BY MIN CHEN
Grace Jones—the peerless musician, artist, provocateuse, and iconoclast bold with inventive vision and imagination—will not be contained by plain description. Throughout the ages, she’s been variously characterized as an androgynous creature descended from space, a diva trailed by a collection of fur coats, and a man-desiring party animal still shiny from the disco era. Even Jones herself, in her 2015 memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, goes with, “a voracious she-centaur emerging from an unknown abyss and confronting people’s fears.” These portraits suffice and do not suffice, which suits Jones’ restless, boundary-smashing MO anyway. One does not spend a career fearlessly kicking against expectations and conventions only to be pinned down at the end.
This idea that Jones is “she-centaur”—and thus, no mere mortal—stems naturally from her run of 1980s albums. While her earlier record covers, such as 1977’s Portfolio and 1978’s Fame, presented vigorous, illustrative portraits created by Richard Bernstein, her later attention-getting sleeves painted their creator as steely-eyed enigma (1980’s Warm Leatherette), and owner of anatomically impossible features (1985’s Slave To The Rhythm) and physicality (1985’s compilation Island Life). Her live act, too, unfolded less like a standard-issue concert than a performance art piece. These artifacts were the result of Jones’ long and legendary collaboration with French illustrator and graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude, who designed her covers and live shows, directed her videos, and assisted her image making (they also had quite the tempestuous relationship). Under Goude’s guidance and through his lens, Jones was remade into a sleek, mighty figure—“new and strong and ambiguous,” in his words—angular from her flat-top haircut right down to her finely tailored Armani suit (see 1981’s Nightclubbing). She’s ostensibly human, but more specifically, art object.
In fact, Goude viewed her as such. Making the cover for Island Life involved a process of photographing Jones’ body in various positions, before tearing up and reassembling the images to create that iconic gravity and physicality-defying pose. “Credible illusion,” he said, was the aim. “I cut her legs apart, lengthened them, and turned her body completely to face the audience,” he wrote in his 1982 book Jungle Fever, “then I started painting, joining up all those pieces to give the illusion that Grace Jones actually posed for the photograph and that only she was capable of assuming such a position.” Likewise, the cover of Slave To The Rhythm manipulated yet another photograph of Jones to jaw-dropping effect.
At its peak, their professional partnership produced the 1982 long-form video A One Man Show, directed by Goude, which interspersed live footage of Jones’ live performances at London’s Drury Lane Theatre and New York’s Savoy Theater with photographs and avant-garde vignettes. They’re a sensational 45 minutes that capture Jones in all her surreal regality—from her severe, cymbal-bashing rendition of “Warm Leatherette,” right through to the urgent “Living My Life” (“You can’t stop me”), delivered with the perfect imperious glare. She’s a vital performer, in service of music as much as image, in command of a robust voice as much as the stage—a set minimally decorated with a giant staircase around and on which she preened and prowled.
Indeed, central to Jones’ art is her body itself. On stage and on her album covers, she cut an authoritative figure; and as a model and muse, she’s often left her body in the hands of fellow artists. She’s let Keith Haring paint her, Robert Mapplethorpe photograph her, and Goude, of course, carefully mold her. Of her “intimidating” proportions, he’s said, “I tried to emphasize that body shape through a sort of minimalist German expressionism, with its games of shadows and its angular shapes.” In “Libertango,” a brief segment of A One Man Show, Jones sits passively in a tall conical hat, with various geometrical forms obscuring her face, each secured to her head with elastic ties. Slowly, a hand reaches out to pull each one of those shapes off her face and snip off the bands to uncover the woman underneath. It’s a hypnotic thing to watch; an act of concealing and revealing, the performer being performed on.
Which admits a darker side to the entire enterprise. Goude’s art and image making for Jones, after all, involved a stunning measure of objectification, a manipulation or magnification of her proportions to arrive at a creature that’s beyond human. It is a through line across his work—not just in his images of the singer, but broadly, of black woman. As he told People in 1979, “Blacks are the premise of my work.” Though, there’s no nuanced exploration of race or identity here; instead, Goude’s approach leaned toward fetishization and exoticization of black skin and features, what he called “savage aesthetics.”
Hence, his sleeve for Island Life; his 1982 photo book, billed as a celebration of black women and troublingly titled Jungle Fever, the cover of which depicted Jones naked in a cage, surrounded by raw meat; and his infamous 1976 portrait of Caroline Beaumont (which he recreated in 2014 for Paper), whose rear he enhanced or in his words, “improv[ed].” And not for nothing did he once obnoxiously declare, in reference to model Toukie Smith: “I had always admired black women’s backsides, the ones who look like racehorses. Toukie’s backside was voluptuous enough, but nowhere near a racehorse’s ass, so I gave her one. There she was, my dream come true, in living color.”
If Goude’s never been shy about his regressive ideas about black femininity, Jones has never not defended her work with him. On the photograph of her in Jungle Fever, she noted in 2015, “It wasn’t racist at all. It was him basically putting me on a pedestal, really.” Asked by NPR in the same year about how these images might sit uneasily with contemporary viewers, she, in true Grace Jones fashion, offered, “I don’t care,” and added, “Some people feel uncomfortable with certain types of art, but it’s an art form for me.” That, ultimately, might be where their collaborative work finds its cutting edge: in controversy.
Those record covers and live performances were no polite affairs, but in their slick textures and pointed aspects, stalked the unorthodox in pursuit of the shock factor. They were images intended to shake up the normal, whether through their depiction of androgyny, of exploitation, of inhibition, or of a powerful black woman (or “not your average woman”). They’re tricky, confrontational artifacts—“a slap in the face to all the entertainment of the day,” said Goude—and not intended for comfortable consumption. It’s only fitting, then, that they should all frame and feature Grace Jones. Because really, who else?