‘Stardust’: AHA alum Helena Roy reviews David Bailey at the National Portrait Gallery

Supermodel stardom and being shot by David Bailey are positively correlated. So surprisingly it’s hard to walk away from ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ at the National Portrait Gallery with images of celebrity swirling in your head. Sure, innumerable stars pepper the exhibition, but ‘stardust’ relates more to the unseen and unique that Bailey attempts to catch and project. This exhibition brings forth a hidden side to his work, and teaches the viewer more about people than merely how super a supermodel can look.

Over 250 images have been personally selected and arranged thematically by Bailey, in a process lasting two and a half years. Glossy photos light up the National Portrait Gallery’s walls with star-wattage, to a relaxed white noise of jazz. The retrospective is an organised explosion of 50 years of Bailey’s style – at once witty and refreshing, brutal and perceptive.

Bailey burst into photographic history with his ‘Box of Pin-Ups’ portraits in 1965. Complete with his signature style, they started a trend which has spanned his career – blank white, sharp lighting and no set dressing.  These photos are the epitome of pop culture and impetus behind a lifelong relationship with fashion and celebrity. Bailey has produced more than 350 covers for Vogue; but for this exhibition, he chose inimitable personalities – the subjects that were most exciting to capture. His monochrome vision is most striking on ‘Carlos Acosta‘ (2011) – highlighting the passion in his dance rather than the technicalities of ballet’s movements, which static film cannot portray. ‘Alexander McQueen‘ (2002) pops out against a flat white backdrop in an utterly British leap of vibrant eccentricity and wild tradition. Eruptions of ostentatious fashion are rare – Bailey keeps things strong and simple. But ‘Abbey Lee Kershaw’ (2010) offers a refreshing bang of the self-conscious, wide-eyed pretension of fashion – staring out in satisfied confusion.

Bailey's giant portrait of Michael Caine at the National Portrait Gallery
'Abbey Lee Kershaw' (2010) for i-D Magazine

Criticising Bailey for focusing on the material shallowness of celebrity ignores vast swathes of his work. Bailey shot artists who defined the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in a cycle of creative talent behind and in front of the camera. ‘Man Ray‘ (1968) is captured in a convergence of photographer on photographer – the focus on an empty black eye, the key to his fame. Warhol and Dali are photographed together in decadent glamour and a ‘Midnight in Paris‘ vibe. ‘Salvador Dali and David Bailey’ (1972) is a vintage selfie: as today we imitate the past; then they imitated the future. ‘Damien Hirst‘ (2004) is shot naked surrounded by animal carcasses and foil – uniquely modern and awkward, displaying the discomfort many have with modern art. ‘Bruce Weber‘ (2013) shoots with a lime green phone as the picture convulses with the supernatural colour of modern technology.

Selfies in the '70s: 'Salvador Dali and David Bailey' (1972)

Roots in London’s East End gave Bailey a proximity and fondness for the true grit of the criminal underworld; in stark contrast to the bubble of stardust he later encapsulated. A city scarred by war and grimy with poverty is ruthlessly exposed in photographs from the early 1960s. ‘Bernie Davis’ (2002) is a double whammy with Bailey’s portrait of the murderous Kray brothers on a tattooed leg. ‘Look’ is a poignant portrait of discomfort and instinctive rebellion. The ‘Democracy’ (2001-5) series is more celebratory, but still visceral and raw: biological grit remains the only star of the show as photographic method was kept entirely consistent, allowing only for variation in the sitters.

Art charades with Bailey's 'Look'

Powerful humanitarian images are plucked from around the world. The Kukukuku tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea provide a contrast to peaceful monochrome, with huge headshots bursting with colour (1974). Time with the Kukukuku tribe and aboriginals in Australia inspired rare and neglected sculpture by Bailey – including ‘X-Man’ (2008). Decaying waxworks in Delhi demonstrate a creeping modernisation in India, and increasing disillusion with native traditions. Photographs of Ethiopian refugees in Sudan (1984) reduce the viewer to tears: children with worn eyes and desperate limbs stare blankly down the lens, invoking inescapable guilt.

A recurring obsession with mortality scatters images of skulls around the exhibition. Bailey considers skulls ‘ just portraits without skin and flesh. I like the idea that we all end up as a piece of art. To me, the ultimate sculpture is a skull.’ In ‘Ralph Fiennes (with skull)’ (1995), there is easy movement between the two heads – live and dead – isolated against a rare background of black, illuminating the two structures through chiaroscuro.

Images of skulls in Bailey's work
'Ralph Fiennes (with skull)' by David Bailey (1995)

Bailey exposes the celebrity to the viewer, giving his famed subject nothing to hide behind. In doing so he extrapolates their idiosyncrasies, making each portrait achingly cool and painfully unique. His portraits are not of chart-topping singers or Oscar-winning actors, but of friends; and he does not set out to flatter. Bailey’s photos – whether of London’s neglected underbelly, the Rolling Stones or Kate Moss – are timeless in their dazzling glamour. This exhibition is a masterpiece in bringing to the fore rolls and rolls of neglected work. It provides an electric retrospective of the past fifty years in world history.

With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for photographs. ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ is displayed at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 June 2014. For more information visit http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/bailey/exhibition.php.

MoMA and ‘Standing in Line’: Emma Greenlees on Blockbuster Exhibitions vs. Permanent Collections

On a week-long trip to NYC, my travelling partner and I decided that we had no interest in culture this time around, and would spend the entire trip indulging in fabulousness (think daily mani-pedis, cocktails galore and endless lobster). After 4 days our bank balances were stripped bare, our nails still looked immaculate from the first mani-pedi, and our livers were starting to ache somewhat. So, I decided that the only solution was for me to head to MoMA. Remembering that Random International’s Rain Room (2012) had relocated to town, I was adamant that my day would include not being rained on in the name of art, and promptly slotted this into our elaborate plans.

Entering solo (my travelling companion preferred to hit Saks Beauty and Accessories over mechanically induced rain), I paid my fee (a mere $14 for a student), and found my way to the line for Rain Room. It looked pretty short, and I felt fairly smug. But only for a short period of time. The attendant came over and informed us that the wait was 3 hours. The gallery closed in 3 hours and so we weren’t even guaranteed entry should we wait 180 minutes in blazing heat. I made a run for it.

Making a run for it clutching a day pass to the greatest modern art gallery on earth is not a bad way to go. Unfortunately, I’d made plans to meet my friend an hour from our departure, which gave me around 35 minutes. I choicely picked Painting & Sculpture (my favourite floor includes Warhol, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Yayoi Kusama, Jackson Pollock and Rosenquist) and spent my time dreamily wandering through the huge white rooms.

In a world saturated by images, Warhol’s work loses some of its power whilst gaining more credibility for foreseeing the phenomenon. His “Gold Marilyn Monroe” (1962) is so bold, and so easy to appreciate amongst the more abstract minimalist works of the same floor. And yet there is so much more beneath the surface. She’s a brand, but an idol. She’s Art, but she’s questioning Art too. She’s gold and appealing, but she’s also just committed sinister suicide. She’s the American Dream: shattered.

 

 

It’s a beautifully simple composition, and made all the better for the absence of the three hour wait. Duly satisfied by a short period of time with my favourite works, I trotted off to Saks to dissuade my friend from buying a hideous (and very expensive) handbag. On the walk over, I couldn’t help but wonder why we bother with these blockbuster exhibitions. The long queues, the jam-packed rooms and the absence of any guarantee that we will enjoy the work don’t make for a particularly outing. In London, we even pay out of our eyeballs for such exhibitions (think of the recent Tate Modern Damien Hirst bonanza if you’re short of inspiration). It’s the same phenomenon which is credited with the ‘rotting of society’, the cult of celebrity. The art world holds itself above such frivolity, or at least appears to, and yet charges exorbitant amounts of money to see an exhibition which can only be credited with fame, not necessarily with greater merit than the permanent exhibitions.

Does the phenomenon of blockbuster exhibitions discourage museum visitors from engaging with the permanent collections? Does it start to disregard the rich and varied heritage from which the new exhibitions were born? Does it encourage people to engage with a ‘Oh, I’ve seen that and so I know that’ attitude; the one which makes everyone an expert on whatever painting they’ve glanced at one time in their life. We are far from encouraged to repeatedly visit our favourite room of a gallery, or to fawn over our favourite sculpture.

Despite my initial disappointment at having missed Rain Room both in London and in New York, I was swiftly consoled by memories of my very favourite works in the world. Big exhibitions might encourage people to visit galleries, but it’s for the wrong reasons.

Spot the difference! AHA alum Helena Roy looks the threat of litigation and forgery in the art world…

It seems intuitive, when describing what art is, to focus on the pure aesthetics of the object in question. Today, however, there seem be two classes of ‘art’: art with a more obscure creator; and art by an artist known all over the world, valued at stratospheric prices.

Take Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as an (albeit rather exaggerated) example. Around six million people visit the masterpiece each year, viewing it for an average of just 15 seconds. No first visit to Paris would be complete without it. It has been valued, for insurance purposes, at $720 million.

‘For the Love of God’ by Damien Hirst – sold to an anonymous consortium in 2007 for $50 million

This separate category of art has become, in essence, an investment commodity. With names like Picasso, Lichtenstein or even Hirst, artwork can be purchased in the certain knowledge that its value will increase over time.

With this market characteristic, little appreciation or expert knowledge of art is actually needed to invest in it. So long as you know a few big names, and have the bank balance, you can invest in artwork worth huge amounts, sit tight and reap the returns.

All this may sound rather cold and calculating, but this is the consequence this attitude is having on the art world. It threatens the personal value of art, by reducing the work of famous artists to another investment commodity – now, complete with commercial litigation against those who break the news to the investors that they may make a loss.

Foundations and organisations which specialise in certifying art as genuine are increasingly facing litigation from furious owners, who believe their piece to be genuine, but are told otherwise.

Early in 2012, the Andy Warhol Foundation dissolved its authentication board after spending $7m on a lawsuit against a London collector. In 2011, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation did the same, rather than ‘jeopardise [its] health and well-being’ said Jack Cowart, its director. Nowadays forgers favour 20th-century abstract and expressionist styles. Jackson Pollock is easier to mimic than Titian – the Pollock-Krasner Foundation stopped authenticating works in 1996.

A Warhol self-portrait, or cause for $7 million defense?

Ironically, without authenticity (and rarity), art is worth less – so investors may be weakening their own market. One effect is that work by living artists may increase in value, as they can personally authenticate their work.

Convergence, 1952, by Jackson Pollock

Most suits fail, but with extortionate legal costs, fear (and liability insurance) is mounting. Already this is causing the top end of the art market to suffer, compounding the problem and thereby making forgery easier.

There is a sad irony to this – rare, famous art is being stifled by commercial litigation, when in fact, art should be freedom of expression incarnate.

 

With thanks to Wikipedia, About.com and artnews.com for photos.

Andy Warhol – Playing with Layers.

In this cold, dreary weather, it seems like we could all do with a splash of colour in our routine. Humbly inspired by the recent exhibition of Warhol displayed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I’ve decided to dedicate this blog to the photographic re-creation of some of his work, focusing on the manipulation of multiple layers in portraiture.

There’s no Marilyn and there’s no Campbell’s soup tin, because, although now arguably synonymous with Warhol’s name, I left the exhibition assured that there were many more dimensions to Andy’s career, hence the reason why he is considered one of the most influential individuals of the 20th Century.

Above left: ‘Rosie’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) Here I have a photograph that has been duplicated and layered each frame on top of one another. I have enhanced the saturation of the original, replicating Warhol’s vivid palette. This acts as the base of the original, whilst, akin to Warhol’s portrait, I have sketched the top layer digitally, suggesting subtle details of the facial features.

Above right: ‘Muhammad Ali’ (Warhol)

With the striking simplicity of the line drawing, combined with the small inclusion of hand- drawn details, a sense of identity is created  for the subject, whilst unanimously creating a piece that successfully draws the viewer in, stimulating emotion. It’s almost reminiscent of the Baroque style, with regards to breaking the boundary between the subject and the observer.

Another aspect that impressed me was Warhol’s expertise in creating something magnificent from something so simple, reiterating layers of the same picturesque cliché in order to produce an alternative perspective on the subject.

Above left: Mickey Mouse Screen Print (Warhol) – Warhol’s prints are defined as screenprints on paper and were intended to be produced in multiple impressions.

Above Right: ‘Tara’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) – Here, a monochrome photograph is repeated four times and rendered with the ‘Conte Crayon’ effect in order to imitate the simplified style of the screen print.

Warhol is undoubtedly regarded as an astonishing colourist. I still can’t quite comprehend how he gets away with placing layers of decorative colour on fairly formally composed portraits, and it manages to prove a huge success. The colours chosen are far from naturalistic, yet seem to enhance the overall piece, consequentially adding further expression to the individual.

Above Left: ‘Sarah Bernhardt” (Warhol)

Above Right: ‘Self Portrait’ (Original photograph by Marie Naffah) Similarly to the first image, I have used multiple layers, combining a line drawing and a monochrome photograph. Additionally, I have added three more layers of separate colours, echoing Warhol’s style. For some reason, the image doesn’t appear primitive, yet instead, a portrait full of expression and animation.

I’ve only touched on a few examples of Warhol’s phenomenal use of layers, but the exhibition did solidify my opinion that he was indeed a master manipulator of photographic imagery and had the ability to transform familiar, commercial art into that of “high art”.