I gratify my malice through quiet neutrality

I have just returned to London from a short visit in Los Angeles where it is entirely possible to make a hobby out of spotting the rich and famous. The only catch is that one must be fully engaged in popular culture to partake of this type of safari, and I am not.

Flying out of Los Angeles is particularly amusing as the rich and famous are paraded in front of you as they pre-board in first class. Before entering the limbo of missing time that is transcontinental air travel, I watched the privileged show their passports as proof out of monkey class. Some were obviously British– in Saville Row suits and semi-ironic haircuts, some were strategically unkempt but inoffensive– obviously from some Coldplay clone band I know nothing of. And there was one who boarded after them made who eye contact with me, sliding his sunglasses down his nose as if to say, “I know you know who I am,” and offering me a half-smile, like a crumb to a duck. Except I didn’t know who he was beyond his shiny ginger shag and suede blazer which screamed rich Topanga hippie.

As I peruse the dry array of businessmen boarding, someone bumbles up to the front of the line looking disoriented. He pulls up his dirty track pants which were riding low, and shifts his weight in plastic clogs. He coughs up a lung cookie before he can state his business to the staff. I thought, dear god please don’t let this crazy man be seated next to me please. As the staff examine his documents he smooths his dyed black hair with girlish care. And then the staff wave him through to first class. He was uncannily familiar. Who was he?

My first thought was, he sure looks a lot like Mario the Plumber from Donkey Kong. I forgot about it until we boarded the plane and I heard this guy in back of me call his cousin in India to discuss this. He said, “I do not like to admit how I know this, but I have seen a famous pornography actor. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? I have seen Ron Jeremy, the famous actor from pornography films. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

I have never understood this impulse to report– though one could argue I am falling prey to it right now. I find the obligatory acknowledgment of the famous a kind of indignity, especially if they have done something I can’t respect, which is usually the case. I rarely see anyone I admire. Though once I did see Stephen Merchant at Shakespeare’s Globe before a performance of The Merchant of Venice. I indulged in a moment of crushed-out glee at the solitude and sheer height of this man who has made me laugh, and then I hated myself both for not saying anything to him and for wanting to.

Ron Jeremy as Shylock. There’s a thought. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Ah, to be back in London, where anonymity and the enormity of history levels all, the famous and obscure. What a relief it is.

Train Spotting on National Gallery Grand Tour

I had just emerged from swanky dim sum in the subterranean aquarium of Yauatcha with my friend Liza when I was startled to find that we we in front of a large-scale reproduction of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. The anamorphic skull at the base of the painting confronted passers by– a distorted momento mori at their feet.

When I was studying art in school, I had a bit of a crush on this painting. It made me feel warm and fuzzy, and not just because the men in it were dashing, but their range of possessions fascinated me, and the skull, which my mind could see by turning the painting widdershins inside itself– it was magical. Seeing it on Berwick before me, I was wooed all over again.

Rubens on Ganton

Next, we stumbled upon Samon and Delilah on Ganton street– Ruben’s dimpled and generous flesh at eye level— and I knew something was up. I was in Soho– a place full of ad agencies, fashionable clothing stores and porno dens. Samson saited with sex on Delilah’s generous lap– this was really out of place here in the bastion of mechanized sex and silicone, air brushing and size zero dresses.

After returning home and doing some Googling I realized this wasn’t just a fluke, it was an actual show. The National Gallery has hung replicas of several paintings from their collection throughout the streets of Soho and Covent Garden, with surreal and fantastic results. I made a list of all the paintings I wanted to see, drew myself a map and headed back into Soho.

Some, unmapped, thrust themselves upon me. Others came with an Easter-egg hunt satisfaction– their gold frames an eye-catching give away. Some, like the Rousseau that I most wanted to find, eluded me.

Madame Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, Drouais.

She would die a month before this painting was completed. Blamed for the Seven Years War and called the “Godmother of Rococo,” here she sits beside a queue of taxis, outside the Picadilly station, working at her needlepoint with her little black dog.

Caravaggio’s Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist.

Someone curating this has a sense of humor. Painted while Caravaggio was on the run for killing a man– he used prostitutes and criminals as models, so in many ways this painting is at home in Walker’s Court, a narrow alley of sex shops. I would have liked to see Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes here, but all the same, the choice of Salome is inspired. Much has been written about beheadings in art history as metaphors for castration, but I will leave that up to the Freudians.

Despite generic chain store take over and general sleaziness of much of London streets, many corners remain elegant, and this show seems to prove this. As I was walking I saw many perfect naked spaces that wanted an image.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, Jospeh Wright of Derby.

I found this one by surprise, meandering off Wardour. Wright uses chiaroscuro, usually a technique used by artists like Caravaggio to relay a spiritual dichotomy of dark and light. Here the dichotomy is presumably in the service of science– enlightenment or ignorance. Only the picture’s moral ambiguity saves it from being pedantic.

The cruelty of the spectacle was heightened for me– on the sidewalk before the reproduction lay a disemboweled bird, and a few feet away a nutter followed what looked to be its mate, speaking to it as if it were an acquaintance, and periodically reaching out for it. Why the bird didn’t fly away is troubling to contemplate. Of all the reproductions, this was the only one that has suffered a vandal– somone had keyed the surface beneath the gentleman on the far left. I wondered if it was the same man that was tormenting the birds there, performing his own cruel experiment beneath the candle lit scene.

The show, sponsored by Hewlett Packard, is supposedly graffiti proof. The blogosphere has called it a “challenge to Banksy” and “two fingers up to Banksy.” But in many ways, the National Gallery has learned a trick or two from Banksy. Musuems in London are free, so this lesson is not so much about accessibility but recontextualization. Does the art elevate the street? Or, more happily, does the street change the art, humanizing it so that the paintings become mirrors for myriad Londoners. Ironically, the public display makes the work more intimate, private.

Grotesque Old Woman, attributed to Quentin Massys, Foubert’s Place.

I saved the Grotesque Old Woman, one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, for last. Sure, the intention is mysogynist, but she is such a fabulous creature– more memorable than the hundreds of portraits of beauties hung about her in the museum. But here she is alone on a brick wall, above some plumbing, holding her own. I stood there saying my silent hello, as a old man on a ciggie break sitting on the bench beneath the painting became increasingly annoyed at my presence. From what I could tell he had no idea what was behind him– a typical, incurious Londoner– sitting in front of what could be a suitable beau for him! He soon had enough of my hovering and wheeled his rolling suitcase away, cursing under his breath.

The treasure hunt aspect of the Grand Tour made me confront my shifting topography of Soho, the place I frequent most in London. I’ve gotten lost in the most familiar of streets there. Soho is infinite and mazelike, a meeting place of shifting landmarks and furtive delights. It seems fitting to me that the National Gallery has secreted away these surprises here.

A map of the paintings as I found them.

Eat it, Read it, Spray it, Drive it

In a scene from that inane 80’s movie, Splash, the mermaid learns English by watching tee vee. Often in England I feel like a fish out of water, and sometimes I watch the telly hoping for some similiar assimilation miracle. This has its own problems. Primarily, I can’t get my head around the particular version of “sex sells” in British advertising. The misogyny is in your face, and the sexual metaphors are shamelessly explicit.

Here I give you a brief tour of what passes for sexy, according to British ad writers:

Is this not highly cringeworthy? Who thought this was a good idea, anyway? Do ad people really think women will go for this self-satisfied, smarmy chocolate pedant? The chocolate-eater is American, but the other narrator patronizing us with “you got your hunk” is British. As if pandering to our supposed sexuality is some kind of favor, and a British gigolo is out of the question.

Where do I even start? Did Peter Jackson make this ad? What’s with this weird Mayan/Aztec/African land where white women in headdresses genuflect to a giant, dark, lolly god?

Women’s sexuality has always been “bought off” with chocolate. I’m sure there are ancient reasons for this, and maybe even biological ones. But why must it be so obvious? My guess is it’s easier to talk about the caloric transgression of eating chocolates than it is to talk about our real sexual desires, on our own terms. When I had that office job, women would eat stuff like this and then say how “naughty” they were being– with the same giggly relish as a school girl bragging to her mates about oral sex in the back of a car.

Women’s sexuality is reduced to “cheeky sweets”, which very different from the way men’s sexuality is addressed in other ads I’ve seen here:

This ad is closest to the kind of daily sexism I’ve encountered in the UK. It sums up the flabby machismo of many British men and their weird ideas of inept women. The other Nuts ad features a woman getting sprayed by faulty plumbing as she struggles with a wrench. lovely.

And it hurts to mention the Lynx “Spray More Get More” and “Bom Chicka Wah Wah” campaigns. The later is obviously attempting give the onomatopoeia of the 70’s porn wah-wah pedal catch-phrase status:

Whatever these women were paid, it was not enough. So, the black woman shakes her booty in the supermarket, and the white woman spreads her mouth open and then looks demurely up at the dentist wearing drugstore perfume. But where is Muslim woman tearing off her hijab? Come on Lynx, get behind this new British inclusivity! Why should only haram British women have all the fun?

But in seriousness, fundamentalist Muslims have used the “decadent Western female” as foil in a defense of the veil, and I can only think they are referring to ads like this which they believe represent actual non-Muslim women. Fundamentalist Muslims conflate these displays with feminist ideas of sexual equality. It does my head in.

This next one is more disturbing. An army of starved women with breast implants desperately swimming to shore, running over hills? Maybe they are looking for the giant, ethnic ice cream bar:

But this one is also comforting in that it reminds me that my fat saves me from never having to run bikini clad in someone else’s perverse fantasy of a nypho army. Yay fat.

This one is probably the worst of the lot:

It just makes me tired, looking at it. There’s a sinister genius to this ad which compiles a great deal of real heartache and discomfort into a 28 second slot. Tit stares. Solipsistic disregard. Cheating. Shitty sex. It’s all so hilarious! Is this how most men really want women to behave? As simpy, selfless, lying push-overs?

Don’t answer that.