Originally published by Garageland on 27th October
It has been estimated that we are exposed to over 3000 advertisements every day. Small wonder then that our brains develop certain filtering mechanisms to deal with such a bombardment of images. Nathan James is all too aware of this, and in Punchlines he exploits it ruthlessly. On first glance his lush oil paintings Turning on the Water Works, Spring Break Fo’ever and Picnic Panic depict the voluptuous, too-perfect curves of a typical airbrushed ad or Hollywood pin-up. It’s only once you take a step back that you realise these seductive figures are topped with grotesque cartoon faces, often contorted into guffawing poses.
The immediate response it compels in the viewer is comical; you almost can’t help but laugh. Even on the second look it’s hard not to ignore the faces. This is remarkable given that facial recognition is hardwired into human biology. Through these works James reveals the sheer proliferation and prevalence of the female figure in everything from advertising to music videos and films. He has almost managed to override a fundamental evolutionary trait developed over hundreds of thousands of years. The pieces force us to reflexively consider how, as both individuals and a society, we view the female form: objectifying and homogenising it all at once.
Whilst babies are seemingly born with the ability to pick out a human face, by the time they are old enough to take their first steps or utter their first words, they are already the subjects of aggressive marketing.Hey Girl is an unapologetic indictment of Disney’s attempt to brand our childhoods, depicting what appears to be Mickey Mouse’s gloved hand menacingly resting on a young girl’s shoulder. The image hints at a loss of innocence, or to be more precise, the raping and pillaging of innocence by the creeping tentacles of marketing that slither into our lives from such a young age.
Indeed, with its 1950s Americana aesthetic, the show as a whole seems to be a comment on the loss of innocence surrounding the idea of American exceptionalism. The period marked America’s ascension to position of global superpower/evil empire, depending on your point of view. James takes aim at the so-called ‘soft power’ that has ensured American hegemony has persisted into the digital age, from Hollywood to slick marketing, both have proved more effective than any other form of propaganda. The entire exhibition has a warped cartoon-like feel, and once the initial laughs subside the feeling that pervades is disconcerting and sinister.
James still finds room in his American nightmare to pass comment on more contemporary concerns, with pieces like Paint What You Know andWho Needs Friends, which are unabashedly juxtaposed. The former features that same gloved hand painting the words ‘I really hope my Facebook friends ‘like’ this,’ whilst the latter sees it playing videogames with the caption ‘You don’t need friends’. It’s a bludgeoning critique of the internet age, in which social networks’ marketing departments proclaim we are more interconnected than ever. And whilst this may be true on one level, people arguably feel more alienated than ever: our friends are reduced to nothing more than a digital currency; we become Facebook junkies, itching for the next fix of comments or likes; computer games represent the ultimate form of escapism from the daily banality that so many choose to share on their ‘walls’.
And it’s not just American symbols of power and fortune that Punchlines lambasts, James illustrates his bristling disdain for the rich and famous on this side of the Atlantic too. Britain’s billionaire poster-boy Richard Branson is depicted, his beaming smile dissolving as if he is melting under the bright light of his own reflected glory. Kate and Wills, the new national treasures, appear as a hideous pair with misshapen features. Berlusconi simply has a cock unceremoniously scrawled across his face. It’s teenage toilet humour meets satire.
James’s latest exhibition is not a subtle commentary on our image-saturated society, it’s a crass, brash, juvenile piss take of it, as glaringly obvious as guessing the punchline from a tortured set up. But it’s brilliant. Punchlines reflects the garish and invasive nature of Hollywood blockbusters, or McDonalds’ use of Disney toys to sell their fast-food. Whilst the majority of contemporary art output insists that art is at its most gratifying when meaning is concealed and hard to obtain, James proves that it is equally refreshing when an artist has the confidence to slap you around the face. For the hardcore fine art types Punchlines might be like what Hollywood blockbusters often are – a guilty pleasure.