Studio Voltaire, 1a Nelson's Row, London, SW4 7JR

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Notes on Neo-Camp
Studio Voltaire
7 June - 20 July 2013
Review by Henry Little

‘Notes on Neo-Camp’, featuring work by Matthew Brannon, Pablo Bronstein, Tom Burr, Mathew Cerletty, Talia Chetrit, Martin Soto Climent, Anthea Hamilton, Sanya Kantarovsky, Allison Katz, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Paul Lee, Daniel Sinsel, Ricky Swallow and Camilla Wills, is curated by Chris Sharp and has previously been shown at Office Baroque, Antwerp in an alternate iteration.

The exhibition’s concept was first conceived by Sharp in his essay ‘Camp + Dandyism = Neo-Camp,’ published in Kaleidoscope. Revisiting the legacy of Susan Sontag’s original essay ‘Notes on ‘Camp’’ half a century after its initial publication provides a timely moment to assess the notion of ‘Camp’ in contemporary art, at a time when the politicised and homosexual ramifications of the sensibility are largely absent from the work of the artists identified in Sharp’s essay (which does not otherwise remark upon their sexuality) and indeed in contemporary art and culture more generally.

In ‘Camp + Dandyism = Neo-Camp’ Sharp identifies formal characteristics (‘pure uninflected colours’) and an atmosphere of ‘euphemism’ which he attributes to the work of Daniel Sinsel, Elad Lassry, Ricky Swallow, Martin Soto Climent, Mathew Cerletty and Matthew Brannon. More specifically, the essay focuses on what Sharp perceives to be the ‘domestication’ of camp, whereby its formal tropes and euphemistic veiling of erotic narratives are more benignly contained within everyday found objects, or ‘sublimated’, in a fashion Sharp concludes to be unmistakably Victorian.

In the main room of Studio Voltaire’s gallery space, a medium sized canvas by Daniel Sinsel, woven from custom made linen tape, relates suggestively to the process of sublimation. The surface of the work is given a thick coating of a chocolate coloured paint, which might appear scatological to some. Beneath the surface of the lattice work small, rigid lumps have been embedded; these irregularly dispersed bumps, protruding occasionally beneath the otherwise uniform surface of the inviting brown might here assume a sexual undertone, albeit buried within a formalist agenda established by the interplay of glossy paint, rough linen lattice and intriguing bulges.

At its strongest the exhibition expounds a particular relationship with the absent or fetishized human form. Take, for example, Tom Burr’s ‘Fassbinder Piece’ (2011). The work makes object-based indexical reference to the life and career of German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died young at the age of 37 and was associated with left wing politics, and an intense, messy blurring of personal and professional relationships with both men and women. With a deft minimalism Burr intimates a deep sense of personality using a dark green leather trench coat, a copy of October magazine, a vintage Fassbinder movie poster and a thick set black framework housing the objects. It refers expressively not only to the man himself, but also to a certain intellectual attitude.

Anthea Hamilton comparably evokes a missing personage with her ‘Venice Kimono’ (2012) standing opposite and spread rack-like across a structural assemblage of shiny metal poles. Both this and the heavy, black enclosure of Burr’s piece seem to refer, if only obliquely, to a sadomasochistic sexual bent. Sanya Kantarovsky’s ‘A Situation’ (2012), an emphatically stylized silhouette of a trousered male leg, alludes to a missing whole which appears to have slid into the wall. The leg is long and attenuated, more cartoon or abstraction, yet this otherwise flat, monotone steel cut-out refers satisfyingly to a period male stereotype which is undeniably Wodehouse. The missing female body is likewise evoked by Martin’s Soto Climent’s tan tights, pulled tight between wall and floor, with a red velveteen ring box clamped around the crotch. Typical of the exhibition in its handling of gender and sexuality - mediated by objects, clothing, fetishistic treatment of body parts and suggestive tensions - this might be one of neo-camp’s characteristics the curator is eager to stress.

The exhibition broaches a worthy subject, but the written language it uses risks losing some viewers along the way. Sharp’s original essay is full of intelligent observations and constructive arguments, but often uses elliptical and self-defeating language. Unnecessarily complex terms included both here and in the press release - such as ‘sublimated desublimation’ - can be difficult to swallow. The exhibition is also therefore predicated upon a text not present in the exhibition space, and the press release consequently feels fractured and incomplete. In addition, although Sharp’s original essay is based upon close observation, individual works included in the exhibition seem more widely subservient to the articulation of his idea than to a dominant shared sensibility. For example, while Ella Kruglyanskaya’s paintings of bathing suited nudes with curved forms in pastel shades painted in tempera seem appropriate, I would suggest it’s harder to see what makes them ‘neo-camp’ instead of just ‘camp’.

One might be tempted to say the same of Anthea Hamilton’s work in this context, yet it is perhaps the self-reflexive nature of her campiness that might be construed as ‘neo-camp’ or, rather, prove its unravelling: Sontag is keen to stress in her 1964 essay that intentional Camp can only fail. Hamilton’s work has long concerned itself with many different forms of Camp; images of a youthful, burly Karl Lagerfeld in a tight onesie and a young, sweatband wearing John Travolta being among the most obvious examples of a ‘pure’ or naive Camp in her visual language. Likewise, intrinsically Camp notions of theatricality, staging and artificiality are explored repeatedly through a practise regularly comprised of Japanese kabuki theatre costumes, fetishized silhouettes and performative installations.

If there is relevance in this exhibition, and I think there is, it is in the return to the original canonical essay in light of the impending fifty year anniversary of its publication to assess its heritage. To my mind, however, the contemporary heirs of Camp’s legacy can be found in plainer view: one need only survey the billing of any multiplex cinema to find a culture still awash with true, unadulterated Camp. Conversely, the primary cause for questioning Sharp’s assertion of a ‘neo-camp’ is precisely the ubiquitous self-reflexivity which predominates in the arena of ‘high minded’, post-modern contemporary art, of which this is undeniably an example. Hamilton’s use of Camp, what I would actually describe as self-conscious appropriation, consequently seems emblematic of the inherent contradiction which either undoes Sharp’s argument or forms its basis. The main problem is, I’m not sure which one.

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