery there was a video looping of Jamie McCartney talking about his Great Wall of Vagina – insisting again and again that his work of art was NOT erotic art.

Well. I agree and I disagree. McCartney explained that his work of art is not erotic because it is not made with the intention of creating sexual stimulation and I can report that it does not arouse sexual stimulation either (at least not in me).

But I disagree with McCartney’s definition of erotic art. To me at least, erotic art is precisely art that deals with eroticism or sexuality, where the aim of the artist is not to encourage sexual stimulation but rather provoke an aesthetic, an intellectual or emotional reaction as a response to the artwork.

The Great Wall of Vagina deals with the vagina as a body part. But the vagina is nevertheless intrinsically linked with the erotic. The socio-political aim of this great work of art is precisely to create debate around the increase in cosmetic surgery on labia which is primarily linked to concerns about being erotically attractive.

The Male Member

There are a couple of other really interesting sculptural pieces in the show that I think are worth mentioning.

’4 x 4′ is a sculpture by McCartney that deals with the male ego’s fascination with the erect male member and the need to fit in. You can read more about the background for the piece here in the Skin Deep exhibition catalogue.

 4x4 - plaster cast of erejct penises by Jamie McCartney                                ’4 x 4 ‘ – Plaster cast. Sculpture by Jamie McCartney.

‘Old Glory’, is a sculpture that should, in his own words, be seen as a comment on his sexual liberation but also as a piece that lampoons the male ego. Again, you can read more about the background for this piece here in the Skin Deep exhibition catalogue.

Old Glory. Sculpture mimicking the American flag using plaster cast of penishead. Copyright by Jamie McCartney
               ‘Old Glory’. Resin, wood and emulsion paint. Sculpture by Jamie McCartney.


‘Actaeon’ is another interesting piece by McCartney. Here sensuality, eroticism, man and animal are all tied up in a piece that reference old Greek mythology. Read more here…

Actaeon - Dear hide moulded into the shape of a male torsoe by Sculptor Jamie McCartney            ‘Actaeon’. Dear hide, mahogany and glass. Sculpture by Jamie McCartney.


Physical Photography Series

The Skin Deep show also includes the Physical Photography Series, which is the outcome of Jamie McCartney’s experimental photographic work perfected over the last two years.

The technique involves close body contact between Jamie’s models and his photographic / scanning equipment followed by digital manipulation. The resulting images are unlike anything else I have personally seen before. Saying that I am definitely not the best person to pass comment on these with my limited knowledge on photography. I will say this though. The impact of the images from the Physical Photography Series is nowhere close to the impression you get when you stand in front of the huge prints in the gallery.

The impression I got when looking at the physical photography series was one of fluidity and disjointedness, luminosity and darkness. The fact that you can see where the glass of the scanner has made contact with the skin makes for some interesting visual effects and contrasts.

Image showing a naked female in a contorted pose. Title: Goddess. Medium: C-type Print from the Physical Photography Series. Copyright by Jamie McCartney‘Goddess’ – Digital C-type print. Copyright by Jamie McCartney.


My personal favourite in terms of aesthetics is ‘Goddess’ (seen above) but when it comes to the story behind the images I think ‘Fallen Angel’ (see below) is my favourite.


Image of naked female with red nails, tattooed wings and cigaret. Fallen Angel - C-type print from the Physical Photography Series. Copyright by Jamie McCartney‘Fallen Angel’. Digital C-type print. Copyright by Jamie McCartney.


I like the thoughts McCartney expressed in connection with ‘Skin Deep’ are very interesting not least because of what he says about his model Scarlett:

“We know nothing about her, other than the shape she makes…It’s a beautiful image. She looks beautiful, but can you desire her without knowing her? Is the attraction…only skin deep?”
Image showing naked female lying on her front on animal skin. Skin Deep, C-type print. Copyright by Jamie McCartney      ‘Skin Deep’ – Digital C-type print. Copyright by Jamie McCartney.


It is poignant because it could in fact just as easily apply to any another image or work of art portraying another beautiful person. How often have we not found ourselves fancying someone that we did not know at all!

As mentioned there are only a couple of days left of the show. But you need any more information or want to speak to Jamie McCartney you can always go to his website.



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