SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
11.02 – 25.03.2017
When Zeitz MOCAA acquired Jody Paulsen’s Highbrow Gayplan, they presciently chose a work unrivalled by anything on the artist’s current exhibition, ‘Pushing Thirty.’ The artist struck the perfect balance between text and visuals which were integrated with a seamlessness rarely apparent in his subsequent work where the different elements often contend, rather than reinforce each other. The illustrative element pulled a punch that has been dissipated by repetition of the same motifs in the artist’s countless felt banners, and the content – a crystal clear statement about all Paulsen’s ambitions, hopes and dreams – was conveyed with a youthful buoyancy and chutzpah that charmed the viewer.
Pushing Thirty, the work that lends its title to the exhibition, reveals the artist’s lofty disdain for High Art and complete submersion in popular culture. However this is mediated: Paulsen pushes it to extremes of so-called bad taste, stretching it to the limit of its innate crassness and vulgarity whilst capitalizing on its predilection for the outrageous, over-the-top, kitschy, camp, and cutesy, thereby concocting his own visual language, a ludic tongue that sends up all it speaks of in orotund satire, caricature and parody spiked with an inimitable puckish mischief and sass.
Paulsen imagined that by the age of thirty, he would have acquired maturity, understanding and self-control instead of merely celebrating yet another meaningless birthday. Accordingly, what he evokes is the tension between what the image portrays as a life of insouciant hedonism, mindless partying, drugs, alcohol and videos, and Jody’s nagging guilt about his lack of artistic self-discipline. Torments of conscience clearly emerge from the words ‘Pushing Thirty’ floated on a ground of zebra skin manipulated with Op art dexterity so that the black stripes simultaneously exert both a strong inward and outward pressure, conveying imminent crack-up and remorse for frittered time. The wizened homunculus-like figure from Munch’s The Scream permeates the angst with hysteria, likening Paulsen’s regrets to the insane ravings of a tragic Hispanic drama queen in an Almodovar melodrama.
Paulsen’s continual readiness to send himself up is one of his most endearing characteristics, and it springs to the fore in this act of contrition executed with engaging tongue in cheek verve. The banner is headed ‘The Singleton Years’ and the words emerge from a bed of maidenly embroidered white blossoms which invoke a youth of strict conventual chastity. Jody’s claim to undefiled purity is denied by the presence of forbidden fruit in the form of two lush over-ripe pineapples behind which lurk the naked torsos of Michelangelo’s David, half-hidden like Peeping Toms, as they leer with mournful cupidity at the symbols of Paulsen’s closely guarded maidenhood that deprived them of such toe-curling erotic delights. Below spinsterly primness dissolves in a torrid jungle of flourishing green leaves which always betoken uninhibited physical and sexual release in Paulsen’s symbolic lexicon. At base the leaves are disposed in neat, spruce arrangements that suggest Rastafarian marijuana emblems while the words ‘Watching Netflix mainlining Afghan Kush’ confirm its consumption. The base depicts the festive birthday spread; cakes ordered from the Georgina Gratrix patisserie, cocktail glasses, over-flowing foaming tankards of beer (an obvious symbol of orgasm), Campari, Smirnoff and long outstretched tongues greedily gulping down illicit substances. But like Belshazzar’s Feast, the writing is on the wall for the words ‘the Age Issue’ float over the victuals.
Paulsen is without doubt an astounding fabric designer with an incomparable flair for knock-your-socks-off shape, pattern and colour, an inventive couturier, and past master of the immaculately tailored cut with a keen feel for the unique look, weight, feel and fall of the textiles he employs. But he is less an artist, than a designer juggling with lay-out, headlines, baselines, typefaces, illustrations, logos, brand names and attention grabbing retail flashes.
Although every object on display regales one with humour and wit, many major works appear far too over-congested, inflated and formulaic. Ever since Paulsen first started producing banners, the format has remained invariable consisting of large symmetrical blocks divided into a series of horizontal strips of image or text that read from top to bottom from left to right. Another weaknesses is that often the words cannibalize the images which become mere decorative adjuncts with little organic relationship to the overall theme. The logocentric emphasis evident in Love Algorithm and Emotional Ninja leads to confusion, as Jody has no gift for words, and the clumsy language lacks any continuity, and breaks down into non-sequiturs in Bad Homosexual before dissolving, as so often happens, into an array of logos of costly fashion and life-style magazines, a consumerist litany also echoed in Highbrow Gay Plan. The illustration is relegated to the margins which contain bodybuilders lifting weights, a pursuit that seems entirely innocuous, so that what form of homosexuality the artist deems reprehensible remains undefined.
Something went awry, and as a result, the exhibition like a disappointing Xmas stocking, bulges with fillers and stuffers that occupy space, but hardly qualify as art of any consequence, and sadly the indiscriminate mass of heterogeneous elements proves far too disjointed and scrappy to cohere into a meaningful whole.
However, there are some promising deviations from Paulsen’s all-too-familiar stock style. The maddening, cranked-up freneticism yields to renewed creative energies in works based on the armorial bearings of various homophobic African states. Instead of exploiting these as a vehicle of protest, Jody constructs a soothing Utopia of Uranian love and camaraderie in which handsome dreamy heraldic figures support coats of arms which, as they still derive from medieval sources, are permeated by enchanting Gothic fairy-tale and fantasy – quaint chivalric armour, cartouches blossoming into luxurious laurel scrolls and whole menageries and herbaria of exotic animals, flowers and fruits – so that like the banderol above the Jamaican flag proclaiming Out of Many, One People it invokes that biblical paradise where the lion snuggles down peaceably with the lamb.