Jonathan Jones reported in the Guardian that he was blown away by one of John Russell’s Ocean Pose series, calling Russell “one of the most important artists of early 21st-century Britain.” Seeing that the image in question - currently on display at the Royal Academy - was computer generated, I thought I’d have a look for myself.
I think the key to looking at this work is to compare the treatment of the figures with the treatment of the ‘manufactured’ objects - which are either manufactured physically - the car, or culturally - the unicorn. Is the artist treating the two in the same way? It seems not - putting aside the tricky fact that all of the objects in the scene are manufactured in some sense (they are imported stock models plonked into a basic Bryce seascape), there’s a discrepancy between the car, unicorn and human models. The figures seem both aggrandised and disfigured - lovingly tended yet carelessly finished. Their treatment reminds me a little of how a child carefully creates complex, static scenes with Barbie and Ken, yet Barbie’s hair is scrunched and Ken’s trousers are falling down. Contrast this with the car and the unicorn, which both look perfectly realised, and there’s a point to be made. This point is either that it’s easier to make CG cars look real than it is to do the same with CG humans - OR that the enraptured figures depict humanity trapped amongst the collage of ideology and idolatry it generates. Can we ever live up to the images we create, or do we suffer as imperfections in their wake?
The figures in these sickly scenes could alternately be seen to revel in the landscape and yearn to be apart from it. But being in the landscape sees their integrity compromised by glitches - fingers emerge from a chest, wigs fall off mannequin heads, Second Life costumes and rubbery bare flesh intermingle in the orgiastic centerpiece of a barren, feverish version of a classic painting. These are hellish visions that depict a permeated, compromised and makeshift body. But I don’t think this is a negative thing. And perhaps neither does the artist. There is, after all, a joy apparent in the stances and expressions of the figures in the Ocean Pose series.
This aspect of the images reminded me a little of the work of Adam Zeretsky an artist who works with art, biotechnology and transgenics. He seems to champion genetic mutation and proliferation, biological experimentation and polymorphism. He celebrates biology as the site of creativity. This rings a lot of bells for me as I’ve lately been thinking quite a bit about the body and the tension between it’s percieved sacredness and it’s potential for radical self-expression and empowerment. Perhaps one of the ideas that the Ocean Pose images start to depict is the chiasmic crossover between the hyperreal graven image and the increasingly eroded and permeated body. Or maybe all this is just blurb, as much as the claims that Ocean Pose is “a fiction of an artwork-as-event-as-prophecy-and/or-curse of the unleashing of the power of the false”.
Anyway, have a look at this film which provides some bombastically sountracked close-ups of the work. From what I read here, I’m deducing that the style of the film is a tongue-in-cheek mimic of the sort of fast, dramatic editing art history documentaries use to liven up historical paintings.