Arriving in Paris I walked along the Avenue de Clichy and rue Caulaincourt, approaching Montmartre back-to-front to avoid being caught in the net of tat-sellers who prey on any tourist bold enough to walk up to the front of Sacre-Coeur like some evil video game. Skirting down the side of the gardens I reached the modern art venue and cultural space that is the Halle Saint Pierre. ‘HEY’, an art review, has teamed up with the Halle to present a ‘new generation’ of urban, pop and outsider artists, who ‘push the boundaries between high art and popular culture’, giving the exhibition the allure of a ’21st Century cabinet of curiosities’…
Though the exhibition was called ‘HEY! Modern Art – Pop Culture’ the exhibits were far from the brightly-coloured Warhol style that the term ‘Pop Art’ conjures up. They encompassed a bizarre range from the surreal to the macabre, Gothic horror to the purely grotesque, kitsch eroticism to science-fiction, with a correspondingly diverse range of cultural and art historical references. Joel Peter Witkin’s photographs have the appearance of early daguerrotypes, but their subjects are skeletons and corpses, mutilated or deformed bodies, all theatrically staged with nods to old master compositions or classic photographs such as Horst’s ‘Mainbocher Corset’.
Next door to these unsettling images were, incongruously, examples of Winsor McCay’s ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’ cartoons, printed in the US early last century. If perhaps intended as an example of pre-Lichtenstein pop, this purpose is annulled by their wholesale transfer from actual newspaper entertainment to their presentation as a work of art, without the dissociating stage of replication in paint. Their original raison d’etre was not to be ‘art’ – ironic or otherwise – masquerading as simple newspaper cartoon, but quite the reverse.
Handiedan (real name or artistic alias?) collages bits of popular culture from dollar bills and cigar bands to playing cards, always with the central figure of the classic pin-up girl. While her modern eroticism is in stark contrast to the well-draped classical figures to either side of her head, her pose could almost be said to echo them – pointing up the perennial theme of the female form in art regardless of cultural change.
Initially the sound of Gilbert Peyre’s installation was mildly disturbing. Every so often echoing footsteps would resound through the gallery accompanied by the dire intonation of the words ‘J’ai froid’! Eventually I found the source – a fur coat crowned with a stag’s head atop two hooves, going round and round on wires at a funereal pace, and starkly lit like a scene from a truly bizarre tale by Poe. This portentous creature was keenly observed by Travis Louie’s meticulous paintings in the style of Victorian or Edwardian photographs that might equally well have depicted the cast of Dr. Caligari or the Addam’s Family Portrait Gallery.
Elsewhere, borrowings from Medieval and Renaissance art were subverted; the form of the triptych was used to lend religious overtones to futuristic scenes of apocalypse, while Heather Nevay’s oil paintings had the precise technique and wealth of detail of the Northern Renaissance, injected with the dark fairytale imagery of Paula Rego and a generous dash of the occult surrealism of Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo.
The Northern Renaissance was also clearly visible in Mike Davis’s paintings – the classic Dutch landscapes disappearing into the typical turquoise haze of aerial perspective. But the objects placed within were pure Dali, with perhaps a touch of Magritte. The symbolism is as old as time, but assembled with the surrealist disregard for logic. (Though the tiny scorpion continues to bemuse me.)
Skeletons – or just the skulls – were, it became apparent, a recurrent theme. Never one that I had associated with pop art, however loosely defined. Jim Skull therefore has a particularly appropriate name (or perhaps he changed his name in homage to his art). His skulls are inspired by African masks or tribal objects, made from string and lengths of beads, carefully coiled around the cranium, then left to fall in a torrent, as if spewing from the mouth, or like a beard that continues to grow and grow after death…
Paul Toupet’s ‘Les Lapins’ continued this macabre theme, forming the centrepiece to the upper gallery with its winged zombie-like rabbits, papier mache forms dressed with rags and feathers with empty eyes who surround and hover over a dark coffin. They have been likened to crowding angels in a baroque Catholic church as well as to Inca mummies, rotting in all their magnificence.
This is not to mention Herbert Hoffmann’s photos recording his tattooed clients in postwar Germany, Felicien Rops’s etchings that go beyond the decadence of most Baudelairian symbolists, Mariel Clayton’s psycho-Barbie photos (think Ken’s torso chopped up in her perfect plastic fridge), punk and psychedelia, toys, cartoons, record covers…. But I think that this small sample bears witness to how randomly odd, utterly bizarre, and refreshingly loopy this exhibition was. I don’t think the title does the show justice, but what one would call it I cannot think.