How Current is Neo-Camp? Eddie Peake, Alex da Corte, Alan Reid
While Susan Sontag argues homosexuality is at the origin of camp, curator and critic Chris Sharp, with his recently introduced term ‘neo-camp’, prefers to speak about post-homosexual work. The question is how relevant his adaptation of the now generally accepted understanding of camp is.
Thinking of camp superficially – as a synonym for homosexual cultural heritage – the flamboyant American pianist and entertainer Liberace (1919 - 1987) comes to mind as its ultimate embodiment. He was trained as a classical pianist and proved very talented. His acts however, which he himself described as “classical music without the boring bits”, were what brought him wealth and fame. His extravagant costumes, lined with fur and covered with Swarovski-diamonds, have now become legendary. Nevertheless, at the time, he constantly performed for a potentially hostile and dangerous audience, to whom he could not openly divulge his homosexuality. The same was true for Jack Smith (1932- 1989), one of the pioneers of camp-aesthetics, who, without any budget, made work that was strongly influenced by Hollywood B-films and orientalism. His most well known work, Flaming Creatures (1963), was banned in America because some scenes were considered pornographic. The film had a great influence on artists such as Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney; even the advent of drag-culture can be led back to it. Incidentally, Smith has always denied that his sexual orientation played a role in his artistic work.
Today that dangerous edge has been smoothed out. Camp has become rather established, perhaps even bourgeois. Everyone makes a show of it, whether they are gay or not. One wonders, then, why someone would want to dedicate an extensive text and exhibition to it. In an article titled Camp + Dandyism = Neo-Camp, which appeared last year in the magazine Kaleidoscope (No 14), Chris Sharp introduces a number of contemporary male artists whose work moves on the border of irony and sincerity. According to Sharp these artists are looking for a space for reticence, suggestion and eroticism in a time of supposed transparency, bluntness, and pornography. Although very divergent in forms of expression, their works share a certain sensuality, which varies from coy understatement to erotic bombast.
NOTES ON CAMP
In defining neo-camp, Sharp relies heavily on Susan Sontag’s famous essay Notes on Camp from 1964, in which she introduced the concept into the realm of visual art. According to Sontag (and Sharp), the essence of camp is “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” “It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content’, ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’, of irony over tragedy.” For this reason it is predominantly present in affluent societies. Sharp explains how Sontag’s definition returns to Victorian-age dandyism and its exaggerated attention to form, combined with a strongly sublimated kind of sexuality. However tired we may be of all these codes, it appears we cannot do without them now that we live in a period in which form seems to have won out over content. Certainly, the artists Sharp recognizes as representatives of neo-camp cannot seem to live and work without appealing to this code.
Important for Sharp’s definition of neo-camp is that sexual orientation is no longer as relevant. He speaks of a “post-homosexual mode.” Camp has untied itself from its homosexual cultural roots; precisely those in which Susan Sontag grounded camp in 1964. To establish his argument, Sharp refers to the work of Daniel Sinsel (1976) (see my 2012 text in Metropolis M, Nr. 2). If Sinsel’s early paintings of pretty boys from vintage pornographic magazines, were “flagrantly homoerotic”, his later work can no longer be deemed as such.. It expresses a more universal, dormant sexual desire.
As a result, female artists were also included in the exhibition Notes on Neo-Camp, which Sharp curated as an extension of his text and which was on view this spring at Office Baroque in Antwerp (and this summer at Voltaire in London). Whereas most male artists’ work remained “stuck” in coy understatement (as in the case of late Sinsel), female artists’ work exploded with erotic bombast, as in the paintings of Ella Kruglyanska (1978): exaggerated scenes of voluptuous ladies in brightly coloured swimsuits. The same is true for a work by Anthea Hamilton (1978), in which a young, attractive Karl Lagerfeld in swimming trunk stares at the viewer suggestively. A layer of cheerful irony covered these works that contrasted well with the subdued character of the rest of the exhibition. Because of this marked contrast between female and male work, I was briefly reminded of the old notion – scientifically accurate or not – that girls become adult earlier than boys.
The question is why Sharp places neo-camp so emphatically in a post-homosexual perspective, as if camp is in need of an update for lack of suitable art. There are, in my view, many other young artists making art fitting Sontag’s views of homoerotic camp. Eddie Peake (1981), for example, is all the rage in London now. Last year at The Tanks at Tate Modern he exhibited the work Amidst a Sea of Flailing High Heels and Cooking Utensils, a musical performance with gold-painted naked bodies and simulated sex. The piece’s choreography transformed the bodies of female and male dancers into sculptural as well as sexual objects, thereby encouraging the audience to surrender to their voyeuristic desires. Another recent performance is Touch, a 30-minute game of indoor football between two teams of five men. Except for their sneakers and socks, the players are naked. It is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on sculptural tactility and the homoerotic connotation of male contact sports.
Artificiality and exaggeration is also apparent in the work of the American artist Alex da Corte (1981). Most of his work is compiled from products from dollar stores, second hand shops and Walmart and has the synthetic shine of cheap capitalism. It introduces the viewer to the world of poor suburbs and objects designed without love. Da Corte is not so much interested in the idealized version of our world:
“I just think that sometimes the art world in the city forgets that there’s the suburbs, or they say the suburbs are the armpit. But we need armpits. They’re good for sweating and all sorts of things.”
Da Corte is precisely attracted to these products because of their accessibility. Despite their average quality, these products embody the promise of escape and pleasure through their coloration, smell, or texture. Shampoo, for example, is factually a very intimate and sensual substance. We apply it to our skin and it easily slides down in the direction of our erogenous zones. By using shampoo as material for painting, Da Corte ignores its intended use but opens it to the possibility of considering it from both a scientific as well as a voyeuristic perspective. His dried-up shampoo-paintings bear titles such as Ocean Splash and Apricot Breeze; typical names that refer to the banal source of the materials employed. Homoeroticism is also easily apparent in Da Corte’s work. For instance, in one of his short videoworks, Activity # 102, an attractive young man in white underwear and white sunglasses, is covered with talcum powder. Subsequently, he is given a green liquid to drink, lipstick is applied to his lips, and a red substance is sprayed into his mouth. After this he performs an awkward choreography to the sound of something that sounds like a cap gun.
Noteworthy is also the American artist Alan Reid (1976). His misty Caran d’Ache colour pencil and acrylic painted images display predominantly young, tastefully dressed androgynous types reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby from 1925, or portraits by Leonardo da Vinci. Reid enjoys drawing inspiration from catalogues of the contemporary American fashion brand J. Crew, for stylistic aspects such as lighting and colour. At the same time, he wonders where this pleasant, innocent, heedless portrayal of humanity comes from: perfect masks that promise stable emotions.
His elegant, languid bodies are set up in soft pastel tints, but these are interrupted by bright, geometric patterns, sometimes painted, sometimes attached to the canvas. At times a teacup (The Arrival, 2012), a wooden maple leaf (Première Soirée, 2011), or a collection of wooden flutes (Le Pipe, 2011) are placed over the female pubic area. Recently, he titled a quite innocent piece To Cum at the Same Time (2013). Reid’s use of the flute displays noticeable similarities with Daniel Sinsel’s repeated use of this object. Undoubtedly a phallic symbol, but in both cases its application is not vulgar.
There are elements in the works of the aforementioned artists that fit perfectly in Sharp’s definition of neo-camp, even if only because women sometimes appear in them. However, the particularly confronting erotic bombast of Peake and Da Corte’s works escapes Sharp’s definition. Furthermore, both artists also engage with wider social themes such as poverty and sexual identity and thereby reach a social scope that fits better with Sontag’s definition. Perhaps their art is not as controversial and poisonous as Sontag’s camp; however it does transcend the attractive, but ultimately harmless sensuality of Sharp’s neo-camp.
Alexander Mayhew is a freelance art critic based in The Hague, The Netherlands.
Translated by Jeroen Nieuwland