By Mark Amery
“I never said I was deep,” sang Jarvis Cocker, “but I am profoundly shallow.” The same could be said of the work of the artists I’m considering this week.
Andy Warhol may not be deep but he isn’t cheap. As the Te Papa exhibition (drawn from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh) makes clear, he had a great eye, frequent killer instincts and was from a young age a knock out drawer. Deep? The work is all about the nuances of surface. There’s no great truth in his subject’s eyes, instead exquisite plays with the abstraction we all form from celebrities’ faces.
Friday night’s exhibition opening promised glamour but made Warhol’s talent in avoiding the tawdry evident by contrast: an abundance of bad Warhol wigs, plastic table settings in the shopping mall-like Te Papa atrium, and speeches light on insight and heavy on marketing. At least in New Zealand we provide great oysters.
The emphasis in Warhol: Immortal is portraiture (no soup cans, no electric chairs) and true to the artist’s form it’s big on quantity and variable in quality, with plenty of stunning work amongst it.
Others might find the loud, busy design (echoed in the exhibition’s hyped up title) apt given the work’s pop culture and consumerist inspiration. I find Warhol’s work thrives from a more traditional exhibition approach: tight selection and plenty of space. Here the abundance of work, and twists and turns of the exhibition aisles suitably reminded me of the supermarket. At the exhibition’s end, as Banksy says, you exit through the gift shop.
There are lots of strong links with Warhol in the Adam Art Gallery’s excellent suite of exhibitions, yet its an entirely darker, sexier and more stylish affair.
Jacqueline Fraser’s impressive installation The Making of the Ciao Manhattan Tapes is also about the surface of things: frippery and posturing. The title comes from a 1972 fictionalized film account of Warhol ‘superstar’ Edie Sedgwick. Drawing back the curtains on a darkened chamber, the work assaults you like the off-kilter revelry of a late-night makeshift party in a giant walk-in wardrobe in some contemporary New York version of Warhol’s Factory.
This is post-punk collage in 3D, playing beautifully off the excess, sexualized posturing, and cut-up reconstituted nature of hip hop culture. A cavalcade of giant, ripped cut-outs of models pile over each other, staring soullessly into space. They are bedecked in a an array of cheap fabric materials: sequins, tinsel garlands, plastic bridal trains and crinkled rubbish bags, with the light of an empty slide carousel cutting across the figures harshly, almost in synch with loud blasts of Nicki Minaj and ASAP Rocky. A series of odd light fittings, that would have been the epitome of style in their day, remind us that fashion is fickle.
Fraser’s strength is a tension-filled compositional play between textiles and cut imagery, where material is given new life. The work meditates on our worship of the surface of things, and the dark undercurrents that lie beneath. “You’ve been pissing from the well in which you drink,” a man drunkenly, threateningly slurs on film playing within the installation.
Artfully articulated as it is, the installation reflects the collage of culture that is already around me. It doesn’t change or move me. I’m left with a chill. I was more shifted by some of the large framed works that accompany the installation. In Warhol style they are excessive in number and uneven in quality, playfully pairing fabrics against cut-up images of hip hop stars. Yet here on occasion, through her elegant yet ragged touch and tear of material, Fraser lets some air into popular culture for us to find the fragility and feeling behind the posturing.
Warhol was inspired by Jack Smith’s 1962 film Flaming Creatures, which plays upstairs at the Adam. With its camp theatricality, overindulgent partying, posed carnality and sexual ambiguity, not to mention comedy, the film is an excellent bedfellow to Jacqueline Fraser’s installation.