Friday, May 01, 2009

My Art, Not At All As Advertised

I was in my late teens when I became an artist.
I was already hyper-sensitive to the influence of advertising on my generation of young women. We couldn't help but get suckered punched by the constant bombardment of contradictory messages about how we should look and act and feel. For a while, we fought hard against the worst of the bullshit but in the end, most of us were ground down by it.
After I outgrew teenage awkwardness and turned into the sort of woman society considered attractive, I was, like many of my peers, objectified and harassed. At art school, my looks were more often commented upon than the art I made or the ideas I raised – not just by males but by heterosexual female lecturers.
For a brief time, I modeled. It was an angry response to my experience; if people were going to stare at me and treat me as an object no matter what I did, I might as well get paid for it. But endorsing products and values I didn't believe in got to me. I quickly gave it up. But not before I'd gained some insight into how entertainment and advertising media really worked. My first inspiration as a young artist was to find way to subvert it.
I had been looking at feminist and alternative art since I was a kid. However, most of it addressed a marginal audience: for instance, how many of us remember – let alone care about – the artist Judy Chicago? I always wanted to be at the white-hot core of popular culture rather than at the edge of it. I wanted art to exert the sort of influence that rock music then movies once did.
From the outset, I began creating images and objects that were seductive on a base level, that mimicked mass media's serial imagery in a format, sheen and flawlessness that was at once accessible and seductive. I inserted myself into them, objectifying myself, to redress the powerlessness I felt at being objectified – in other words, I turned myself into part of my 'product', something I could develop and control, even as I was evolving a more critical, ironic commentary on a culture in which such a self-obsessed concept of 'the brand of me' was gaining traction.
I went further, making large, glossy enamel paintings with surfaces as flawless as television screens. With their broad, bright patches of pretty, palatable colour, they were meant to be as easily consumed as candy – but ultimately just as corrosive. I wanted them to work the same way as good advertising, to incite some kind of impulsive desire.
The paintings (and figures in them) are supposed to be approachable and un-threatening, so that the viewer is suggestible, more open to their hidden meaning – a strategy commonly used in propaganda. Their effect emerges later, maybe after they've been looked at uncritically multiple times. Like advertising. Except that their message is deeply connected to my experience as their creator, as well as being subversive, disruptive – the very stuff of good art.
My commitment to the idea of these work being deeply connected to mass media was absolute. The proportions of their frames mimic those of roadsde billboards, A4 pages, or computer screens. The female character they portray (most of them versions of me) ape the subliminal body language of print- advertising or in the case of newer works, such as the Dangerous Career Babes, the expressionless, stiff-limbed, functional poses of Barbie dolls. I apply several coats of enamel paint to create a shiney, completely opaque veneer that reflects a shadowy image of the viewer onto the pseudo-perfect character on the painting's surface.
Of course, it has taken critics and institutional curators a while to 'get' it. Many still cling to an idea that art is less valid, less intellectually rigorous, because its 'pretty' or accessible. Their prejudice is derived, in part, from Conceptual Art, which became a major movement in the 60's and 70's. As Sol Lewitt defined it, more than 40 years ago, "In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."
Intriguingly, the planning and decisions for my enamel paintings are also made before the rigorous, hand-made but unemotional process of their execution. However, their execution is anything but perfunctory. They are the result of a deal of old-fashioned, painterly craft (a far cry from the industrial 'art fabricators' utilised by big-name, contemporary 'objective' conceptualists such as Hirst, Koons and Kapoor)
As mentioned, the characters in my enamel works are mostly cartoon-like, unrealistically refined versions of myself. The traditional role for women in art is as a muses. In my own work, I am both and I don't hesitate to idealize myself in the same way that a male artist might. Bumps, knuckles, and all other bodily 'imperfections' are adjusted; skin flaws are airbrushed into an impenetrable, untextured gloss. In short, I make myself better than real – but still real enough to be desired, real enough to be used as the basis of other women's comparisons. The refined shape of myself as product, as artifice, also becomes an ideal for myself as consumer.
In my art, the personal is conceptual. Unfortunately, this has its traps. If I looked like Beth Ditto, my methods (and models) would be different. But I don't. I'm a tall, lean, angular female who has worked as a fashion model. No matter how much I dress down or how closely I shave my head or how much weight I gain (deliberately increasing my body weight by a quarter, not so long ago), my physicality is still one that can be easily objectified by the mainstream media. It'd be ridiculous for me to conceive critical, conceptual art that didn't acknowledge this.
An art dealer once noted of the hyper-real women in my paintings that men wanted to fuck them and women wanted to be them, to openly envy the 'perfection' they found within them. It had always been my intention to provoke these initial responses but after repeated viewing, I also wanted there to be a sense that the viewers had been taken in, causing them to re-examine their initial responses. Of course, some never do – but that's ok. They're still left in thrall of the art's surface properties, its unarguable allure.
This allure is where my art dissects and disposes of the influence of mass media advertising. Unlike advertising, it offers no product – other than itself – to sate the discomforting desire it provokes and this reaction without possibility of fulfillment is part of its power. The real meaning of my art is revealed not within what it is but what it is not. Its power is its independence of any need for pseudo-intellectual or critical 'context'.


d.edlen said...

Wow, see this is why. I'd forgotten.


Mats Halldin said...

When I first encountered your enamel works I heard Madonna sing: "You know that we are living in a material world and I am a material girl". When I then had a look at some other works I finally realised [feminist] "propaganda" or stealth strategy had won the first battle. (Besides, I never did understand why so many men always had to collect things they want to have sex with (a traditional museum looks like a harem). I can only imagine myself having sex with women I've met IRL. I'm just a hippie, I guess.)

Robin Maria Pedrero said...

I am glad to have met you on twitter, and FB as I enjoy gaining insight into what drives your thought process in your art. Great post.

Jeanna said...

You seem to be insulting Beth Ditto. Why could there not be art that looks like her? You don't have to be tall and thin to be objectified. In any case, I've been reading your blog and you seem to throw out quite a few insults -- mostly towards other artists. Does this make you feel better about yourself? Must, or you wouldn't feel the need to do it. I liked you & your blog until I came across this remark about Beth Ditto. I'm done with it now.