The Great Chicken Skull Revival
The art world, I feel, is disconnected from a lot of things. Most importantly, it’s disconnected from the viewers, the very people who it needs to consume its art. Thanks to a tradition of encouraging vapid, empty artist statements that seek to use buzzwords to aggrandize concepts, seemingly as obtusely as possible, combined with an encouragement of “in” motifs and ideas, self-referential topics, and its open applause for things such as alienated nudes and seemingly nonsense subjects, it has become difficult for the average viewer to approach art at all, more or less connect to it.
And I despise that. So, I created a series that would show the faults in 1) the art world’s handling of the viewers and 2) what has become the viewer’s metric by which to gauge art as a result. The first conceit is a simple, but common one: if a photograph has a naked person who is not engaging in (or preparing to engage in, or enticing the atmosphere of engaging in, etc…) sexual intercourse, it must be art. Otherwise, why are they naked? The second conceit is built on the first: once something is art, if you do a series with people doing something obviously weird, and all doing it, then there Must Be A Reason. It has to Mean Something. Modern art, after all, is very big about doing weird things that Mean Something, right?
So, I resurrected a motif I’d played with before, one already steeped in Dada, surrealism, and sarcasm: a chicken mask, a scarf to hide the chin, a teacup, and a frame from which to suspend the teacup. It was a simple set of props, born of a college assignment to shoot teacups, character design for a serial comic, a love of the anonymity of masks, and the practical need of the first object I could find to suspend the teacup. The original idea was thus a result of several very reasonable goals, but the final image, left unexplained, was completely baffling to most viewers. In short, it was the perfect idea to bring back for this new purpose.
Every model in the series was volunteer. No shot was done for pay. I explained to each next candidate the premise: mask, teacup, scarf, frame, and the idea that as more people did this, more viewers would assume it Meant Something. Because that’s what we’ve trained viewers to believe. If something has naked people doing weird things you don’t understand, it’s obviously high art. It’s a statement. And, that’s the joke, albeit bitterly made: there never was a statement to be made form the subject matter, but from the assumptions viewers would draw.
On a personal level, and–unlike the primary aspect above–a completely serious one, the Revival was a way of addressing body issue in its relation to art photography. Thanks to an ever increasing bleed-over from the fashion world, and the internet demanding ever more commercialized, “poppy” photos before heaping accolades upon photographic work, we are exposed more and more to a world where the human form is constantly subjected to fashion and glamour standards. Lighting, posing, exposure, and retouching are all used in tandem to portray people as attractive, as sexualized. And I was beginning to fall into that spiral, that trap, and I was hating myself more for it. So, despite working exclusively with the naked form, something that is almost inherently sexual, I focused on recording it plainly and honestly. No retouching was performed. No blemishes removed. When couldn’t control the light, I made no attempt to reverse any unflattering shadows or angles. It’s a small thing, and not one that was meant for the viewer at all, but I wanted to stand behind a series that embraced that raw humanity, and didn’t cave to people’s desires for ever crisper, more Hollywood perfect art to hold their attention. In short, while working with nudes, I didn’t want to further erode our own relationship with sexuality and attraction.
The end result is a bit hard to parse, on purpose. I wanted it to have time to exist so viewer’s could make the wrong assumptions. I released fake gallery statements made of empty buzzwords strung together in not-quite-English to further aid the confusion, although I don’t feel they did any greater harm to the viewers than the useless garbage they’re so used t reading anyway. And now that it’s matured, I want to make my every motivation transparent, so that I don’t further add to the very problem I have sought to satirize. The art world needs to be better to the general population, and restore to them an ability to approach and connect with those big ideas we all assume artists are trying to tell us. The popularity of “bombastic” has always confirmed this, but has been denigrated by “serious” artists. And, maybe that’s wrong. The populace, our viewers, they deserve better than being teased with ideas they’ll never have clarified. There’s a line between encouraging thought, debate, and discussion, and just being obtuse for the sake of elitism. And I genuinely believe we stay too far on the wrong side. The viewer’s do deserve much more than they’re given, and much better than I’ve myself treated them for the past year. And if nothing else, I think the Revival has been a runaway success in proving exactly that.
Now, everyone can get the joke, although I don’t think it becomes any less bitter for it.
Realigning the paradigm shifts