The first to follow Fowler’s recent National Portrait Gallery commission ‘Luminary Drawings’, this exhibition finds the artist continuing her restless investigation into the often devastating effects of fame, focusing on the impossible spotlight and perilous underbelly of the Hollywood machine.
Drawing on source material including film stills, documentary footage, historical paparazzi and entertainment photography, Fowler’s investigation of the interplay between tragedy and beauty emerges from intricate archival research. Her drawings are weighted by tensions surrounding ridicule, self-sabotage, compulsion, victimisation, emotional and physical vulnerability, exploitation, excess and abuse, played out in complex ways and in different combinations through the prism of the camera lens and the cinema screen.
As ever, Fowler’s work maintains a special ability to reverse the gaze from her subjects to her audience; the act of looking is shifted into a sometimes discomforting reflection on the frenzied voyeurism that is accountable for the cannibalistic consumption of the stars depicted. Ambiguity is bodied forth in subtle fluctuations between mesmerising material finesse and the dark undercurrents of her subject matter.
Fowler exploits her medium beyond its traditional limitations to articulate a fraught relationship between adoration and revulsion. Like the experience of idolising a star – crafted from a studio-controlled, patrician ideal of the impossibly smooth and glamorous – we are dazzled, desensitised and misdirected by the surface appearance. Fowler lures us in with magnetic technical prowess, yet simultaneously dares us to peel back the mask of fantasy and face the uncomfortable truths of her subject matter.
The exhibition includes meditations on two former ‘superstars’ of the sliver screen, Judy Garland and Hedy Lamarr, represented at the end of their lives in a rare series of sumptuous coloured-pencil works. Displayed alongside each other as a composite installation, these works invites comparison between the mirrored personal struggles faced by these actresses as they faded into obscurity.
By placing particular focus on the female image, If You Don’t Want my Peaches, You Better Stop Shaking The Treeconfronts a range of taboos with striking contemporary relevance. Fowler’s work critiques the cinematic female archetype, its nurturing of misogyny and its responsibility for an array of conditioned societal expectations. In turn, the artist persuades us to question the relationship between what she has chosen to represent and broader discourses concerning the status and ongoing subjugation of women in society, reflecting on our own complicity in sustaining these fictions, rather than simply writing them off as the products of a Hollywood machine now in terminal decline.
Reclaiming the stereotype of ‘tragic beauty’, freeze-framing the unnerving ‘caught off-guard’ moment and capturing a deeply relatable, sometimes uncomfortable, human vulnerability, Fowler’s work shifts the aesthetics of golden-age Hollywood into an urgent and beautiful engagement with the issues of our own age.