Mighty Beauty, Mighty Beast
Text written by Paul Carey-Kent
What are they about, these paintings of exaggerated women in which a melt-down of fashion melds with the animal? Is ‘Mighty Beauty, Mighty Beast’ a serious critique of consumerism and social media, or is Anna Pogudz just poking a little gentle fun? Is she in the tradition of Alex Katz’s painterly pop, or might we do better to look to fellow Pole Natalia LL’s still-pertinent 1970’s deconstructions of the nature of consumer desire? It soon becomes obvious that we can play it either way. It’s like getting the pictures from the celebrity-worshipping magazine Hello in an edition The Society of the Spectacle.
Let’s start with the fun. Fashion models are an obvious source for Pogudz’s characters, resplendent in their designer clothes, with flowing hair and enviable physiques in confident poses. They radiate an instinctual ease and magnetism it might be tempting to call ‘feline’, as many seem to be in the process of turning into cats. I’m not sure if there’s a word for the half-cheetah half-woman equivalent of the half-man half-horse centaur, but here she is – enjoying The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Her companion – half woman, half fantasy of a black and white big cat - also appears in Chimera and White Panthera. In Greek myth a chimera was a female monster with lion head, goat body and serpent tail, so there is an echo. In The Cat and His Ladies, three women share some spaghetti – not just any old pasta, but waved to match their hair – with a cheetah. Another big cat pops up in Card Players and two in The Charm and the Cheetahs, more enjoying lunch on the grass – or should I say Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Or do they? Once we’ve seen Pogudz’s cut-out paintings of cheetahs, we realise that the women may be posing with props. More subtly, but obviously enough given that context, Charms 1-3 feature women wearing animals in some way. All are femmes fatales with relish, tempting us with the possibility of racy stories. We can imagine enjoying the full account of their gleaming homes, adventurous love lives and scandalous behaviour. All of which fits with how Pogudz has painted them: fluidly confident and colourful.
But – ‘obvious’ klaxon – that’s the glossy surface, which is where the society of the spectacle resides, after all. No wonder the motif of eyes appears as an endless cycle of reciprocal gazes in Invisible Monsters – Infinity, and forms the show’s backdrop. Or, as Guy Debord says, ‘those ‘famous for being famous’ hold out the spectacular promise of the complete erosion of an autonomously lived life in return for an apotheosis as an image’. These creatures are in thrall to the stereotypes of what a woman should be, to the ugly social conventions which define the mainstream of beauty. No wonder there’s an air of the mythical, these are places where gritty truths are covered over in unreality.
Or maybe, now we look more closely, not so fully covered. The women do tend to have inappropriately aged hands, stiff joints and the fixed, expressionless faces of too much Botox. Questions begin to occur. Are they hiding their vulnerability? How free are such constructed selves? Are they more than puppets of the artist, of the system, of the secondary worlds of modern media? Such puppets to norms, indeed, that Chimera actually features a puppet-cat merger. If Debord could already claim in 1967 that authentic social life has been replaced with its representation, how much truer that must be now.
As Pogudz says herself: ‘I portray an image of modern and monstrous women, who are driven by a seductive vision of glamour, money, fame, and success. The women in my artworks are powerful, strong and beautiful, but also terrifying, depicted in a grotesque way, full of exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excessiveness’. Her short animation, Invisible Monsters, pushes more fully into the surreal as it choreographs the paintings’ themes: lips swell beyond any feasible amount of collagen, a mandala of make-up gets its groove on, and even the plants have eyes. Then the world collapses into mirrors. Pogudz herself cites various sources: Chuck Palahniuk's novel Invisible Monsters, fashion magazines, editorials and campaigns, make-up tutorials, YouTube beauty series, celebrities, ancient mythologies. But perhaps another of Debord’s aphorisms is in order: ‘The spectacle is a social relation between people that is mediated by an accumulation of images that serve to alienate us from a genuinely lived life’. It’s a problem. Yet the ways of capitalism are also seductive. At some level, we are all cheating ourselves, including the women who mainly want to cheat their age. We may understand the issues, but it’s easy to forget them…
To finish as we started, Pogudz’s world is an attractive one. We can take it all seriously, but she might just be poking fun. Mighty beast but also mighty beauty. Cheaters of our true selves but also cheetahs, sleek and fast. Enjoy – and yet be warned! Be warned – and yet enjoy!