The Hayward Gallery show An Alternative Guide to the Universe seemed to me to be a collection of outsider utopias and inner visions. Of particular interest was Morton Bartlett’s work. Back in the forties, fifties and sixties he produced a unique body of work that can be read a few ways: sweet, dumb, odd, obsessive, private - even sinister. He produced intricate handmade plaster dolls, dressed them up and posed them for photographs. A lot of these photographs seem a bit exploitative. His prepubescent models are often in a state of undress with legs splayed open. Some of the models are almost gynecological. Eugh.
Now, I’m not sure how much contemporary analysis should be applied to Bartlett’s dolls. Lots of innocent things have become more sinister in the past 60 years, and maybe Bartlett was just a sweet guy who wanted to make dolls and dress them up. However, I think the general consensus is that there’s too much emphasis on the cusp of adulthood, there’s too much skin on show, the girls all have a touch of the Lolita. There’s the feeling that the collection is very ‘personal’ - and a palpable sense of shame about the obsessiveness. There’s too much 'urge,’ as discussed by Jerry Saltz here.
He also says:
“… each child was meticulously sculpted from clay, cast in plaster and painted with lifelike features. These figures were then dressed in clothes of his own making, outfitted in wigs, posed in homemade sets and photographed. This circuitous route to satisfaction tells you how undeniable Bartlett’s cravings were to him. The final products are the dimly lit, ardent, awkward, inexplicable pictures on view here.”
What’s this got to with CGI and art, you say? Well, I’m sure you can draw the connection yourself if you’re familiar with the sort of work and workflow involved in creating lifelike CG figures. It takes ages to model, rig, texture, animate, light and render. Each stage is meticulous. The maker has ultimate control. The result can be cinched, pumped, trimmed, recoloured, made to smile or pout or play coy.
CG models can be incredibly lifelike, but are always short of agency. On the positive side, there’s a lot of technical skill involved, a lot of CG babes are imaginatively staged. It’s not directly exploitative like some porn can be. On the negative side, it’s often misogynistic sexual fetish. It’s an adolescent wish made concrete. It’s occasionally embarrassing to look at and reveals too much about how the maker views girls and women, to the point of being masturbatory.
All this figured into my interpretation of Morgan Bartlett’s body of work. The conclusion that I arrived at was that Bartlett was a proto CG nerd. Or rather, that this very prevalent and contemporary digital practice of making CG babes has an unexpected precursor - the twee, dark, odd world of the dollmaker. The bedroom fantasist, the outsider obsessive.
In lieu of legions of grotty JPEGs of CG Lolitas, I’ll provide some safe HOT CG BABES for you below. Artists uncredited to save their shame ;-)