Lisa Gunn was only 21 years old when a life-changing car accident meant that she had to use a wheelchair. As an art student, she had previously been producing abstract expressionist painting, yet the new limitations placed on her body made impossible the gestural ease she had once taken for granted.
Photography proved a revelatory alternative, particularly as she turned the lens upon herself. The change was initially an uncomfortable one. She began to explore the idea of femininity and sexuality in terms of her own body after a fellow student remarked that she would be “quite attractive” if she wasn’t in a wheelchair. The shocking statement compelled her to engage with the notion of the erotic for differently abled people, leading to images such as Victoria.
“By subverting an expected pose, she forces viewers to confront their reflexive assumptions”
Gunn’s 2003 photo references the sensual imagery of the surrealists, such as Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres, and the overexposed treatment has more than a nod of Victorian plate photography, a technology that was quickly co-opted to create extensive medical records, as well as disseminating sexually explicit imagery. The loosely laced corset is also imbued with meaning: it’s a symbol of seduction, but also of more archaic forms of bodily repair, as evidenced by those worn and decorated by Frida Kahlo, who also endured severe spinal injuries.
While plenty of Gunn’s portraits feature her suspended in water, moving freely in a way that has become impossible on land, this image forces the viewer to encounter her wheelchair as an intrinsic part of herself. By subverting an expected pose (sitting sideways on the chair and facing away from the camera) she forces viewers to confront their reflexive assumptions.
Lisa Gunn’s Victoria is included in a new exhibition Creative Connections, at Herbert Art Gallery, in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery. The artworks on show were selected by local students from Coventry.
Holly Black is Elephant’s managing editor
Creative Connections, Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, until 30 May