Showing posts with label andy warhol. Show all posts
Showing posts with label andy warhol. Show all posts

23 Feb 2020

Forever Dead and Lovely: Notes on Melanie Pullen's High Fashion Crime Scenes

Melanie Pullen: Untitled (ELLE), 2014 
From the series High Fashion Crime Scenes (2003-17)
If, like me, you love Izima Kaoru's Landscapes with a Corpse for their drop dead gorgeousness and thanatological interest, then you're also gonna love the work of Melanie Pullen in her photographic series High Fashion Crime Scenes ...

Born in 1975, in New York, but currently living and working in Los Angeles, Pullen grew up in the West Village in a family home regularly visited by poets and painters, including Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol. She acquired her first camera as a teen and began shooting images of rock bands for various publications and record labels.     

Pullen is most noted, however, for her extensive series of  pictures based on vintage crime scene images taken from the files of the NY and LAPD. Inspired by cinematic images and photojournalism, she employed not only well-known actresses and models, but the services of a huge technical crew so that her photo shoots often resembled elaborate movie sets. Each of her pictures could take up to a month to create and the High Fashion Crime Scenes series used millions of dollars worth of designer clothing and accessories. 

Surprisingly - or perhaps not - Pullen claims to dislike violence. She is curious, however, about the role that violence plays within the arts and wider culture, as well as the response that people have to violent images. Her work might therefore be described not as an attempt to make violent crime seem glamorous or stylish by dressing up bodies in haute couture, but a critical examination of the way in which the horror and traumatic effect of murder, rape and suicide can be diminished via its aesthetic interpretation and/or portrayal in the media.  
Pullen herself has expressed concern with the way that images and descriptions of female corpses - often naked or semi-naked - are used to titilate or add sleazy sensational interest to a narrative; be it a film, a play, a news story, a coroners report ... or even a blog post.

See: Melanie Pullen, High Fashion Crime Scenes, with an introduction by Luke Crissell and essays by Robert Enright and Colin Westerbech, (Nazraelie Press, 2005), 128 pages.  

To read a sister post to this one - Notes on Izima Kaoru's Landscapes with a Corpse - please click here.

29 May 2019

Simian Aesthetics 1: The Case of Congo the Chimp

Congo and one of his more mature works

Everyone knows that monkeys make great copyists. We even have a verb in English, to ape, meaning to mimic someone or something closely (albeit in a rather clumsy, sometimes mocking manner). But what isn't so widely known is that they can also be original artists, producing works that have real aesthetic value and interest in and of themselves and not merely because they are produced by the hairy hand of a non-human primate.  

Take the case of Congo, for example, who, with the help of the zoologist and surrealist Desmond Morris, developed a lyrical style of painting that has much in common with abstract impressionism.

Congo first came to Morris's attention in 1956 when, aged two, he was given a pencil and paper. It was obvious the young chimp had innate drawing ability and a basic sense of composition. In addition, Congo had a very clear idea of whether a picture had or had not been completed: if a work was taken away that he didn't consider finished, he would scream and work himself up into a tantrum; but once he considered a work to be done, then he would refuse to work on it further, no matter what inducements were made.

Within a couple of years Congo had made several hundred sketches and paintings and during the late 1950s he made frequent TV appearances, showcasing his talents live from London Zoo alongside Morris. Congo became even more of a simian cause célèbre when the Institute of Contemporary Arts mounted a large exhibition of his work (along with that by other talented apes) in the autumn of 1957.

Discussing this event in a recent interview,* Morris explained that the importance of the show lay in the fact that it was the first time that zoology and fine art had come together in order to examine the evolutionary roots of man's aesthetic delight in images. Morris also recalls how originally nervous the ICA were about the exhibition, worrying, for example, that other all too human artists might find the idea absurd and insulting. Thankfully, it was decided by ICA founders Roland Penrose and Herbert Read that the show had to go on. 

And, as it turned out, critical reaction to the exhibition within the art world and wider media was mixed, but mostly on the positive side. Indeed, when Picasso heard about Congo, he immediately showed interest and hung one of the chimp's paintings on his studio wall. Later, when asked by a journalist why he had done so, Picasso went over and bit him.

Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí were also impressed by Congo's work. The former delighted in the intelligence of composition and the latter compared Congo's attempt to control his brushstrokes favourably to the random splashing of Jackson Pollock, saying that whilst Pollock painted with the hand of an animal, Congo painted with a hand that was quasi-human.**

Sadly, Congo's brief but glittering career as an artist ended with his death from tuberculosis in 1964, when he was aged just ten years old. His legacy, however, lives on, and in 2005 Bonham's auctioned a number of his paintings alongside those by Renoir and Warhol. Amusingly, whilst the works of these illustrious human painters didn't sell on the day, Congo's sold for far more than expected, with an American collector snapping up three works for over $25,000. 

We arrive, finally, at the obvious question: Is a picture painted by a chimpanzee really a work of art?

For me, the answer has to be yes and to argue otherwise does seem suspiciously like speciesism. Of course, as Desmond Morris acknowledges, this is not to say Congo was a great artist or that his work deserves the same critical attention as that given to work of the human artists named above. But neither does it deserve to be dismissed as rubbish. Ultimately, Congo's fascinating canvases are, as Morris says, "extraordinary records of an experiment which proves beyond doubt that we aren't the only species that can control visual patterns".    


*A transcript of this interview in which Morris discusses the controversial exhibition Paintings by Chimpanzees (1957) can be found on the archive page of the ICA website: click here. The transcript is the third of a three part series based on an interview by Melanie Coles with Desmond Morris at his studio in Oxford, 2016 (ed. Melanie Coles and Maya Caspari).

See also Desmond Morris's study of the picture-making behaviour of the great apes in relation to the art produced by humans; The Biology of Art, (Methuen, 1962). 

**Heidegger, of course, wouldn't allow this statement to pass unchallenged, believing as he did that the human hand is what distinguishes man from all other beasts, including the ape. Thus, according to Heidegger, whilst chimps possess prehensile organs capable of holding and manipulating objects, they do not have hands in the unique manner that humans being do. Indeed, for Heidegger, there is an ontological abyss between Pollock's hand and Congo's. I shall discuss this at greater length in a forthcoming post.

Readers interested in part two of this post on simian aesthetics - the case of Pierre Brassau - should click here.

17 Nov 2018

Decorating the World with David Bromley

Anglo-Aussie artist David Bromley, who is best known for his images of youngsters that nostalgically recreate a memory (or fantasy) of a Boy's Own childhood and decorative female nudes painted in black outline with clever colour combinations that also make one long for the past, is certainly not without his critics.   

And no doubt some of the criticism is fair. But, in so far as this criticism relates to his production techniques and the manner in which he has successfully branded himself and his work ensuring mass commercial appeal, much of it seems laughably passé; this is, after all, not only a post-Warhol world, but an age in which Banksy, Hirst and Koons all operate as artist-celebrities.   

To suggest, as Peter Drew suggests, that by proliferating images on an industrial scale Bromley dilutes the meaning and substance of his work, is to return to hoary old notions of originality and artistic aura (the latter being a magical quality said to arise from a work's uniqueness and which cannot possibly be reproduced). 

I mean, I love Benjamin as much as the next man, but c'mon ... 1936 is a long time ago and the myth of presence - which this idea of aura clearly perpetuates - is something that Derrida has, one might have hoped, put to bed once and for all.     

And Drew's assertion that all great art is a form of self-expression, is also one that deserves to be met with scorn. The last thing I want to see revealed on a canvas is subjective slime; I really don't give a shit about the artist's feelings, or care about the condition of their immortal soul.

Ultimately, even if Bromley is simply in it for the money, then, that's his business and his choice. But I like his tots and tits - not to mention his use of flowers, birds and butterflies - and he has, after all, six kids to support.    

One suspects, however, that Bromley is actually a more interesting figure than this and I rather admire his attempt to take art outside of the usual gallery network and into a more public arena, weaving his images into the fabric of everyday life and contemporary culture. 

See: Peter Drew, 'Too Many Bromley's', post on (25 May 2010): click here.

8 Oct 2018

On Goya's Red Boy

Goya: Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga (1787-88)
Commonly referred to as Goya's Red Boy

Commissioned by an aristocratic banker to produce a series of family portraits, including one of his youngest son, Manuel, Goya produced one of the most charming - if creepiest - pictures in modern art. 

The whey-faced child is dressed in a rather splendid red outfit. In his right hand, he holds a string attached to his pet magpie; the bird has Goya's calling card in its beak and is watched intently by three wide-eyed cats. On Manuel's left, sits a cage full of finches.

Whilst portraits of children and animals have a long and popular history in Spanish art, Goya seems to pervert this tradition by using the beasts to add an element of menace rather than delight to the work. To suggest, for example, that even the innocent world of childhood contains cruelty and is threatened by the forces of evil: Manuel, sadly, would die a few short years later, aged eight. 

His death is surely coincidental; child mortality was simply a fact of life in 18th century Europe (Goya saw only one of his own children reach adulthood). But there's something uncanny in this work which seems to anticipate such a fate. Little Manuel, despite his finery and the presence of his animal companions, looks like a lost soul.  

Still, he's achieved a level of fame and immortality far beyond that of his siblings who survived him; even Andy Warhol would one day sit at his feet. 


Readers interested in viewing the Red Boy can find the work displayed at The Met Fifth Avenue (Gallery 633). 

For a fascinating essay on the painting and its extraordinary popularity, see Reva Wolf, 'Goya's "Red Boy": The Making of a Celebrity': click here to read online. 

See also The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. Pat Hackett, (Penguin Books, 2010). In the entry dated Friday, December 31, 1976, Warhol writes about a party at Kitty Miller's apartment: "And after dinner, I sat underneath Goya's 'Red Boy'. Kitty has this most famous painting right there in her house, it's unbelievable."    

5 Oct 2018

Wigging Out with Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol: Self-Portrait  
from the Fright Wig series (1986)


A wig is a head covering made from human or animal hair; or, rather less convincingly, synthetic fibres. Whilst concealing baldness is certainly a popular reason for wearing one, there are many others; some people wear them on religious grounds, for example; some do so simply for the pleasure of enhancing, disguising, or transforming their appearance. 

The Case of Andy Warhol is particularly interesting ...


If, initially, Warhol wore a wig as a young man in the 1950s in order to hide prematurely thinning hair, he eventually styled his public persona upon a never anything but artificial looking collection of silver-white wigs. Indeed, Warhol's wig-wearing might even be seen as a wonderful piece of performance art concerned with self-creation and self-promotion.    

Made from hair imported from Italy and sewn by famous New York wig maker Paul Bochicchio, Warhol opted for his trademark silver-white wig in order to look slightly alien and also in the knowledge that if you have always looked old, no one can guess your real age. Allowing his own hair to protrude at the bottom of the wig ensured no one mistook it for anything other than a piece of artifice.

Strangely, however, just as the wig came to be seen by others as Andy's natural look, so too did Warhol grow to feel it was an essential element of his identity - we might almost say that just as some wear their hearts upon their sleeves, he wore his soul upon his head. 

And so it is that when Warhol had his wig snatched off his head by a young woman at a book signing in October 1985, it was as much a violent assault as when Valerie Solanas shot and seriously injured the artist back in the summer of '68. Indeed, Warhol described this shocking and painful later event as the day his greatest nightmare came true

Nevertheless, real trooper that he was, Warhol simply pulled up the hood on his Calvin Klein coat, smiled, and continued signing copies of his newly published work America. It might also be noted that although the perpetrator of the assault was held until the police arrived, no charges were pressed.

See: Andy Warhol, The Andy Warhol Diaries, ed. Pat Hackett, (Penguin Books, 2010). In the entry covering this wig-grabbing incident at the Rizzoli bookstore in the Soho district of Manhattan, Warhol describes his assailant as very pretty and well-dressed and suggests that this may have been what prevented him from pushing her over the balcony.  

5 Jun 2018

Andy Warhol's Decorated Penis

 Andy Warhol: Decorated Penis (c. 1957)

According to the critic Michael Moon, much of the revisionary queer power of Warhol's art proceeds from its ability to "invoke and to a considerable degree to celebrate the phallic and also to subvert it comically". It's this latter aspect that I so admire and which helped me to overcome neo-pagan and Lawrentian earnestness with reference to the question of the phallus (both as organ and as symbol).

Warhol liberates us all by liberating the phallus from its phallogocentric and phallocratic pretensions. And he does so not by an act of castration, but by gaily bringing out the vulnerable side of the phallus in all its erectile and ejaculatory glory.

In other words, he develops a rather sweet and touching model of what Lawrence terms phallic tenderness that isn't exclusively tied to heterosexual desire or the subordination of women - nor, indeed, to some grand metaphysical vision. As one friend remembered, Andy simply had a great passion for drawing cocks - be they erect, or in a flaccid state. And he would often add decorative details to these images.

Thus, in Decorated Penis (c.1957), we see a phallus that has been feminised via the amusing addition of hearts and flowers and a ribbon tied round it in a neat bow. As Richard Meyer points out, this transforms an object that is regarded by some as an oppressive symbol of masculine pride and authority - and by others as a symbol of cosmic potency - into an ornamental gift.

By playfully blurring lines between masculinity and femininity - as well as gay porn, popular culture and fine art - Warhol's penis pictures offer a queer challenge to all those who like to keep things cleanly distinct and clearly determined.                   


Michael Moon, 'Screen Memories', essay in Pop Out: Queer Warhol, ed. Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley and Jose Esteban Munoz, (Duke University Press, 1996).

Richard Meyer, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, (Oxford University Press, 2002). 

See also the excellent essay by Australian artist and writer Steve Cox, 'Andy Warhol: Killing Papa', which can be found on his website: click here.

This post is for James Walker.

14 Apr 2017

Steven Shaviro on Warhol's Failure to Make Space

Someone recently compared me to Steven Shaviro, the American philosopher and cultural critic. Whether this comparison flatters, insults, or stands up to scrutiny, I'm not entirely sure; as a Professor of English at Wayne State University and a highly respected author, he's arguably smarter and more successful than me, but, on the other hand, I'm younger and better looking ...

Still, I'm happy to take it as a compliment; for whilst I don't know the gentleman in question, I am familiar with Doom Patrols (1997), Shaviro's theoretical fiction(s) about postmodernism in which he says many things - not necessarily true or accurate, but often witty and stylish - with which I sympathise and might wish to have said myself (You will, Oscar, you will).

I particularly love Shaviro's reading of Andy Warhol and his swish aesthetic. He is absolutely spot on to acknowledge the importance of Warhol and his pimples; an artist who not only understood how to be Greek in the Nietzschean manner (superficial out of profundity), but how to have done with judgement (I approve of what everybody does) - including the judgement of God, but in a far less aggressive, less hysterical fashion than others:

"For Warhol has none of the anxieties that plagued his great Modernist forebears, none of their transgressive urges or buried ressentiment."

Andy simply didn't care if nothing was true and everything permitted. Nor did he worry about substantial things disappearing behind their own shadows and losing their solidity, their palpability, their presence. For as Shaviro says, an artist is somebody who ultimately wants to turn the whole world into a simulacrum:

"It all comes down to images and nothing but images. [...] The critical spirit finds the world to be radically deficient. Images never satisfy it; it always wants something more. But Warhol just shrugs his shoulders, and suggests that enough is enough. The world, for him, is not deficient, but, if anything, overly full."

It's unfortunate, therefore, that even Warhol - by his own admission - simply produced more art junk, thus cluttering up the world still further. To make a little space, it seems, is the most difficult thing of all ...

See: Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols, (Serpent's Tail, 1997), ch. 16: Andy Warhol. 

Note: The complete text is available to read free on Shaviro's website: click here.  

19 Dec 2015

The Case of Evelyn McHale (The Most Beautiful Suicide in the World)

Photo of Evelyn McHale, by Robert C. Wiles. 

For poets, there is nothing more romantic than the suicide of someone young; particularly if they take their lives with an element of style and manage to leave behind them a good-looking corpse. And no one has managed to achieve this feat with more success than an attractive, twenty-three year old bookkeeper, called Evelyn McHale, in 1947.

Hers is often described as the most beautiful suicide in the world and I’m happy to share this view. What makes her case so magnificent and not merely tragic (or mundane), are the following six points:

1. She chose a magical date, May 1st, an ancient spring festival, on which to make her self-sacrifice, thereby lending her death a certain mythical aspect or celebratory pagan splendour.

2. She chose the right method for her location. When in Berlin, for example, one should swallow poison or use a gun; in London, it’s appropriate to throw oneself from a bridge into the Thames, or onto the tracks of the Underground before an approaching train. But, as Serge Gainsbourg observed, New York is all about the astonishing height of its buildings. And so, when in NYC, one simply has to jump.

3. Having chosen, rightly, to jump, Evelyn then selected one of the two truly great and truly iconic modern structures from which to leap: the Empire State Building. This 102-story skyscraper, located in Midtown Manhattan, is, with its beautiful art deco design, the perfect place from which to fall to one’s death and since its opening in 1931 only a select number of lucky souls have had the privilege (and fatal pleasure) of plunging from this iconic site.

4. She was impeccably dressed for the occasion, with gloves and a simple, but elegant, pearl necklace. Before jumping she calmly removed her coat and neatly folded it over the wall of the 86th floor observation deck. She also left behind her a make-up kit, some family snaps, and a suicide note written in a black pocketbook, in which she asked to be cremated without any kind of fuss or service of remembrance. In other words, even in death, Evelyn kept her composure - which brings us to our fifth point:

5. She didn’t land with an undignified splat on the pavement of 34th Street; but, rather, with a crash onto the roof of a waiting car. And it wasn't just any old car - it was a UN Assembly limousine, as if she wanted to make an impression on the entire world. And impression, as we see from the photo above, is the key word here. For Evelyn literally impressed herself into the roof of the Cadillac, so that it seemed to fold round her, with metallic tenderness. There is almost nothing to suggest the terrible violence of the scene - apart from the ripped stockings and the absence of shoes.

6. She conspired with fate to ensure there was a photographer nearby to instantly capture the event of her death on film; thereby ensuring her place within the cultural imagination. Indeed, fifteen years later, Andy Warhol would incorporate her image into his work, just as he did images of other beautiful women, including Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.

As for the student photographer, Robert C. Wiles, he also struck it lucky that day; his astonishing photo of Evelyn was published in Life Magazine as a full-page 'Picture of the Week' in the May 12 issue. It was his first - and last - photo ever to be published and one likes to imagine he hung his camera up after taking this perfect shot, but I don't know if this is true or not.

I'll stop here - but I could of course talk about (and darkly caress) this topic forever. For Camus was right: there is only one truly serious philosophical question - and that is the question of suicide.

1 May 2015

Why I Love Richard Avedon

Selfie in the Manner of Richard Avedon 
Stephen Alexander (2015)

New York has been home to many great photographers. But perhaps the greatest of them all remains Richard Avedon whose magnificent portraits continue to resonate within our cultural imagination.

Like Warhol, whom he famously photographed alongside members of the Factory in 1969, Avedon understood how art, fashion, sex, and commerce have an intimate and sophisticated relationship within modern society.

Further, Avedon knew that the non-essential essence of these things is revealed not at some underlying ideal level, but in the accessories, poses, and small personal gestures of his models and can thus easily be captured on catwalk, canvas, film, and face.

He wasn't interested in revealing the hoary soul, but fascinated rather with how photography creates profoundly stylish images that grant access to the greatest of all truths (which is the truth of masks):

"My photographs don't go below the surface. I have great faith in surfaces."   

This remark alone makes me love him dearly and recognise Avedon as a comrade-in-arms in the never-ending struggle against depth and interiority.   

19 Sep 2014

Calimocho: On the Politics of Wine and Cola

 Andy Warhol: Coca-Cola (3), 1962

Probably the most powerful argument for choosing a cool can of Coke over a fine glass of wine remains that made by Andy Warhol and it's primarily a cultural-political argument tied to American consumerism, rather than one concerning taste (in either sense of the word) or sobriety:

"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."   
- The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, (Harcourt, 1975)

This is undeniably true and one senses something of this same patriotism and ironic egalitarianism of the market place - one might almost call it Coca-Cola communism - born of a New World dislike for Old World snobbery, in George Costanza's equally robust defence of Pepsi.

Reminded by Elaine that it's customary for guests to bring a bottle of wine to a dinner party, George informs her that he doesn't even drink wine - he drinks Pepsi. When Elaine scornfully tells him that he can't bring Pepsi to a gathering of grown-ups, George snorts: "You telling me that wine is better than Pepsi? Huh, no way wine is better than Pepsi."

Even Jerry's attempt to intervene by telling his outraged friend that the fabric of society is very complex and that one has to conform to all manner of customs and conventions, fails to placate George on this point. Later, in the car driving to the party, George asks: "What are we Europeans with the Beaujolais and the Chardonnay ...?" 

Still, none of this serves to explain Jeremy's discomfort at ordering a bottle of Barolo when on a date in an episode of Peep Show. He's obviously put off by the price (£45), but does he really think that wine is less delicious than hot chocolate or Coke? If so, this simply makes him juvenile rather than American does it not?    


See Seinfeld, 'The Dinner Party', episode 13, season 5 (1994) and Peep Show, 'Burgling', episode 1, series 5 (2008).