Fuck You: from the Liz Taylor Series (Cleopatra). Acrylic, composition leaf on canvas. 72 × 48 inches, 1984.
Vol.4, Number 2, July 2008
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KATHE BURKHART IS AN INTERDISCIPLINARY ARTIST AND WRITER. HER WORK HAS BEEN EXHIBITED INTERNATIONALLY, INCLUDING AT PS1 CONTEMPORARY ART CENTER (MOMA), THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM, WEATHERSPOON MUSEUM, AND NEUBERGER MUSEUM (USA); BANFF CENTRE FOR THE ARTS (CANADA); SMAK MUSEUM (BELGIUM); THE FLASHART MUSEUM, 1993 VENICE BIENNALE, AND GALLERIA D’ARTE MODERNA BOLOGNA (ITALY); AND THE GRONINGEN AND HELMOND MUSEUMS (NETHERLANDS). SHE HAS HAD THIRTY SOLO EXHIBITIONS, AMONG THEM AT PARTICIPANT INC., ALEXANDER GRAY ASSOCIATES, MITCHELL ALGUS GALLERY, SCHROEDER ROMERO GALLERY, FEATURE INC. (ALL IN NYC), AND AT GALERIE LUMEN TRAVO (AMSTERDAM). HER WORK APPEARED ON THE COVER OF FLASHART IN DECEMBER 1990 AND WAS THE SUBJECT OF THE FEATURE ARTICLE “BAD GIRL MADE GOOD.” BURKHART HAS RECEIVED GRANTS FROM THE MONDRIAAN FOUNDATION, CHANGE, ARTS INTERNATIONAL, ART MATTERS, AND THE AMSTERDAM FOUNDATION FOR FINE ART, DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE. SHE IS THE AUTHOR OF THREE BOOKS OF FICTION, DEUX AMES SOEURS (BETWEEN THE LINES) HACHETTE LITTERATURES, 2005; DEUX POIDS, DEUX MESURES (THE DOUBLE STANDARD) HACHETTE LITTERATURES, 2002; AND PARTICIPANT PRESS, 2005, AND FROM UNDER THE 8 BALL, LINE, 1985. SHE TEACHES ART AND CRITICAL THEORY AT NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, AND DIVIDES HER TIME BETWEEN NEW YORK AND AMSTERDAM. THE LIZ TAYLOR SERIES: THE FIRST TWENTY FIVE YEARS, WAS PUBLISHED BY REGENCY ARTS PRESS IN NOVEMBER 2007.
> FAMOUS FOR FIFTEEN SECONDS
In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.
-- Andy Warhol
When I first began making the Liz Taylor Series of paintings in 1982 as a graduate student at CalArts, the world was quite a different place. People loved stars then, of course (they always have and always will); but the desire to become one, for most, remained mostly in the realm of fantasy and projection. There was no celebrity culture per se – no Real World full of American Idols, Apprentices, Big Brothers, Survivors, Bachelors, Extreme Makeovers, Fear Factors, Rich Girls, Trailer Park Boys, Art Stars, or Iconoclasts – that according to the commercials will “change the way you see celebrity.” There were no websites like YouTube.com or MySpace.com where a subscriber can create his own personal fan club, or magazines like ME in which “ordinary people” are rendered as celebrities, or celebrities are rendered as ordinary people.
Today, mainstream popular culture has taken the obses-sion with celebrities to such an extreme level that I cannot possibly hope to compete with it in my artistic practice. Still, I want to trace the current obsession with celebrity as a backdrop to one long strand of my work, the Liz Taylor Series.
THE UN(REAL) WORLD
In the visual arts, we owe much in our consideration of today’s celebrity culture to Andy Warhol, the Factory, and its renegade troupe of superstars. Warhol’s legacy has left artists in a strange predicament. The artist, formerly an antisocial, bohemian creature who thrived on isolation, has been replaced by the obsequious, corporate “business artist.” The pendulum has swung from artists who rebelled against the market to artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who colluded and even reveled in its machinations. Some artists’ thirst for celebrity and the visibility and media attention it confers have resorted to elaborate stunts that, more than anything, bring to mind the HBO series Jackass.
According to P. David Marshall, “We’re moving from a repres-entation culture, where celebrities or stars represented us, to a presentation culture, where we can present ourselves” (quoted in the Leland 2006).
Gash: from the Liz Taylor Series (Ash Wednesday). Acrylic, gauze, paper on canvas. 90 × 60 inches, 2004.
As early as 1975, in his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (I was delighted to find three entries reserved for Elizabeth Taylor in the table of contents) Warhol observed that “New categories of people are now being put up there as stars” (Warhol 1975: 85). We only have to look at his films to see what he means.
Largely invented by MTV, the “Reality TV” genre “lets you get so close to celebrities [that] you can almost smell their armpits,” as Sharon Osbourne put it on MTV’s The Osbournes. This quaint forum of simulation could only occur in a time when the real horror show is on the news 24/7, and the freshest celebrities are the “terrorists.” To borrow a poem from my own work, one of the puzzle haikus:
in search of eternity
Are the new rock stars.
Simulations of reality pervade in a world where the Real remains the only taboo. What is at stake in the process is the fragile thread between fiction and nonfiction, fantasy and reality.
Primetime TV offers us a potent fantasy about social mobility in the morality plays offered by programmes like The Apprentice and The Simple Life. These programmes star celebrities like Donald Trump and Paris Hilton, who are famous not because they have some great talent or even beauty, but simply because they’re rich. Just as we seem to be moving away from superstars to ministars and even microstars, the old equation of celebrity=wealth is a paradigm shift away from the current wealth=celebrity. Celebrity has become flattened, devalued, de-famed. The word class itself that was once synonymous with taste and elegance, i.e. “classy,” has now become trashy: these days, class has become cheap.
The Apprentice offers its audience a crash course in capitalism, promising the American dream of getting rich. Upward social mobility is guaranteed for the contestant who is most willing to abandon the social contract. This reality-cum-adventure show provides the viewer with both a potent fantasy, and an apparently highly entertaining cutthroat spectacle, in which the contestants are publicly humiliated and progressively eliminated. This theater of cruelty recalls Lynn Chancer’s discussion of the power dynamics of boss and employee as outlined in her book The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life (1992).
What is it that makes Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie so funny in FOX TV’s The Simple Life? The thought of these rich girls actually doing manual labor is uncanny. Paris sticks out like a sore thumb in white trash America. Her weekly cocktail budget would amount to the per capita income of multiple families in any given Third World country. The girls fail miserably at such menial jobs as milking cows, working in fast-food joints and auto repair shops. They can’t function in the real world because they don’t have to; their class privilege marks them as creatures from another galaxy for whom all the rules of reality imposed on other mortals don’t apply. It frees them from social controls, empowering them through entitlement (the modern version of manifest destiny) because they can buy their way out of – or into – anything. Even without their cash and credit cards, they can get by through false promises and stealing. And that’s entertainment!
Growing up as I did in a working-class home in small-town West Virginia, radio and television provided me with my primary access to culture. TV shows like these have a broad appeal in the demographic where I come from.
As bell hooks observes, “The notion that everyone is wealthy has supplanted the idea of the United States as a classless society . . . mainstream culture disavows class conflict” (hooks 2000). While other signifiers of difference, like race or sex, are clearly visible, class is not immediately apparent on the surface of the body. But class has many hallmarks that can be quickly discerned through systems of signification like speech patterns, clothing, material possessions, education, and the resulting attitude of entitlement that dominates the social relations of the rich.
THE LIZ TAYLOR SERIES
Some people spend their whole lives thinking about one famous person. They pick one person who’s famous, and they dwell on him or her. They devote almost their entire consciousness to thinking about this person they’ve never even met . . . It feels so strange to think that someone is spending their whole time thinking about you.
-- Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
I began making the Liz Taylor Series in 1982, and this extended series at present consists of about 200 large-scale paintings and drawings. At its inception, I wanted to make personal work representing feminist identity that would be accessible to a broad audience. Coming out of the punk subculture, the work combined a rigorous deconstructive critique with a political reclamation of the empty trope of Pop, without sacrificing visual pleasure.
I consider the work to be a conceptually based feminist project that is more performative than it is painterly. Both intersubjective, drawing as it does on autobiography, and a social critique, the work blurs portraiture with self-portraiture and public with private in a visual subversion, disrupting traditional representational painting through its combination of pop stylization, image and text, performative process, and the use of humor and collage. It deconstructs the language of curses and the appropriated media images by exploding female stereotypes, representing a dominant and radically Other kind of female subjectivity.
Cockteaser: from the Liz Taylor Series (Giant). Acrylic, rope, digital inkjet print, composition leaf, rope, sandpaper, decorative paper on canvas. 102 × 78 inches, 2006.
I’ve manipulated loaded words and images to subvert the ind-vidual given meanings of the source materials: film publicity and production stills combined with profanities and curses. This juxta-position represents a language of defiance against the codes that dictate prescribed behavior.
Hollywood – that pervasive world of movies and stars – has created a rigid range of identities for women. No personality exemplifies the polarity of bad girl/mother better than Liz Taylor. This alter ego has provided me with a way to represent a certain kind of difference. As a cultural icon, Elizabeth Taylor points up male-defined parameters of female autonomy. The myth of Superwoman that she embodies – successful actress, eternal temptress, Mom – combined with a transparently public private life reveal a person produced by MGM. Liz Taylor is both the perfect sexual rebel and the perfect victim. She’s the token woman, the woman artist at work, and the quintessential 1950s woman: an image on screen and off that filtered into my growing up. As a child of the 1960s, the roles/models of Liz Taylor were transmitted to me via the family TV set rather than the movie screen, the romantic myths of Hollywood being nowhere more revered than in the small-town middle-class America I came from.
The media has a hold on desire and identification. It keeps a stratified class system in line through its omnipresent value system that reflects the vicarious pleasures of patriarchal conditions. Since no one is free of media influences in their personal lives, I choose emotionally extreme images. Foreign relations always mimic domestic ones.
Lick Bush: from the Liz Taylor Series (Butterfield 8). Acrylic, fake fur, fabric, paper on canvas. 90 × 60 inches, 2001.
The paintings range from works on paper to billboard-sized works, and incorporate collage techniques that parody representation and verisimilitude in the various kinds of materials used; facsimiles of things, rather than the things themselves, such as fake fur, joke condoms, wicker linoleum, contact paper, rope, fake gold metal leaf, a massive black dildo, and once even a plastic chicken.
The language, photos, and painting in my work are used to re-present the characters and dramas of Liz Taylor re-sieved psychologically. As in cinema, I hope to evoke identification through suggested narrative. Since women are most often portrayed as victims in the movies, female identification generally reenforces women’s oppression. But in this work, Liz Taylor, or you, or I can and do resist. An emotional identification of this kind provokes empowerment, and perhaps analysis of the mechanics of oppression in one’s personal life. To disrupt subliminal desires, I subvert the text of the appropriated image with curses: the language of angry resistance, the iconography of the Loud-Mouthed Bitch.
Chancer, Lynn. 1992. The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life: The Dynamics of Power and Powerlessness. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
hooks, bell. 2000. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge.
Leland, John. 2006. “Where All the Beautiful People Are Ho-Hum.” New York Times, September 26.
Warhol, Andy. 1975. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, pp. 84, 85. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.