George Henry Longly: Hair Care
Jonathan Viner, London
20 February - 22 March 2014
Review by Rachel E Guthrie
It’s not often that you see exhibition literature emblazoned onto gallery walls in gold. The colour gold defies the universal standard of contemporary art gallery aesthetics, whose specification is simple: less is more. Gold glares and glitzes, it may be glamourous (something contemporary art wavers in and out of love with) but it’s also gaudy (which is almost invariably treated with contempt).
Contrary to appearances, George Henry Longly’s ‘Hair Care’ is rich in ideas and steers clear of the shallow. In constructing the exhibition Longly anticipated the attitudes of his viewers, the expectations he or she might have formed about the exhibition based upon its title. The artist uses the exhibition to feed and foster these ideas. The most effective way the artist does this is to counteract the superficial motives behind the rituals and practices of hair care, with artworks that have been invested with a great deal of thought.
The works in the opening room at first humour our simple-mindedness before making light of it. A pair of marble plaques commemorate and challenge the transformative power of beauty products. Side by side, they are a before and after shot - a testimony to these objects’ seduction but failure to perform. They critique the display of faith made by those who subscribe to these things marketed as ‘miracle workers.’ Embedded in Longly’s marble plaques are objects of faith, such as the golden wand (the Touche Eclat, for eye bag reduction), and, in previous works, the silver bullet (Rogaine, a miracle grow for those suffering with hair loss.)
Letters are cleanly cut into both the marble plaques but jumbled, as when a child is left to its own devices with a fridge front full of letter magnets. But stare a little longer, and these muddled texts reveal conclusions. The left tempts (‘take it it’s yours’) while the right despairs (‘I hate what you have done to my hair.’) In both the art-historical traditions of marble are weighty and loaded with pleasure. Marble is strong - it supposes power - and has made flesh many objects of faith and worship, not least goddesses, who are mimicked by beauty mega-brand Gilette users worldwide.
A reverence for objects in and outside the art world describes much of Longly’s concerns for this body of work. The artist deals equally with the idea of objects as idols, and idols as objects. Connecting multiple works together, for example, is the ancient figure of hermaphrodite (the son of the Greek god Hermes and goddess Aphrodite) who is visualised in one vitrine as a hanger-like figure.
Carrying the signs of both sexes (being both male and female), hermaphrodite is used to ridicule the idolisation of a perfect male or female body that stems from the ancient Greek laws of beauty and proportion. The classical gods were idolised for their beauty. Their very figures became the subject of desire and the model of perfection. Here the content of the first and second room begins to cohere. The god/goddess whose image is eternally embodied in stone, is paralleled with the Touche Eclat user who with the help of this miracle skin care hopes that they may immortalise their image.
In ‘Bodys’, death and life are very literally contrasted. Longly casts the body of a pin-up boy, memorialising it - allowing it to live forever. However, the two casts - leg, thigh and calf, and crotch, torso and arm - are laid out in a glass-topped, MDF clad, marble container, which resembles a sarcophagus or coffin. Inside the marble is engraved with pseudo-effigies in futuristic fonts, such as ‘Ma’am’ and ‘2014.’ Beneath the casts, pleated fabric beds the body comfortably. While this fabric is from taken from Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please, it is also evocative of the Greek sculptural tradition, because the lively depiction of fabric is often given as an example of the vitality of the figures the sculptors depicted. Once again Longly’s work turns full circle. It arrives neatly where it began, with the human search for fullness of life.