Georgina Gratrix at Whatiftheworld / Gallery
by Katharine Jacobs
In ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was an ecstatic week of banqueting, gambling and general licentiousness. For the duration of carnival time, the social order was inverted, and masters and slaves could temporarily switch roles. In Medieval times, this tradition morphed into the Feast of Fools, a carnival over a number of days during which peasants switched places with the aristocracy, dressing up in their clothes and mimicking their highbrow habits. The highlight of this festival was the election of the Lord of Misrule, a mock pope who created eccentric rules and ran a mock parliament in which, for a brief time, the peasants could openly critique their rulers (House n.d.:online).
Walking into Georgina Gratrix's 'Master Copy', one might be forgiven for thinking one had stumbled upon a 90s rendition of such a festival. Flourescent rave colours scream from the walls, where a whole crowd of paintings, collages and monoprints perform in clusters. From a corner of the room, a paint-stained iPod provides the party music; Gratrix's studio playlist beating out a gregarious mix of Brenda Fassie, Amy Winehouse and Dolly Parton. A psychedelic collage bears the words 'My Party', the 'P' and 'Y' rendered such that it also reads 'My art'. The two are certainly conflated here; a large Facebook-style Friend Wheel rendered in tempera paint on Fabriano draws attention to the link between social networking and art. Boogie Woogie Scrabulous, a collage of luminous words, arranged scrabble-form to mimic Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie provides an art historical excuse for a party. Everywhere are works with titles such as Party Girl (Candice), Party People, Electro, Techno, and Dance, Dance Revolution.
The show certainly has all the features of a festival. If one looks hard enough, there is even a mock Pope, a Lord of Misrule to run the show. From the centre of a whole mash-up wall of paintings and collages, Rave Rat (The Pope), flings his lurid lime green arms wide; a celebrant leading the congregation of works around him in their irreverent parodies. Perhaps, one might suggest, the slaves and the old Masters are about to swap roles.
Gratrix, who takes ownership of 'her own position as young, female painter' in this show, presents her own subject position as a counterpoint to that of the old men of art, the masters (Stupart 2008:online). In the conglomeration of smaller works around the mock pope, the old guard certainly comes off worse. British Painting (House), still labeled as such, is a cut-'n-paste collage of a childish box house, garden path drooping from its front, an impotent, sagging genre of old men. In Crimewave a reproduction of Constable's peaceful Hay Wain has been covered in fluorescent green and pink sticker graffiti. Now screaming CRIME WAVE, the lazy, sentimental scene becomes laughable; an outdated, blinkered vision of country life.
Similar sarcasm exists in Wow, an old page torn from an art book and still bearing the label for a William Hogarth print which has been superseded by Gratrix's doodles, W's, O's and round green and pink stickers. This kind of fancy dress and parody has been around since 1919, when Duchamp used a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa to undercut its original, drawing a comical moustache on the face of the first lady of the Western art canon. In Gratrix's parodies, a similar inversion is at work. Once revered and unquestioned, when parodied as in Gratrix's Feast of Fools, the old masters begin looking like ineffectual, impotent fools, forcing their lecherous viewpoint onto the viewers of their work.
This intellectual leering seems to be another thing which Gratrix seeks to invert, if one observes the extraordinary number of eyes on the show. As we know from Foucault, vision is power, and hence, in order to effect a role reversal between viewer and work, Gratrix has equipped her images with pathetically ineffective, plastic eyes. Even a kitsch snow-capped mountain gazes back at the viewer with a pair of deadpan, plastic eyes in Landscape (Returning the Gaze). Likewise, painted into the round, pink and purple face of her self-portrait, People Eater, are four pairs of eyes to the viewer's two. Most masterful of all, though, is a triptych of brightly coloured drip paintings where every last little drip has been given a pair of round, googly eyes, staring up, down or off into the distance. The drips, once thought to demonstrate the honesty of the medium - the truth about paint - are shown for who they really are: contrived little fellows who have been so overused by painters aiming for authenticity, that they have developed a character of their own.
Modernist stylistic innovation takes another knock in Gratrix's stripe paintings. The works of Picasso, Manet and de Kooning, are parodied in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Olympia and Woman V respectively, the colour palette of each old master flattened even further, to make up three vacuous stripe paintings. Reduced from groundbreaking avant-garde to Biggie Best interior décor, the flattening of form becomes a decorative indulgence.
Elsewhere, Picasso's theft of the flattened form from 'primitive' African craft is further problematised, as Gratrix uses another comically obvious strategy to invert the binaries of art and craft. Oh Inverted World, a portrait of a sitter wearing an upside-down mask, literally makes the viewer tilt their head upside down in order to read the face correctly. But of course, the painting suggests, the masters, painting as they were from the Northern hemisphere, painted everything upside down.
Serious aesthetics, in this festival, are also out of the window. Subjects are represented by analogy, rather than descriptive mark; Cake Face (Candice), an over made-up woman, has been smeared with thick, purplish pink paint. Show me your Dancing and Show me your Feelings, two larger than life nudes, are cobbled together from canvasses, ironically badly painted paper limbs and assemblage genitalia (a pair of spectacles and a puny plastic penis for the man, an inverted painting of a mountain, complete with forest, and tiny figures walking through it, for the woman).
The doodle is another aesthetic which makes several appearances. In Silly String Man, one of several scribbled monotypes, a figure emerges out of a doodle only because of the mischievous addition of a set of white teeth. In Doodle Heads, a smart Victorian couple has had their faces doodled over, now nothing more than unpopular characters in some child's picture book. Mix Tape, a matrix of 20 drawings, consists purely of doodles Gratrix made while listening to different songs on her iPod. Ecstatic Doodle, meanwhile, a scrunched up ball of fluorescent pipe cleaners, cements the technique by making a monument to it in three dimensions. Doodling is of course, the perfect weapon against those who take their artistic production too seriously.
Gratrix's 'Master Copy' then, is part party, part art satire. A modern day Feast of Fools, its power lies in its use of the Carnivalesque, that Bakhtinian form of parody which allows laughter to coexist with criticism. Of course, as in the original festival, the power reversal is temporary; when the laughter subsides, the slaves will still have to cook their masters' suppers, or starve. The use of satire however, is arguably a more effective manner of wrestling the power from the rascals than attacking them in earnest. As Harris suggests, 'to define a joke, to be the class that decides what is funny, is to make a massive assumption of power' (1999:50). More importantly, it makes for refreshing, entertaining work.
Opens: September 4
Closes: September 27
Whatiftheworld / Gallery
1st Floor Albert Hall, 208 Albert Road, Woodstock
Tel: (021) 448 1438
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 4pm, Sat 10am - 3pm
Harris, G. 1999. Staging Feminities: performance and performativity. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press
House, J. n.d. 'Jesters, Fools and Madmen: The World Turned Upside Down' [online] Available: http://www.jeffhouse.addr.com/mythology/fools.htm Last accessed: 24 September 08
Stupart, L. 2008. 'Master Copy By Georgina Gratrix'. [online] Available: http://www.whatiftheworld.com/programme/2008/09/04/master-copy-by-georgina-gratrix/ Last Accessed: 24 September 08