SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
Puppy love is the deep romantic infatuation when the adoration a child might feel for a puppy, is projected onto a friend, mentor or celebrity. Puppy love often impels one to retreat into glamorous fantasies revolving around the beloved. In the case of Georgina Gratrix, who is over thirty, it enshrouds her in heart-breaking poignancy, as her wilful cocooning of herself in retrogressive daydreaming and make-believe seemingly reflects her flight from the insecurities of adulthood into a juvenile play-play world of irresistible kittens, adorable baby dogs, parakeets, butterflies, gorgeous flowers and the banana and palm trees of her lush Durban childhood home. Her feelings of a lack of viability go hand in hand with an intense absorption in youthful memories, and a desperate craving for love expressed in images and text works: in Xmas trees and rainbows; good resolutions like ‘Go to the Gym’, wry disillusioned reflections like ‘He came free with the dress’ and, saddest of all, pathetic wheedling entreaties like ‘Please call, please call me, please please me.’
The personality may be fragile, but the artist is as bold as Boadicea. She manfully takes possession of Baylon Sandri’s white cube, and subjects it to ruthless gender reassignment surgery so that it becomes a space all of her own, a woman’s realm with not an atom of testosterone in the air. SMAC is entirely feminized, domesticated and energized by Georgina’s magnetic personality and phantasmagorical art.
Puppy Love is no exhibition, it is an environment which metamorphoses us all into ecstatic kids, transporting us back in time to enjoy one of her childhood birthday parties. Georgina’s Mama – a voluptuous German baroness with her attendant French bulldog – presided with some magnificence over the opening, effortlessly stealing the limelight from her beloved daughter.
The exhibition begins in the dining hall of chateau Sandri. Two walls are painted a pale, but emphatic pink: one is wallpapered in broad powder blue and white stripes to set the nursery mood, the other in Georgina’s signature pink interspersed with four faux mabre grey stripes.
At center, a florid carpet supports a large antique table with a white cloth densely massed with birthday cakes vaguely reminiscent of 17th century Dutch table-top paintings of comestibles with its revised, but apposite, symbolism of stompies messily stubbed out in ash-filled tea-saucers. The mise-en-scene is exemplary, and the table groans under the weight of all Georgina’s elaborate gateaux enveloped in glazes, piping and frosting, smothered in lurid Day-Glo icing, tizzily over-embellished with mighty dollops of whipped cream, confectionary, maraschino cherries, glacé fruit liberally sprinkled with hundreds and thousands and edible glitter. An entire menagerie of pet cats, dogs and birds wait with irreproachably perfect behavior on the table where they have not yet nibbled at Georgina’s sumptuously luscious baking worthy of an Escoffier or Brillat-Savarin.
The forgoing is sculpture. Cakes sculpted onto plates. A retail store china bestiary remodelled under Georgina’s dense layers upon layers of the most thick, viscous and oily of pigments. Her vases are so deeply smothered in paint that they lose their form and shape, turn the shrillest of shrill pinks and acquire dense encrustations of the flashiest of dime-store gemstones which vividly contrast with the delicacy of the exquisitely rare botanical hothouse flowers within them. Georgina is the queen of titivation and prink, and in her busy hands, the cheap and nasty becomes even cheaper and nastier, for this is a celebration of glitz, bling, schlock and chintz, an apotheosis of über-kitsch filled with art works poised midway between the soft toy and the garden gnome. Georgina’s installation is gorged and glutted to the point of delirium, and exploring it is the campest fun you can have with your underpants on. However the components, a few exceptions apart, are blatant specimens of the horripilant like all her monstrous lumpy magenta vases and cyanide blue pussy cats narcistically basking in the glory of their billowing, silky fur.
Although the unity is seamless, the exhibition comprises two different elements. There are wonderful satiric portraits like The Collectors, CEO, Bridesbride and Happy Couple which possess real depth and insight, and which remind one of Georgina’s supreme masterpiece, her portrait of Ed Young, which is just as distorted as Picasso’s cubist likeness of Henri Kahnweiler, but also remains as instantly recognizable, and reveals all the hurt and sensitivity behind the hard-drinking bad boy bravado. Certain portraits are terrific, but do the flower pieces, bird paintings and collages sustain this level of artistic excellence? Rarely, and I believe the problem is inflated scale and absence of content.
Superior sandwich spreads – Duck confit or paté de foie gras – prove irresistible when applied to a dainty French canapé, however when it is thickly smeared over an enormous slab of matzo, it becomes nauseating. The same applies to Georgina’s art. All the charm, funsy-wunsy, whimsy, wit and pathos that so enchants us in her smaller confections, turn into sickly goo when projected onto the ginormous scale of a highway billboard as happens in All the Birthdays Bouquet. This marriage of knowing kitsch and faux-naif art contains a billion calories of eye candy and I immediately went into a diabetic swoon. Moreover it is nightmarishly magnified into something inescapably enveloping like Georgina’s earlier attempt at gigantism, Jungle (2012). Out of a tiny glass vase, far too diminutive to credibly hold its contents in place, erupts an insane botanic fantasia in which arums, hibiscuses, antirrhinums, poppies, daisies and clivia are interspersed with cacti, palm fronds, fir trees, lemons and the blackened fruit of a delicious monster.
There is no quality of observation. It is completely artificial and confected, but the trouble about such deliberate kitsch is that it exempts itself from criticism. Poor draftsmanship and composition, shrieky colour, clumsy forms, overcrowding and overstatement are pure kitsch which is exactly what the painting sets out to be. The same hold true of the coyness, the archness, the deliberate cutesy, cutesy cutesiness of the whole concept with the pecan-beaked birds peeking through the greenery, fluffy little chicks perched on a leaf, and inset plastic eyes watching the viewer. Nothing can be condemned as too over the top as over the top is exactly where Georgina aims to be.