Review of Julie Verhoeven: Whiskers Between My Legs, ICA, London

Described as a “grotto of visual excess” Julie Verhoeven’s exploration of gender identity past and present is a disturbing explosion of vulgar kitsch and womanhood. Invited to take over the Fox Reading Room at the ICA, the fashion designer has combined film, illustration and mixed media sculpture to create a surreal installation that is both disconcerting yet provocative.

Verhoeven says that the starting point for Whiskers Between My Legs was the intro to 1970s Joan Collins movie The Stud, which showcases “luscious pin ups, titillating dressing and undressing and buckets of tongue-in-cheek innuendo,” and this is obvious in her exaggerated, playful approach to gender characteristics. Bright and clashing colours create a profusion of camp, calling on the over the top aesthetics of 1960s Pop Art and questioning what “good taste” is. When it comes to incorporating elements of the female form Verhoeven doesn’t hold back, with bums, boobs and vaginas everywhere in all mediums and materials featured.

Once inside you can’t escape the extreme femininity of the grotto. Formed from a collage of fabrics, found objects and soft sculpture, each element represents a different aspect of womanliness or a female stereotype. The choice of fabrics and items may appear random, but they each have their own feminine connotations. Some of the references are subtle, such as the toilet seats scattered across the room, but most are deliberately obvious, including yellow rubber gloves, tea towels and the clothes hangers dangling from the ceiling.
Despite the overflow of excess, the most eye catching component of the installation is the video, starring Verhoeven herself. Displayed on 5 screens of fluctuating sizes throughout the reading room – four in colour and one in black and white – Verhoeven and a selection of other women in various stages of undress dance around with props and objects symbolising vaginas. The accompanying music is a playlist featuring a range of styles from several decades that investigate or represent a different take on womanhood, whether the lyrics are enpowering or promote patriarchal values. These shots are interspersed with hand drawn animations that take flamboyant to the next level, including a walking penis in high heels and a breast sewing machine with a nipple for a needle.

Verhoeven may be moving towards a more multi-disciplinary practice, but her background in fashion is still clearly visible. The featured film is packed with model-like beauties, posing, pouting and twirling as though in a fashion film, and many of the stereotypes she draws on stem from clothing or appearance. The installation is reminiscent of the work of feminist artists both historical and contemporary. British artist Sarah Lucas can be seen in Verhoeven’s use of furniture and inanimate objects to symbolise the female form, breaking it down into parts rather than viewing as a whole – a metaphor for the male gaze. Feminist powerhouse Judy Chicago’s concept of taking “traditionally female” techniques, such as needlework, and using them in an original, pro-woman manner is visible, as is Cindy Sherman’s extreme parodying of pop culture and the media.

Verhoeven hopes that through Whiskers Between My Legs viewers will question their own notions of gender identity, and with only two weeks left at the ICA this immersive masterpiece of girl power and role defiance is not to be missed.

Julie Verhoeven: Whiskers Between My Legs, until 18 January, Fox Reading Room, ICA, London.

Sophie Lloyd

1. Julie Verhoeven: Whiskers Between My Legs, courtesy of ICA.