Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Beehives and Becky Sharp

Since last Autumn, there's been one beehive that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. Not Gaga's gravity-defying riot of lilac, Joan Holloway's chic sweep, or even - I'm embarrassed to admit - Tracy Turnblad's hair-hopping hootenanny. No, my mind always returns to the elegant up-do of London-based gallerist Maureen Paley.

I'd first read about Paley in the preview Issue 0 of
The Gentlewoman, where she talks of her love for Sissinghurst and Vita Sackville-West's gardens ('very inspirational'), setting up her first gallery in her Hackney home in 1984, and her inimitable beehive. She comes across as a forthright businesswoman, but what's really affecting is her sense of emotion and wonder. I've never been more tempted to see an astrologer than after reading Paley's description of seeing a Jungian psychologist who reads the stars scientifically. 'It was like consulting an oracle', Paley says, 'she described a huge task I would undertake'. But the accompanying Paul Wetherall portraits really consolidated my appreciation for Maureen and her mop - attained simply by backcombing and hairspray.

Is admiration for a hairstyle a justifiable reason for visiting a gallery? That remains to be seen - but I can certainly think of worse motives. Last week, I trotted down to Bethnal Green to check out Donald Urquhart's Bi at Maureen Paley's two adjacent galleries. Urquhart has fascination with divas of yesteryear - literary heroines, silver-screen stars and faded icons. His stark black-and-white drawing style recalls graphic 1940s Hollywood publicity shots, but it also has a hand-drawn emotionality reminiscent of comic books.

Before achieving recognition as an artist, Donald Urquhart had been a postman, fashion journalist and party promoter. When he was rejected from Glasgow Art School in the 80s, he travelled from his native Scotland to become a part of the thriving London performance art scene headed up by Leigh Bowery. In the 90s he ran a club night called The Beautiful Bend, which brought his first taste of success in the art world. At The Beautiful Bend, Urquhart plastered the club walls with photocopied line-drawings of gay characters, gothic plague-doctors and camp heroines. It was only a matter of time before his work was spotted by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, and later she of the beehive herself, Maureen Paley.

Bi is a curious title for an art exhibition. On the surface, it refers to the fact that this show takes back in two different spaces, a couple of doors down the road from each other. But it the name is also reflective of the diversity of Urquhart's subject matter - as he says, 'biographical works as well as an array of bitter pieces, instructional wall charts and studies in style.' Urquhart combines elements from disparate sources to create a new enquiring subject.

Take, for example, Urquhart's new muse in Bi - Becky Sharp, the mendacious anti-heroine of Vanity Fair. In Urquhart's portraits, Becky appears as Bette Davis, whose acid-tongued persona is a perfect fit for the character.

The drawings of Bette in the role function as a trailer for a Davis-starring Vanity Fair adaptation that doesn’t exist. We all know the feeling of building up our own (often inaccurate) picture of what a fictional character looks like, and creating our own visions of the person in our mind's eye. Urquhart gives us a glimpse into his own private adaptation, fusing the real and the fictional in order to create something that is ambiguous in its could-have-been-ness. Urquhart's vision is essentially a more subtle version of Francesco Vezzoli’s Trailer for the Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula, a teaser for a movie that never has and never will exist.

His Joan Crawford As Mildred Pierce is a stark, flattened-out representation of the star - but this is no Warhol's Marylin. Whereas Warhol made Monroe luridly reproducible as a comment on her commodification, Urquhart re-infuses Crawford's image with humanity and vulnerability. His work recalls scrapbook doodlings of movie stars - complete with epigrammatic quotations – and each piece bears the marks of love and affection. None of this is beyond a joke, though, and you only have to look at his 2007 Joan Crawford Alphabet (F for ‘Fuck-me pumps, anyone?) to see that Urquhart gets it.

Fundamentally, Urquhart is interested in the women behind the image. His admiration is not for the glossy surface- his fetish is for the real, often tragic, people beneath. His Little Edie is tender, not grotesque; his Crawford is poised, ready for whatever the world has to throw at her. In Bi, we experience Urquhart's heroines as idiosyncratically as he does, and are encouraged to join him in appreciation.

Bi by Donald Urquhart is at Maureen Paley until 23 May.

For more on Donald Urquhart, check out his excellent article Four Women in MAP.

[Below: Little Edie Flower, 2007; Donald Urquhart at the Miami Ball of Artists, 2007]

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