Friday, 26 August 2011

'teenage angst has paid off well'

It runs in the family. Long after Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love produced their own album artwork, their daughter Frances Bean's debut exhibition, Scumfuck opened in Los Angeles to an appreciative audience with money to burn. Working under the pseudonym, 'Tim Fiddle' Cobain has produced grotesque, dark fantasy characters with their messages of defiance, riddles and curious names allowing plenty of room for conjecture and analysis.
Although the images have the vague appearance of modern satirical illustration (á la Steadman) the content of the work is purely emotional and speaks of self-discovery and internal struggles. It's impossible at this stage to separate the body of work from her connection to her parents and their artistic background. Her cast of drooling, inane idols bears some resemblance to sketches produced by her father and look like the kind of thing you could expect to find in his published journals, yet the fact that there is a specific style running through the pieces has made for a level of artistic cohesion that's unusual for an eighteen year old. The exhibition was not the mish-mash of teenage experimentation one might expect. The direction is definite and the technique is polished. It's too soon to write Frances Bean off as an opportunist taking advantage of her position to sell some otherwise unremarkable sketches.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

believe in people

It would be very easy to dismiss the work of Rob Ryan as empty saccharinity. It would even be easy to feel outright cynicism for some of his messages. The first Rob Ryan piece I saw was a t-shirt wearing the bold slogan, 'BELIEVE IN PEOPLE'. And I do. But is it possible for people to believe in 'indie craft' papercuts as anything other than great greeting card material? Certainly the messages are sweet and whimsical and at times desperately romantic. But what might set Ryan's work apart from the usual Paperchase stock is the delicate intricacy of the papercuts themselves. Some boast an impressive and engaging degree of complexity that adds to the overall sensation of being taken to the top of a hill to appreciate the sprawling landscape from a contemplative distance. Rob Ryan wants to put a smile on my face. And I guess I have to ask myself what's so bad about that. I definitely won't find that these pieces stay in my memory bank as the result of some searing impact on my emotions. But just because they're the kitsch side of whimsy doesn't necessarily mean they're capricious tea towel designs. For me, they live in the middle ground. And maybe that's because I think the artist himself is wonderfully genuine.
There's a naivity in the work. Romance is depicted as an all-consuming affection that at times might seem desperate, lofty or theatrically excessive. Even if you're madly in love and enjoy work that speaks to you about romance, it's not for every mood. It doesn't offer anything particularly raw or chaotically passionate, perhaps due to its nature as a medium that has to be carefully planned and painstakingly executed. But it does seem to hand us opportunities for thanksgiving. It seems to create small moments for us to cherish other small moments.
Ryan's characters are trapped in a beguiling labyrinth of details, creating a bubble of safety and secrecy around florid declarations of love. There are elements of candy floss that can make the images seem overwrought but that's the take-it-or-leave-it nature of their appeal. One piece is a plethora of finely cut stars framing the words, ‘Stars and galaxies rotate eternally, and you and I circle each other. For you are my universe entirely, and I will always be yours.' Perhaps certain pieces would transmit with more sincerity if the words were absent, since some will find them hard on the gag reflex but could otherwise feel impressed and moved by the intricacy of the papercuts.

For me the jury's out. I responded to the work in much the same way as I did to Tim Burton's illustrations in The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy - by attempting to work out if the quirky sentiments and zany characters really had soul. There are some welcome breaks from his unapologetic fairy-tale agenda, particularly with his nods to the value of nature and his appreciation of the individual. There is something disarming about the pieces. It's as if they are asking you to do battle with your inner cynic and just 'feel the love'.

Friday, 13 May 2011

weird legacy

When Isabella Blow committed suicide in 2007 the fashion world woke up from a dream that had fermented in its collective subconscious. It was a dream that had too long bound a flesh-and-blood woman to an unreal expectation and while the argument would never be that Blow's life was ended at the whim of a capricious industry, it is impossible to divorce her story from her position as a staple member of its glitterati. As she becomes evermore cemented in fashion mythology as the fairy godmother with the endless supply of outlandish hats I feel justified in asking if that position on the sidelines is enough of a lasting impression. Isabella's currency was her own energy, innovation and creativity. In watching the posthumous accolades mount up I can't help but feel she's being short changed.Often since her death I've considered Blow's status as an icon to be separate from her overall body of work. Pioneering the designs of talented young hopefuls through arriving at parties and shows sporting their creations was a daily act of vision and support on her part but one that she unfortunately now finds herself principally remembered for. Widely credited with discovering a small plethora of designers, but most notably Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, it was tough to find a single obituary that failed to hone in on this point and although its implication is that she was a nurturing champion for vision, its emphasis as her magnum opus rings hollow and gives off a nasty odour of martyrdom. Blow once said, 'It's exhausting, discovering people. It's like being a mother, and the milk's dried up.' Was she herself tired of being some kind of magic wand while her own endeavours as an editor and stylist seemed secondary to the soaring heights of her protégés? Her remark certainly demonstrates her willingness to hang onto their wings once they'd taken flight from beneath hers, but it betrays her inner belief that the exchange was unfair and that she was more than a launch pad for others in the industry. Immediately after her death the media's portrait of her as McQueen's patron must have been decidedly unhelpful to the designer in his time of grief, having publicly lamented this exact press-pedalled notion of himself as eternally grateful to Queen Issy and her doors of opportunity. McQueen was a man who fully understood the business of hard graft and learning the trade. He wasn't happy to shunt years of experience as an apprentice tailor and the degree he had under his belt to the back room while Blow got the caption for discovering him under a rock somewhere.

Blow's status as a fashion icon was essentially her biggest compromise. Dressing up was what she did best and most regularly. She could be relied upon to turn up in her signature silhouette and throw engaging, articulate sound bytes to the press gang like bread crumbs. She could not be relied upon to tow the line in her working life as an editor and stylist, illustrated most notably by her sacking from Vogue, Tatler and The Sunday Times. Nor could she be relied upon to rein in her fascinated crusade for all things 'fringe', eccentric and non-commercial, which her late husband Detmar Blow is convinced caused her to be mocked at times. It is for her rebellious, pioneering attitudes and actions that she ought to be remembered and yet it always comes back to the hats. Or the fact that she turned McQueen's pumpkin into a carriage by mentoring him and buying up his first collection. Or the hats.

Being remembered for breathing life into other people's dream worlds is no small feat but it's only half the story. I've found it frustrating and surprising that it's so difficult to find work overseen by Blow in any of the prominent publications she worked for. It's so tough to find imagery styled by Blow or published articles edited by her. Every search comes up with an absolute sea of photographs of her wearing outfits described as 'flamboyant', 'fabulous' and 'eccentric' while her literal contributions beyond the realm of her own wardrobe have passed into obscurity. Meanwhile her biographer Lauren Goldstein has observed that having dived into the depths of Blow's life and personality her dress sense is actually one of the least interesting things about her. Why are we so satisfied with seeing her clothes as her soul?
Whether Blow felt she was sold short or not, it's clear that by the time of her death she was more than aware that she'd reached iconic status. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, talks about the importance of designing classic, memorable cartoons. The secret is that they must be recognisable in silhouette. That distinctive outline that gives a character away by the cast of their shadow holds enough power to instantly fill the audience with a trained emotional response. Blow's silhouette was unmistakable and that wouldn't have been through accident alone. It was a perfect mix of nature and mastery. Philip Treacy once remarked that she wore a hat like she wasn't even wearing a hat. It was as though her costume was part of her body and an extension of her mind. Lauren Goldstein interpreted Isabella's wild dress sense as the necessary plumage for warding off her inadequacies and attracting attention. Isabella admitted she used flamboyant hats to hide at times, and yet the more she borrowed from her own image and caricature the more she felt she was open to scrutiny and possible rejection from others. Since Blow never received deserved merit for her own endeavours the shaky ground of the fashion icon became her habitat and according to friends and acquaintances she found it panic-inducing, lonely and paranoid. In order for icons to retain their status they have to die before they screw it up, like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Or they have to retire before their prime in order to be remembered for what mattered like Elizabeth Taylor. In between the rise and the fall there is a constant cycle of reinvention and insecurity as a tangle of the ego and the underneath get churned through the rumour mills and spat down the red carpets. Had Blow been appreciated for her servitude rather than her star quality she may have avoided the pitfalls of basing private happiness on public love.Having an eye for the future is an indisputable skill in the fashion industry and if anyone had that eye, it belonged to Blow and she was never afraid to use it. My dispute hasn't really been with seeing her hailed as a troubadour of tomorrow but in the fact that this wasn't the meat of her market value. It's easy to look at a photograph of an incredibly confident woman in a fabulous hat and feel that our admiration of the image is tribute enough. It's harder to peel back the layers and try to understand why someone who was consecutively fired from major publications can be understood as an unwanted Pandora opening a box of monstrous and mythic forays into the uncomfortable art so often missing - that spanner in the works of the fashion machine - its soul, its drive, its magnetism. Ultimately McQueen should never be looked on as her biggest achievement. He was an incredible driving force in his own right, he would have made the big time sooner or later and the creative exchange ultimately failed when he didn't offer Blow the long-awaited job as part of his team upon taking over as head of Givenchy. Summing up her professional high point as a bitter sweet creative partnership and all the disappointment that entailed on both sides is an insult to her wider talent and to her personal legacy. Instead of asking other talents to reflect hers like a cheap mirror, I choose to use her death as a chance to spend less time talking about who she discovered and more time discovering her.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

my body is an artist

Human skin is the new kid on the block of abstract expressionism thanks to the foresight of dermatologist Stefanie Williams. She's long been an admirer of the visually stimulating results of skin cells at microscopic level and now offers a service from her practice at European Dermatology London which allows clients to commission a large scale photograph detailing the microscopic anatomy of their cells and tissues. The strange rivers, fractals and labyrinths of what she calls 'inner portraits' are an intriguing and affordable representation of the self that walks the strange line between abstract and uber-realist - an image that is so literally you that it's unrecognisable.The most remarkable thing about the complexity and eventfulness of our skin under the microscope is how easy it is to mistake the finished photographic product for an image of outer space or an aerial photograph of a land mass or volcano through a thermal camera. For me there was such an immediate sense of scale and infinity until I realised I was looking at skin particles and it was in my reassessment of the images that I realised inner portraiture asks you to reappraise your expectations and beliefs about your own body.Art has always been in love with the skin. As it's the only visible organ and the one that most notably and constantly links science, society and the individual, its reinvention in all kinds of media has been an evolution, and now the skin itself takes the helm as artist in its own right with drastically different results. The sense of enigma and possibility that arises from seeing the strange galaxies of planets and voids of blackness that make up our skin offers a fresh perspective that presses for answers to bigger questions than ordinary portraiture can lead us to.
I've found myself wondering if I'd like to buy one of these intriguing immortalisations of my own inner workings. Whether or not I could relate the image to any sense of myself remains to be seen but I could stand to be a little more impressed and in awe and a little less jaded and apathetic about our capabilities and the miniscule universes within. If much about modern art leaves people cold, which so often seems to be the war cry, this is the type of stuff that could invite contemplation of a worthwhile kind.