Thursday, September 24, 2015

American Tan: transcript of an artist's talk

47c Streatham Hill, London SW2

23 September 2015

The following text is taken from the notes I made  for a talk that I delivered alongside my show American Tan.

American Tan talk at Dolph. Photo Tash Kahn

I am interested in play acting, disguise, masquerading - and how we can enter other worlds through film, books, music, dressing up. This relates to my fascination around the blurring of fact and fiction – creating one’s own version of things – picking and choosing from history and culture – the unimportance of fact – creating our own narratives by combining pop culture with our own experience.

Film Diary #37 (13.10.12-24.10.12), 2014, oil on paper, 12x(23x30.5cm)

Film Diary is an ongoing series of work whereby I paint an image from every film I watch. The film watching is as important as the film itself and there are numerous factors which come together to make the paintings, which I show in groups of twelve.

One of my other interests is why it is that certain people demand our attention – which raises the thorny matter of trying to define charisma. Alongside this I am fascinated by how it feels to be a fan – how you can feel something for someone you have never known and what it actual feels like to be one of these adored people – how their public and private personas become blurred.

This brings me to the title of the show - American Tan

In the catalogue for the 2002 exhibition Dear Painter Paint me… : Painting the figure since late Picabia the opening essay by Alison M Gingeras is called ‘Learning from Kippenberger: Figurative painting as provocative and sincere, critical and sentimental’ Here is a short extract
Lesson One: A good title is everything 
Giving a title is always a delicate affair, especially in the domain of art. While the ubiquitous and delightfully neutral “untitled” offers an easy escape route for the naming of an individual artwork, it is not an option for the titling of an exhibition. A good title should encapsulate a complex set of ideas succinctly; it should be witty without being a one-liner; it should be conceptually compelling, but readily legible. And when finding a new, original title seems impossible, some creative thievery may be in order.

American Tan, 2015, oil on canvas, 102x153cm

The title American Tan came to me because I was thinking about the commodification of women, particularly in Hollywood, and the way that stars during Hollywood’s Golden Age and through into the late 20th century became products to be marketed. Stars are, as Richard Dyer points out, ‘made for profit’[1] As viewers / consumers we imagine them living amazing glamorous lives – while in actuality they often struggle.

American tan is also a shade of tights sold in the UK. I have no evidence of the history of the name but anecdotally it seems to be a UK rather than US thing - it was presumably introduced post WW2 when America was seen as the most glamorous nation - and pasty UK women wanted to have the type of skin colour that they imagined Hollywood stars had. American tan seems to be obsolete now as a colour we want to apply to our legs and is more often associated with an unattractive slightly orangery, fake tan mimicking shade of tights.

American Tan series, 2015, photo etchings

It seems ironic the most enduring American film star - Marilyn Monroe - has little association with the healthy idea of American tan and is instead all about whiteness. In a series of work from 2012 called I'm a Girl not a Ghoul, I looked at how her personality was consumed by this whiteness.

I'm a Girl not a Ghoul, 2012, oil on paper, 30x21.5 each

There are so many Marilyn biographies, with more still being written. Sarah Churchwell has written a study of the biographies called The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe which dispels many of the myths. One of the many biographers Fred Lawrence Guiles said 'White as worn by Norma Jeane was symbolic, white represents virtue and innocence.' [2]. Film theorist Richard Dyer notes that in many of Marilyn’s films the conventions of glamour lighting ‘make her disappear as flesh and blood.’[3] Marilyn is characterised by white and actually dyed her hair whiter as her career progressed – possibly in emulation of her own favourite star Jean Harlow.

My favourite Marilyn biography is the fictional Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (a book denigrated by Churchwell). Oates’ version of Marilyn’s second husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, is perplexed by TS Eliot’s line: ‘Nothing is more dramatic than a ghost’ and is troubled by Marilyn’s fixation on the holocaust, calling it ghoulish. Marilyn repeats to herself over and over ‘I’m a girl not a ghoul.’ As if she is trying to fix herself in the way an analogue photograph is fixed by chemicals. Dyer says that: ‘White women are constructed as the apotheosis of desirability, all that a man could want, yet nothing that can be had, nor anything that a woman can be.’ [4]

Stars in Stripes, 2015

Stars are there for us, their private self is consumed by their public image. A series of works made for American Tan - Stars in Stripes - deals with precisely this point. The stars - who range from Rita Hayworth to Kim Kardashian are defined by what they are wearing rather than any other aspect of their personality.

One of my favourite books and something I constantly refer to is a 1977,  mostly picture, book called The Women We Wanted to Look Like by Brigid Keenan. It features images of the most renowned beauties from post WW1 to the date of publication. She says that:

‘In their heydays, many of these women’s names were famous. But as the years go by they have become mere footnotes to social history, and sometimes not even that, for the world of fashion is a fickle one and well dressed women leave no works of art for us to remember them by, only a few photographs or portraits – and those sometimes look faintly absurd when examined outside their context by new generations.’

This brings me to a small series in American Tan called Forgotten Film Stars. These are badges that feature the names of people who were huge stars in their day but have subsequently drifted into, if not obscurity, then the realm of only being known by cinema fans. In my tabletop display the badges are shown alongside collected film star ephemera. For these people the American Dream did not endure.

Forgotten Film Stars

There is a wistful appeal to all this antique Hollywood imagery. Technology is ever changing and there are always casualties … so many beautiful things are discarded and left behind – hopefully to be reanimated by future generations. 

Norma Desmond's collected memorabilia in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

In the film Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) the silent star Norma Desmond played brilliantly by Gloria Swanson has entered middle age and fallen into obscurity in the new age of talking pictures. One of her famous lines is:

‘We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!’

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

These beautiful silent cinema faces – projected, larger than life in beautiful close-up - had an immense power on their audiences. The face was everything and they would convey every emotion with mobile brows and quivering lips.

In Mythologies, published in 1957, Roland Bathes devotes a chapter to Garbo's face

‘Garbo belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image.

Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)

The artist Joseph Cornell made work about film stars he admired from afar – he didn’t want to meet or know them. In 1941 he made a piece for the Surrealist journal View called Enchanted Wanderer a journey album for the star Hedy Lamarr which included a photo collage where Lamarr's head is placed upon a body taken from an unidentified portrait (it looks almost like the body from a Rembrandt self portrait). In the text he says that Lamarr ‘moves through scenes like the wind with a storm swept beauty, fearful to behold... Immobilized in a prison of silver light.’ Jodi Hauptmann in the book Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema describes Cornell’s movie stars portraits as ‘Love at last sight’[5]

Joseph Cornell

Cornell collected material about different stars and created dossiers that he could refer to when making new work.

Joseph Cornell, Lauren Bacall dossier

Another of my fascinations is for Tennessee Williams – his plays, the films made from his plays, and his life story. In 2013 I made a two part work called Glass Menagerie -  a series of glass animals on a mirrored surface and a film made up of images of séances, swans and glass animals.

Glass Menagerie installed in This Me of Mine at APT Gallery, London

The surface appearance of things is fascinating to me and Hollywood has been the master image maker. Laura Mulvey -in her 1996 essay 'Pandora's Box' said: ‘The cinema has enhanced the image of female seductiveness as a surface that conceals’ 

Collect the Set, 2013, acrylic and oil on card, 8x4cm each

Lots of my recent work has involved the use of shiny surfaces – mirrors, iridescent paint, glass. These decorative surfaces are often trivialised and often associated with women. Gams features a series of femme fatale legs, reflected and re-reflected in mirrors.

Gams, 2013, mixed media installation. Pictured in 2015 at American Tan

Iris (Albert Maysles, 2015) is a document about octogenarian Iris Apfel whose has made herself a work of art through the way she dresses. She says: ‘with me its not intellectual, its all gut.’

Iris Apfel

Iris was reviewed on Radio 4's Saturday Review on 1 August 2015 and the three reviewers did not rate it very highly. Sebastian Faulks demeaned Iris and her radical fashion saying: ‘Basically this is a film about a very old woman who spends her life wearing very brightly coloured clothes and bangles… the disappointment is that despite her lovely voice she really doesn’t have anything interesting to say.’ Robert Hanks added: ‘Any film that is about fashion and doesn’t mention the fact that you are exploiting young girls and obsessed with youth and money is telling a kind of lie… I kept thinking it was going to be about something more – immigration, age – but it didn’t turn out to be about any of these things.’ This is because the film was about a woman who had spent her life immersed in dressing her body and the film was admirable because this is exactly what it focussed on. 

Wall of mirrors and portraits installed at American Tan

In American Tan I have installed a wall of mirrors and found portraits. The picture mirrors particularly interest me - they reflect the person looking into them over an image of a star so they blend the self with the object of desire. They are  pretty ineffectual as useful mirrors - they are purely decorative. Mirrors are symbols of self obsession - just as fashion is on one level about self obsession – the self as art object. The mirrors have a kitsch association.

The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, is one of those amazingly vast private collections put together by a rich family with a philanthropic idea of educating people. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel – a modern concrete building designed by the Menil’s architect son, was built in 1997 to house a rescued Byzantine fresco from Cyprus. Sadly for them the fresco had to be returned to Cyprus in 2012 and the structure lay empty. It is now however being used to show contemporary art. The current exhibit is Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s The Infinity Machine. A rotating mobile made up of 150 found mirrors in a dark space accompanied by a space soundtrack. Reflecting each other ad infinitum the artists talk about the generations of people that have been reflected in the mirrored. They are elevated from functional, or vanity objects into poignant signifiers.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, The Infinity Machine

It occurs to me that we are all constrained/subject to fashion to some extent – even the style we decide to paint in – we are subject to the power of advertising / marketing / fashion.

Mad Men is one of my favourite TV series – It is beautiful, stylish and seductive but features all the cutting terribleness of America’s mid-century and continuing problems – racism, sexism, corruption etc alongside the power of advertising with its ability to sell us anything. 

Mad Men

I like many others have been seduced by an idea of America drawn in by marketing, cinema, popular culture etc. To accompany America Tan I wanted to show some of the beauty and power of this with a series of Dream America films that cover the last eight decades.

Dream America

I am showing a different film each day of the show and today’s film has been Roustabout (Rich, 1964) and I will end with a brief paragraph from the screen notes I have put together for the films.


Elvis’ film contract stipulated that he, rather than a stunt double, must be allowed to ride motorbikes and drive cars in his films. In Roustabout he goes down the Wild One (Benedek, 1953), motorbike route. Misunderstood and disaffected he runs into Barabara Stanwyck and ends up romancing her stepdaughter and saving the carnival by singing.

[1] Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies (Routledge, 2003) pg 5 
[2] Fred Lawrence Guiles, Norma Jeane: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe (Granada, 1985)
[3] Richard Dyer, ‘White’, The Matter of Images (Routledge, 2002) pg 145-146
[4] ibid
[5] Jodi Hauptmann, Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema (Yale Publications in the History of Art 1999), pg 5

There are images and more information from the American Tan show on the Dolph site