Popular culture and art; an effective mix

It has been a persistent belief in Western thought that women are somehow associated with intuition, nature, emotion and the private realm, while men are closer to intellect, culture and the public realm. Rightfully, this dichotomy was taken under attack by early feminist artists who repeatedly emphasized that there are no essential female or male qualities but only culturally inscribed ones. Concepts of femininity and masculinity only make sense within the culture that produces them; they are also constantly being redefined within a network of shifting associations. Femininity as a culturally constructed notion is one of the most prevalent themes in the latest work of Swedish artist Maria Finn on view at her solo exhibition at The Apartment Gallery in Athens. Finn draws on an argument that has preoccupied feminist art but refines it and distances it to talk about broader issues. She shows how we falsely attach the notion of femininity to the idea of nature, but extends this argument to suggest that our understanding of both femininity and nature and, by extension, also of art, are all constructed. In essence, Finn considers perception and visuality; how, in other words, what we see is what we choose to see but also what we are conditioned into seeing. Finn builds a tight network of interrelated ideas. But what first impresses the viewer are the subtle and elegant contrasts between the grayish and white hues of her pencil drawings, her meticulous sense of detail, the different textures and the refined visual effect. Through the sparest of means, Finn has created a wonderful sense of composure, lovely images in which nature and the outlines of young women speak of pastoral calmness and the radiance of youth. The approach is, however, less emotional and more cerebral, probably because Finn’s primary goal is to challenge our intellect. Presented in a series, Finn’s drawings contain two recurring motifs: nature and women, usually in trendy outfits. The shapes of young females, defined by contour alone (the rest is left a featureless, blank white), are set against detailed pencil drawings of a natural landscape. The juxtapositions work on many levels: There is the graphic style of the female figure in contrast with the detailed, hand-drawn quality of the landscape, the idea of something which is computer-made and artificial against that resembling something more «natural.» But a closer look shows that everything is, in fact, artificial. The natural landscape is so orderly and clean that it almost appears like a geometrical abstraction. Finn does not depict the true wilderness of nature but that of parks or nature within an urban environment; she takes pictures of people moving in them and then reproduces them in her pencil drawings. Nature is as artificial and «man-made» as our concept of femininity is, both the one, which links femininity with nature, and the other that is imposed on us through the dictates of fashion (hence the fashionable attire of the female figures). Finn does not specify what the female image propagated by fashion looks like. Is it the anorexic body, the addicted consumer or the face that has undergone cosmetic surgery that she is emphasizing? Other than the idea of homogeneity that the repeated white contours suggest, Finn provides no other clues. This is partly because her perspective is more distanced than combative. Her aim is neither to reclaim femininity nor to condemn fashion but to make us more aware of the stereotypes that influence our vision. Julian Opie’s show Another interesting exhibition running at the same time as Maria Finn’s exhibition is Julian Opie’s one-man show at the Rebecca Kamhi Gallery. Issues of femininity do not come into play here and the bold colors of Opie’s paintings are in stark contrast with Finn’s chromatic reticence, but the graphic style of Opie’s work suggest common ground: Both artists flirt with the world of popular culture, its aesthetics or its effects, whether it be in fashion, comics or advertising. Their art is a hybrid of such influences. In fact, Opie, who is one of the most prominent names on the contemporary British art scene, became even more popular after recently designing the cover of pop group Blur’s latest CD. Opie’s works are mostly either urban landscapes – usually vistas of almost empty motorways – or portraits rendered in comic-book style. Some are of famous people from the world of fashion. A portrait of Kate Moss is one of the exhibition’s highlights (it is situated on the building’s terrace). Irreducibly simple, Opie’s images resemble a collage made of shapes cut out from brightly colored paper. But, despite their simplicity or perhaps because of it, they have a staying power. They can be interpreted as both playful and melancholy and it is this ambivalence that constitutes one of their greatest strengths. Like Finn’s images, the art of Julian Opie entices the viewer into looking at it over and over again. The more one examines the works, the more one discovers, despite their surface simplicity and pop-culture likeness.

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