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The Long-Suffering Ordinariness of Glamour

Adam Geczy 1999

Anyone viewing a smallish painting entitled Portrait (1998) could well be excused for feeling baffled: a square panel with a symmetrical five-by-five check of blue, pink and black. A portrait of what or whom is far from clear. The vexed viewer might then be reminded of the many non-figurative experiments from Klee and Kandinsky to the present which sought to depict - though today more ironically - an essence of someone or something through non-depictive devices … but this explanation is confounded by no further example of the kind accompanying work since 1993. All the paintings and photographs entitled Portrait dating back several years, are figurative. Yet these figurative portraits hold little more than the checks. One Portrait, a bust of a man, is chilling in its feckless, hard idiocy. With his curled mouth, his hair coiffed in a rockabilly bouffant, and the empty sincere stare of his eyes, he appears alarmingly confident, suggesting he does not know how stupid he looks. But of a day how many images do we take seriously? We must, lest we go mad.

Sadie Chandler’s work is a gallery of anonymous or part-absent figures. When not figures, there are these funny static spat-shapes, as formless as the portraits are characterless. Whoever views these portrait works in succession - the effect is incremental - is cast adrift into a limbo of ersatz-personality, a place where superficialities reign, where identities are exchanged or cast-off, in which the perceived essence, the quiddity of a person or thing, is a labile and arbitrary lie, the fault of the viewer’s gulibility. In Chandler’s works the viewer is brought close to the all-too-human guilt of raising expectations and forming narratives out of things which for this, the Portraits have to be viewed as more than revealing the base undercurrent of consumer society (a term which has been used too long - is it now hyper-consumerist society?) as vacuous and pointless. In a Single Man Christopher Isherwood commented that the Europeans hate the Americans because the Americans ‘have retired to live inside […] advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate.’ (He wrote this long before a Disneyland was built on the outskirts of Paris.) Americans, he wrote, ‘sleep in symbolic bedrooms, eat symbolic meals, are symbolically entertained.’ Isherwood’s words could not be more apposite than here.

They keep yelling out, ‘These people are zombies!’ They’ve got to make themselves believe that, because the alternative is to break down and admit that Americans are able to live like this because, actually, they’re a far more advanced culture ? five hundred, maybe a thousand years ahead of Europe, or of anyone else, for that matter. Essentially we’re creatures of spirit. Our life is all in the mind. The hollowness of Chandler’s Portraits is suffused with our original sin, to make more of what there is. It is the sin which both condemns us and keeps us happy. In this respect Chandler’s paintings have more to do with an artist such as Richard Prince, who made his earlier reputation quoting flat jokes, than with the bona fide Pop of Warhol or Rosenquist. Another square panel, the same dimensions as the chequered “portrait”, spells “DELUXE” on a bright red ground. Just as before the question was, ‘portrait of whom?’ this is ‘deluxe of what and where?’ since relatively little is forthcoming at this stage. Another series of Portraits consisted of photographs on shaped panels, where, within tromple l’œil frames were hands, denuded of body or face, beneath a colour. The danger of Pop, as its continued popularity rightly or wrongly attests, lies in reconfirming the traits of contemporary culture it seeks to criticise or ridicule (Warhol was exceptional in this respect by being a shallow celebrity and critiquing that shallowness all in one). Chandler’s works are too eerily bare to be coopted easily; Rosenquist isolated fragments and rearranged them into visual narratives which flowed and were discontinuous all at once. Chandler’s fragments are more like empty shells of self-improvement, and in which the modernist flattening of classical distinctions, such as portraiture, history painting and still-life, is all-too present.

This is the very ordinariness of glamour. Since 1993, Chandler has executed two other series of portraits, both photographs, neither have faces. The earlier are framed portrait ovals of what seem, by the way they are dressed, dignified presences from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, except their faces are obscured by the whiteness created by a flash. The second, more recent series, are again manipulated appropriations, this time recognisably from a masters of the English Renaissance such as Holbein, yet this time only the hands are present. Although in one a hand fondles a ring, there is little notion of the accoutrements of power. The only elevating factor is the genre it aspires to, that it is a portrait, and therefore must stand for something. The real appeal here is in the portrait-ness of a thing; the language of painting plays an important role. Unlike photography, which is haunted and beleaguered by the portrait snap, in the painting the portrait exists as a juncture between the artist, the sitter and the sitter’s immediate circumstances. A painted portrait is commemorative in the way that most photographs are mostly fleeting remembrances, for the extra effort taken to make a portrait means that a portrait from the past sees the subject at a moment of youth or prosperity such as the acquisition or inheritance of property; it may show signs of recent victory or celebrate a recent marriage. There is a mnemonic and interpretative strength - for portrait paintings can be manipulate to flatter and emphasise the sitter’s importance - in paintings for which photograph has to work harder. But Chandler’s “portraits”, which in this case are photographs derived from painting, attempt to remove the advantage of painting. She makes a painting have the prosaicness of a snap.

The bride is stripped bare once again. Importance and glamour in Chandler’s work is shown to be a set of recycled signifiers used to advance a message about a person deemed particular and specific. The uncanny aspect of her work is the argument that importance is shown to be based on consensual signifiers and signs; it is a violence of the interchangeable into which anyone can step like an upright painted board with face-holes at a fun-park. It reflects an aesthetic where everyone can play a part in the language of prosperity and allure. By the mid-nineteenth century in Paris, it became difficult to distinguish class according to dress: all men wore black frock coats, and from a distance a courtesan could look like a lady. Now, we are shown on television, how, with the help of a professional photographer and make-up artist, anyone can be made to look glamorous. Glamour is glamour by virtue of its rarity. It is what the libido hankers after ? rare beauty. Yet the flattening of taste of mass-culture has made glamour potentially accessible to all. In short, the paradox is that everyone has the chance to be envied for what only few people have.

The busts of women with generic faces and absurd hairstyles tell of how the open attributes of acceptability and desire coalesce into identities which we convince ourselves are owned by only one person. Or an animal ? Chandler paints a benign and fluffy shitsu dog against a white ground, an unremarkable work in itself, but apposite to the series. Pets are attributes of domesticity, who come to become essential integers of the family unit, complete with a name and personality. It would be too painful for pet-owners to accept that a pet’s personality consistes of traits cathected onto it by the owner. For pets are unlike children in the crucial respect that personality traits can be added and subtracted with greater ease; the pet is a group of traits from the owner’s person and immediate environment, expressed as part of an animate body. The pet has no other use than this. And it is a common truth that what has gone from utility to non-utility relies on its decorative power, its surface qualities, otherwise risk destruction.

Chandler’s work is from a world in which most things are non-utilitarian but are made to seem utilitarian; where everyone can briefly become their object of worship; where the specific is also a generality; where the meanings which we read into to the shape of a mouth or a hairstyle have their basis in little more than poetising; where everything is deluxe; where the perfect love is everywhere if you look for it; where a colour or a shape or a shirt is really “you”. Behind these wishes are empty vessels, but the narcissism which shapes things into much more than what they are is the juvenile weakness which saves us, the need and willingness to keep the spell of substance, uniqueness and value alive is what makes a vacuum the condition of love and happiness. It is also the condition of art itself, odd objects made of non-precious material, prised because they are catalysts for wonder and curiosity have long had their content drained white.

Chandler’s works, which have of late largely consisted of paintings, are not mere vapidity. Rather, they are things consciously stripped bare of the falsities with which we clothe them. Her work is both positive and negative in this respect: we complicate and make conundrums and dreams of blood-drained shells, yet it is our very ability to tell stories, to expect things of what holds little real potential, literally to give things a clothing, which is our consolatory strength as beings; the greatest storymakers are what are called visionaries. Chandler’s work makes one consider that humans have embellished and ennobled dead matter: we call this culture and language. Judeo-Christian culture has clad itself in a very thick and elaborate garment which has borrowings and inheritances from a great many other foreign ones. Thus encumbered, it has spent its time trying to see underneath this clothing, to an ever-elusive something whichpromises to be more durable. But Chandlers is not shaking her head in the manner of an dour existentialist like Jean Genet who once remarked, ‘What is not futile in this world? I’m asking you: what is not futile in the last analysis?’ What Chandler’s Portraits show is that what is durable is in fact the ability to clothe, to name; to transform transient into concrete value. That of course is love, which as Oscar Wilde said, is the illusion which makes things real. Authenticity is a hungry and imaginative sense of the outlandishly unauthentic.

Adam Geczy 1999