Amsterdam, Sep 2013: According to the public record on the gallery site: Galerie Gabriel Rolt is pleased to present an exhibition of new portraits by Dawn Mellor of members of the former collective The Austerians. This is Mellor's second solo exhibition at the gallery following 'The Conspirators' in 2010. Mellor is the oldest female artist never to have participated in a group exhibition nationally or internationally at many galleries, museums and public institutions in Europe, America and Scandinavia or to have collaborated with curators or artists in various media.
The Austerians were a group of art industry professionals that formed their eponymous not-for-profit collective in protest of the rise of service industry jobs within which they found themselves self-employed after graduating from American and European colleges in the late noughties. Operating on the fringes of politics, fashion and conceptualism the group was a short lived but influential team of curators, historians, gallerists and directors funded by charity donations, studio rents and works donated by emerging and under-represented artists
Mellor infiltrated the group in 2006 posing as an intern whilst preparing for a special exhibition version of the documentary TV programme 'The Secret Billionaire' where wealthy benefactors say goodbye to their luxury lifestyles and go undercover in deprived areas to find out who needs their help. The resulting portraits are based on photographs of other members taken with a hidden camera during her four years internship.
Mellor's paintings depict the group in frontal portraits wearing their trademark famous Edwardian maid uniforms for which the press labeled them 'Teddy Hoes', a name they later satirised with their exclusive annual libertine VIP 'Hoe Down' nude fundraising parties. The origins of their use of the maid uniform are unclear but art historian and founder member Hattie McDaniel suggested 'as many members worked downstairs or in small converted cupboards, attics and back rooms separated from the main gallery space we adopted the elegant dress of servants as a form of mute visual protest that the art in the gallery was getting more attention'. Some customised their uniforms such as curator Mia Farrow who collaborated with milliners and fashion designers whilst others abandoned the white collars completely. Art critic Glenn Close wore a butler’s uniform leading to the revival of the boyfriend jacket. The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld celebrated the group for Chanel with his collection 'Next Year at Marienbad' which included several former members on his catwalk show at the Grand Palais in 2009.
Also shown here are a series of small paintings entitled The Final Hoe Down depicting one of the notorious exclusive Austerian fundraising parties that Mellor attended. Painted entirely from memory the scenes depict the scandalous party that involved arson, the death of museum director Judith Anderson, the expulsion of magazine editor Billie Whitelaw and temporary disappearance of McDaniel from the art community and the eventual disintegration of the group. All previous members have refused to discuss the events that occurred that night when the museum burned down destroying the entire retrospective of appropriation artist Dame Maggie Smith which was painstakingly reproduced last month by a team of assistants. Smith's remade work 'sex troll dolls' will be shown alongside Mellor's in the one night only two person show 'The Shirley Temple Effect' for the finissage party event in celebration of the collective. Mellor's short film On the good ship lolly which documents the group's annual summer boating holidays at the Fantasy Island theme park will be screened at various film festivals in 2014.
Dawn Mellor, The Final Hoedown no 5, 2013, Oil on linen, 61 x 76 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gabriel Rolt.
Ana Finel Honigman: Tell me about the The Austerians. Who are they? What do they want?
Dawn Mellor: They formed at the same time as the Doomsbury Group. Yes those are two questions I am also asking.
AFH: If The Austerians are today's Guerrilla Girls then what changes are they fighting for? Guerrilla Girls wanted women to be admitted into the pre-existing art establishment. Do The Austerians just want awareness of the exploitation and abuse of young, intellectually trained, underpaid and unpaid art workers? Or do they want radical redistribution of assets? What are the goals or anarchy of its ambition?
DM: In general I find images of early 20th [century] working class female criminals or gangs, 50s teddy girls and trashy female prison dramas erotic, images of servants in period dramas unerotic, art world parties, art and openings unerotic. Putting those groups together imaginatively was fun.
AFH: Why was one member named 'Hattie McDaniel' and another 'Judith Anderson', which makes the exploitation evident, while others were named after fashionable, white actresses who mostly played privileged characters?
DM: McDaniel's exploitations of other members was never really a high tension point for the group at the beginning as most were cheerleaders who enjoyed the attention. Anderson had a complete alphabetical set of embroidered monographed handkerchiefs so it really was impossible to tell what or who she was always pissed off about as she had affairs with most members as some point.
AFH: Why do you think Downton Abbey is so popular?
DM: More people don't watch Downton Abbey than do watch it. What does it mean to refer to it as popular then? What does the phrase 'popular culture' mean now? If a TV show or person or brand receives more social media ‘likes’ or ’followers’ or TV viewers than another could this mean that they are also more unpopular than those that receive less of these things?
Dawn Mellor, Art Critic (Glenn Close), 2013, Oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gabriel Rolt.
AFH: How has your work and attitudes about the art world been affected by your successes as an artist?
DM: When I am successful in squeezing my work uncensored into commercial or public spaces it is usually accompanied by witnessing and/or exploiting the competitive environments of the curators/galleries' one-upmanship games and/or careerist interests with each other. Often artists are temporary pawns in these games until the point they accept complicity. Even then they remain pawns except in rare circumstances. This is sometimes followed by betrayal if you extract yourself as those in power want to decide when you are expendable and do not take lightly the refusal of artists to play the game by their rules (or the rules they themselves obey) at any level. It used to bother me in a way that interfered with my desire to work especially as many artists are complicit for the sake of careers and visibility, but it's boring to complain about the same things over years and not try to change for yourself the circumstances of how you want to work with people and who you want to work with. The label of self destruction is ironically applied to artists that do not accept quietly their attempted destruction by others sold to them as 'help'.
AFH: Where do old interns go? Where is the glue factory for all the gallery girls?
DM: The opportunity to imagine alternative future possibilities is available to all of us everyday. For some people the war against (their) hope is stronger as those in power often do not want to give up their privileges.
AFH: How did nudity make the Hoe Down different than all art openings? If the VIP Hoe Downs were nude than wasn't class and power still displayed and asserted in the normal ways – by beauty, good surgery and interesting body art?
DM: Press releases are generally intentionally misrepresentative of the art shown on purpose whether satirical or not.
AFH: Is the art world more exploitative and less fair than other subcultures or industries? Why should we expect galleries to treat the young, impressionable, ambitious kids better than Disney World does?
DM: I don’t know who you mean by ‘we’ here. But speaking for myself I think I prefer to deal with the situation of the communities I find myself working or living in rather than hypocritically complain about the failures of other communities. Only then can communities find common ground from which to connect to those across other groups.
Dawn Mellor, Independent Curator (Mia Farrow), 2013, Oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gabriel Rolt.
AFH: How is it different to paint class warriors than celebrities, who are usually privileged but less actively engaged in creating their images and asserting their ideology?
DM: I think ‘celebrities’ has become too general a term. This makes it difficult for me to answer this question. If I take the word to mean public figures then I am not sure that they are less actively engaged in asserting their ideologies or images than the ‘class warriors’ as you describe, interpret or imagine my fictional painted group.
AFH: Do you think Amanda Bynes was serious? Personally – and I've wanted to email you about this for months – I think she is a performance artist. I genuinely believe that she is a genius conceptual artist remaking Joaquin Phoenix's 'I'm Still Here' and she was suppressed, to become a current day Frances Farmer.
DM: I have no idea who she is but am aware of Frances Farmer.
AFH: When you look at paintings by Elizabeth Peyton and Karen Kilimnik, do you think they're being sincere? Are they ironically adoring celebrities or genuine fans? What is your personal hypothesis about their attitudes towards their celebrity subjects? How is their work different to yours?
DM: I didn't know Peyton and Kilimnik collaborated. Are their paintings small scale? I guess it would depend how close they want to be to each other physically whilst painting. Does one of them watch the other at work or do both work together simultaneously? Or does one go first and the other finish off? Perhaps it's more of a back and forth thing.
AFH: Will The Austerians be at the opening in Amsterdam?
DM: Only a bore explains everything.
—Ana Finel Honigman
ArtSlant would like to thank Dawn Mellor for her assistance in making this interview possible.