Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Koyama: Jessica Campbell

Hot Or Not: 20th Century Male Artists, by Jessica Campbell. This is first-rate, layered satire that delves into some pretty rich territory. Campbell's heavy use of shtick belies the ways in which she lands strike after strike on the art world, art criticism, and the sexist nature of both. Starting with the cover, which is a masculine version of Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, complete with six pack abs, Campbell mirthfully takes on the male gaze and the dominance of men in relating the history of art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was some pushback in Canada about depicting penises on the cover of this book, so some silvery UV ink (the kind used on scratch-off tickets) was added to create thongs, banana hammocks and shorts that covered up the offending naughty bits. The introduction, which is a nearly incoherent bit of art-crit speak, is appropriately pompous and sets up the on-a-dime tonal shift when the actual narrative begins.

That narrative is of Campbell as a docent leading a tour in an art museum, initiating a ridiculous q&a with the crowd. She elides the damning truth that the works in the museum were all by men and asks a far more important question: were the artists hot? In one stroke, she turns back not just the idea of the male gaze, but the inevitable sexualization of women who enter traditionally male spheres (like fine art). Or rather, the institutionalization of museums helps rewrite history and remove the historical involvement of many women. Campbell doesn't mention any of these facts, because what's the point? By objectifying men in precisely the same way women are objectified, she creates comedy gold on page after page, especially as she tries to guess whether or not an artist is hot based on his work. Campbell is an exceptionally witty writer, and her scratchy reproductions of famous works of art as well as drawings of the artists themselves complement her gags in a deadpan manner.

The more brutal Campbell gets in evaluating the attractiveness of the artists, the funnier she gets. She at first guesses the Canadian artist P.E. Borduas is the type to "toss you up against a bear and make rough sex to you", but the next-page reveal dismisses the severe-looking man by saying "Edgar Allen Poe cosplay was big in 20th Century Quebec." Malevich was described as having "the face of an adult baby" but Cy Twombly, whose paintings she guessed were made by "a fat guy in a bowtie", surprisingly made it to the Hot category. Of Modigliani, Campbell decrees him to be Hot and says "Paint me like one of your mangled Italian girls, Amedeo." Paul Gauguin is referred to as a child molester and Henri Matisse's lack of hotness is "probably why Picasso used him as a wingman." The book's punchline, where Campbell and the members of the tour weep over the unknown hotness of artists from antiquity, reduces the works to something totally unrelated to the quality of the work, which of course is something female artists deal with all the time. At a tidy 62 pages, this book doesn't outstay its welcome, making every gag count. Ultimately, the book succeeds because it fully embraces the vapidity of the internet-style snap judgments of physical attractiveness as the totality of worth. Campbell understands that the stinging critiques she's offering up are only effective as long as she works to serve up nasty, hilarious comments.

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