Essay: Sittings

by Michael Bracewell on 1 April 2005

Cultural Commentator Michael Bracewell unpacks the Warholian approach to masculinity central to Sittings: 30 Men.

Cultural Commentator Michael Bracewell unpacks the Warholian approach to masculinity central to Sittings: 30 Men.

Described as 'living magazine pages', Simon Foxton's interactive project for SHOWstudio engages with the both the history and concept of portraiture. It is also a work which critiques and expands the premise of contemporary styling and fashion photography. On the one hand the project seems at ease with the language and format of a surveillance TV programme such as The Salon; at the same time, there is an aesthetic and performative element to the founding concept of Foxton's project which brings to mind the Screen Tests of Andy Warhol, made between 1962 and 1964, as well as the sumptuousness and claustrophobia of Sam Taylor-Wood's intense concentration on the framed figure, in her films and photography since the mid 1990s.

Advancing from the simple but compelling creation of a live film portrait, Sittings: 30 Men presents the viewer with a situation which conflates a variety of contemporary cultural trends. While there is an art historical lineage which connects the society portraiture of the late nineteenth century to the filmic glamour of Beaton's photographic portraits, there is also reference to reality TV and the media trend for private life as public spectacle.

The male models in Foxton's project are all minimally styled, each dressed in an outfit by a single designer, and possess the immediate elegance and forcefulness of presence that one would expect of them. But where we are used to seeing the male model as a static image within print media and advertising, here the singular perspective of the web-cast creates a situation in which the meticulously prepared image of the professionally styled model becomes fragmented and de-stabilised. Once filmed over an extended period, within the constantly renewing sixty seconds of a single frame static portrait, the model's enshrinement within the rhetoric of fashion photography is exchanged for sequential casual poses - for the monotone of live broadcast. (You might also think of the studies in human animation undertaken by cubism, in which a figure is seen is the staggered phases of a single activity.)

Thus Sittings is immediately connected to a complex algebra of method and intent - formality is collapsed, intent becomes ambiguous, and untethered; at the same time, the technology of the piece - the ambient sound which the viewer can hear alongside each 'frame' of the live portrait, or the telephone link to the model - introduce further layers of possibility.

These dandies become stranded between the iconography of film stills, the banality of popular factual programming and the queasy intimacy of surveillance photography. There is also a strand of pronounced sexual theatre to their role.

To begin with the technological enablement of the work, you could think of Marshall McLuhan's distinction - in his pioneering essays on Mass Age culture, technology and media - between a subject and what he terms as its 'ground'. In this analysis, it is the surrounding apparatus and landscape of a subject (termed 'figure' by McLuhan) which makes eloquent its real meaning within the modern world.

With regard to Foxton's Sittings, such an analysis raises interesting questions: to what extent is the modern fashion portrait more concerned with the capacity of media than the content of the picture? In an age of saturation visual culture, enabled by mass digital technology, do images themselves have enhanced or diminished visibility? Similarly, where does documentation end and entertainment begin? Or is visual culture now adrift in a mass convergence of intents, the end result of which is a mono-environment of pasteurised mythologies and continual mediation?

The elegance of Foxton's male models, the singularity of their appearance and ease with their selves, proposes his subjects as aspirational - embodying glamour, vitality and all of the agency of contemporary styling. Under prolonged mediation, however, their images updated in fragment, these dandies become stranded between the iconography of film stills, the banality of popular factual programming and the queasy intimacy of surveillance photography. There is also a strand of pronounced sexual theatre to their role as 'live portraits'; in some ways, the sitters appear to be commodified by their situation - presented by the webcast as vicariously available for covert scrutiny.

In this, Sittings: 30 Men combines the aesthetics and social discourse of portraiture with both the rhetoric of fashion and the language of contemporary communications. This conflation of social, aesthetic and technological concerns presents an open-ended enquiry into both the status of imagery and the imagery of status. Foxton's project might thus be taken as a current audit of the heady relationship between glamour, mediation and visual culture - a debate which, in its modern form, might commence with the social portraiture of Jacques Emil Blanche and lead to Sam Taylor-Wood's artful film portrait of the apparently sleeping David Beckham.

If a starting point of postmodernism might be seen as the supremacy of image as an infinitely transferable and quotable phenomenon, then Warhol's Screen Tests - the resonance of which can be felt so strongly in Foxton's Sittings - mark the inauguration of the postmodern epoch. Warhol would request his 'sitters' to simply sit in front of the camera and do nothing at all - not even blink, preferably; he would tell them how great they looked, and then allow the camera itself to both create and record the profound psychological study which the situation usually provoked.

For Taylor-Wood, inspired by Warhol, the subjects of her portraits (many of them celebrities) are granted a filmic enshrinement by the art-making process which is steeped in a luxurious aestheticism. Often, her interest is in the relationship between her subject and the pictorial context; like Warhol, she is engaged in a forensic study of physical beauty, and the point at which erotic presence becomes taut with neurosis.

Simon Foxton, crucially, approaches these concerns from the inside out. His intention with Sittings seems both to enhance and disrupt the poise and intimacy of styled portraiture - to blur further the historically vexed distinctions between cultural media.



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