Sunday, 15 May 2016

Imitation of Life

The moving image and ‘films’ continue to rule the roost at Manchester UK’s HOME art centre with another exhibition, curated by Omar Kholief and the ever-present Sarah Perks, tapping into popular, critically reassessed motion pictures of yesteryear to theme the gallery displays.

A clear indication of the realpolitik of the institutions component departments, a promotion of hyper-capitalisms domination by technologies of display and communication and a government-satisfying pandering to the ex-college kids faintly remembered course curricula, it’s a convenient formula for structuring the galleries programme. 

This time round it’s the turn of ‘Imitation Of Life’, a film ostensibly about a young woman’s denial of her African-American lineage. With a little distance from 1959, it is apparent that race and gender were being used to question the American Dream’s ingrained social hierarchies and its genuine capacity to permit the reinvention of the self by its citizens.

A melodrama just sidestepping camp, the Douglas Sirk directed 1959 film, produced in the wake of Fannie Hurst popular 1933 source novel and the high profile John M Stahl’s 1934 film version, remains the most famous and most referenced incarnation of ‘Imitation of Life.’

Ablaze with a weird high definition kitschness, Sirk’s overheated emoting is now much admired. Whilst extremely popular with cinema audiences of the 1950s, his films were originally dismissed by critics as American society viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. Now they are considered as hiding the gimlet eye of an ironist.

His genius lies in the fact that the automatic inauthenticity of the melodrama doesn’t disallow sympathy - even for the unlikeable characters - due to the empty displays of conformity demanded of all the figures trapped in the mechanics of an ideological morass. 

The real-life tragedy of star Lana Turner’s daughter killing Turner’s boyfriend, the colourful soap opera cage of social mores insinuating the less than palatable realities of North American culture, the necessary construction and performance of self, and even the seductive opulence of the film’s pallet jarring with its weightier topics all make ‘Imitation of Life’ a fairly substantial and flexible springboard for artists’ speculations and productions.  

On the downside there is an over-reliance in the exhibition of bandying around the term melodramatic as if willing it to be flexible enough to apply to most of the exhibits which it is not. There is also the issue of using the grandiose description ‘installation’ for screens, photos and objects in the corner of a room ( Martine Syms’ potted history of ‘blackness’ in the US sitcom ‘S1:E1’) and the repeated rows of vigorously synthetic hair extensions covering a wall (Lauren Hasey’s ‘We The Ones (blackngold)’ ). 

Larry Achiampong’s six digital photomontages ‘Glyth’ (2013 - 2014) use attractively washed out family snaps. Co-opting the circular voids in a Baldesarri picture or static cue dots, a standardized black circle topped off by lipstick red cartoon lips replaces the heads of everyone pictured.

A transgressively daft echo of a racial stereotyping, this South Park minstrel revue defaces the heartfelt nostalgia of the family snap; their initial obviousness hides a smart, layered criticism of the use and abuse of the medium of photography itself.

Similarly darkly comical and self-critically effective is Jayson Musson’s ‘Art Thoughtz: How To Be A Successful Black Artist’ (2010). A short digital video looking like a youtube post, Musson adopts his alter-ego of artist Hennessy Youngman, a character who lists every cliched presumption about the ways a contemporary black artist can operate to succeed in the art market. No-one comes out of the monologue very well - artist, audience, curator, the gallery system generally - but the half-truths and misdirections are funny and revealing in equal measure. 

Like Archiampong’s photomontages the medium is also the message, probably the reason that both artists works are some of the most successful in the show. 

Things get a little more opaque in Sophia Al-Maria’s distended and extended, deformed and glossy reproductions of facial whitener packaging (‘Scarce New Flowers’ (2016)). Even more so in Tony Lewis’s two splendid, materially confusing text drawings. Using paper, tape, correction fluid, pencil, graphite powder, free-floating and partial words, they point to the centrality of language and its function in sculpting any sense of identity. 

The nearest thing to the overtly sculptural is Kevin Beasley’s wall-bound two metre diameter denim and resin piece ‘Untitled (Fades / Violas)’ (2015). It has the gluey sheen of a wet papier mache bowl and seems to have been left over from an alternative version of the exhibition. 

Jordan Casteel’s oil painting ‘Alto’ (2014) and collages ‘Mark 2’ and ‘Derek 2’ (2015) show isolated black men seated in, presumably, their domestic spaces. The semi-foetal huddle of the figure in ‘Alto’ is overseen by what appears to be a freestanding photograph of a woman; a distanced maternal character or a pictorial memory. There’s a little bit of spatial distortion but it’s rendered in a faintly conservative, art-school representational way which adds to its gentle ambience.

There’s a greater ambiguity about the space in Michael Armitage’s paintings on traditional Ugandan bark cloth. Courtyards, exterior or interior spaces; all are possible environments for the meeting of figures. One painting shows a kiss, another two people walking side-by-side. The bark cloth seems to dull down any harshness to the colours absorbed into washes and stains. The results seem like washed-out recreations of unreliable memories.

On the moving image front Loulou Cherinet’s ‘White Woman’ (20020 is a filmed dinner with all the guests African men. The camera pans 360 degrees around and around giving each seated dinner guest a couple of minutes to recount their personnel experiences of their relationships with white women. 

The men’s conversational stereotyping of women acts as a counterpoint to stories of their experience of being on the receiving end of such speculations. They give the impression of vacillating between descriptive honest and performing for the camera and each other.

Loretta Fahrenholtz’s video ‘Ditch Plains’ has a different kind of choreographed performance as dancers pose and move under the depressing sodium yellow light of early morning in a poor area of New York.

Jacolby Satterwhite ‘Matriarch’s Rhapsody’ (2014) presents an animated circling of his mother’s drawings of desirable objects. His ‘Reifying Desires 6’ (2014) uses 3-D sculptural forms, performing characters and tumbling vegetable and mineral shapes rendered in a swooping retro-graphic.

The gallery blurb states that HOME’s show ‘looks at the performance of racial politics in an evolving, digital world.’ 

The idea of an exhibition built on the ‘performance of racial politics’ sounds engagingly cynical and / or constructively questioning but the seriously overarching significance of ‘an evolving, digital world’ screams for a more in-depth overview of the casually presumed fluidity of identity than the exhibition permits. 

Indeed there is a degree of cynicism in some of the work regarding the convenient simplification to surface display occasionally invoked when addressing the politics of identity. This gives the whole affair much more bite than a previous HOME exhibition which skirted around Todd Haynes’ film ‘Safe’ without sinking its teeth into the meat of the thing.