Beautiful Creatures brings together three artists: doyen of New American cinema Jack Smith (1932-1989); leading contemporary Australian photographer Bill Henson (b. 1955); and Jacqueline Fraser (b. 1956), who has presented temporary installations and wall-based works in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and the USA since the late 1970s. Each treats the youthful body as a form of aesthetic material, creating striking tableaux that connect with the viewer expressly through the effects of the visual. Updating and complicating the freighted history of the figure in art, these artists exploit the material and structural qualities of their media. They immerse the viewer in a seductive atmospheric, to both animate desire and hint at the larger forces within which visual pleasure operates.
A benchmark in the history of the New American cinema, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1962-63) was the subject of controversy from the very beginning of its public life. Yet Smith intended Flaming Creatures to be a comedy. A jubilant celebration of carnal fantasy set as an intentionally startling version of Orientalist exotica, the film eschews conventional narrative to depict a pantheon of gorgeous and ambiguously gendered ‘creatures’—male, female, and transvestite—in a loosely connected series of joyously erotic tableaux.
Fifteen large colour photographs by Bill Henson from his Untitled 1998/1999/2000 series feature androgynous young men and women staged in murkily lit locations that hint at goings-on never made explicit. These laconic figures—louche outsiders and ingénue gamines—are the epitome of cool; caught with all the suggestiveness of artful cinematography. The mood they arouse cannot be pinned down or truly satisfied. Framed on the fringes of some dark, possibly wasted urban landscape they conjure a particularly contemporary discontent.
Jacqueline Fraser’s THE MAKING OF THE CIAO MANHATTAN TAPES 2013 is the latest manifestation of a 3-D practice which combines collages—copied and torn from magazines and embellished with fabric and other materials—with projected images, sound, sculptural elements, designer furniture and lighting, to produce an immersive environment. Hypersensitive to the lure of contemporary consumer culture, Fraser identifies points of conjunction between the visual repertoires of high art, design, and fashion and mainstream pop culture. She references the cult film Ciao! Manhattan (1972, directed by John Palmer and David Weisman) which loosely fictionalises the tumultuous life of Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol’s first superstar, whose upper-class dysfunction and legendary beauty turned her into the 60s’ art world’s first celebrity and one of its more incandescent casualties.
Beautiful Creatures is accompanied by EVENING FLIX, a film series co-presented with Salient and VBC 88.3FM Wellington