What’s Your Damage? “Heathers” revamped at Rowing

Heathers (dir. Michael Lehmann), 1988 (film stills)
Heathers (dir. Michael Lehmann), 1988 (film stills)

Michael Lehmann’s cult Eighties film “Heathers” is well known for its macabre take on teenage life and its endlessly quotable dialogue. What it is not generally known for is its pertinent references to contemporary art. The current exhibition at Rowing however takes precisely this little known fact as as its starting point. The press release rather obliquely provides the key to the exhibition’s intentions: consisting only of a list of time references to moments of the film, “24m20s – 24m34s, 26m52s -26m56s” and so on, without further explanation. Only the most devoted of visitors will discover, by reference back to the film itself, that these eleven time periods are when contemporary artworks by artists including Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger and Wayne Thiebaud appear in the background of the movie.

The artworks are subtly integrated into the set of the film but their inclusion is more than incidental. They affect our reading of the characters’ intentions, appearing at pivotal moments of the film. As Heather Chandler is killed by the conspiratorial duo of Veronica and JD, Wayne Thiebaud’s cake paintings hang in the background. Their saccharine simplicity fits in with Veronica’s lingering naivety and the gentle comedy of the opening scenes. Later Veronica finds Barbara Kruger’s “I Shop Therefore I Am” (1987) pinned up in Heather’s locker.  The artwork implicates Heather within the caustic environment that she consolidates, re-mapping her murder as suicide. 

As well as providing a key to the characters’ psychologies, the artworks reflect the desires of Pop Art to create an antagonistic relationship between critique and complicity. These same impulses remain buoyant with respect to readings of certain contemporary artists today. Crucially the contemporary artworks which New York based curator Alex Ross has brought together for this exhibition embody the same intentions, through nine artists’ work, packed into a small space.  

Rachel Maclean, 'LolCats,' 2012. HD single channel colour video, with sound, 15:15. Photo: Plastiques photography
Rachel Maclean, ‘LolCats,’ 2012. HD single channel colour video, with sound, 15:15. Courtesy of the Artist and Rowing, London. Photo: Plastiques photography

Rachel Maclean’s brilliant film “Lolcats” (2012) stands out. Based on the internet meme of the same name, it explores cat worship throughout the ages. Dressed in eccentric costumes, Maclean plays each character herself, miming to appropriated audio from Katy Perry interviews to classic Italian movies. The hyper-saturated film glows and seduces while it parodies contemporary culture with cartoonish stereotypes. 

Camberwell graduate May Hands’ artworks entice the visitor nearby. Hands has developed her own artistic language from the use of designer product packaging to adorn her canvasses. Hers are paintings are made out of luxury consumption. As her language has become more refined, and her works more subtle, she adopts a mock-minimalist aesthetic, in this show simply hanging designer labels from her canvasses with plain metal hooks.

Right: May Hands, 'Endless Euphoria (Calvin Klein),' 2014. Left: May Hands, 'Guilty, (Gucci),' 2014. Photo: Plastiques photography
Right: May Hands, ‘Endless Euphoria (Calvin Klein),’ 2014. Left: May Hands, ‘Guilty, (Gucci),’ 2014. Courtesy of the Artist and T293, Naples/Rome. Photo: Plastiques photography

Lisa Holzer’s artworks share this mock sincerity. Her “It’s My Hair and I can do what I want with it!” (2014) depicts a single strand of spaghetti alongside some day-glo stickers. White paint fingerprints sully the outside of the frame, appearing on top of the glass itself. Holzer’s title is borrowed from the key work Tiqqun’s “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl” in which the Young-Girl is the total product of consumer society, seducing by consuming.

The works in the exhibition offer a more subtle parody of contemporary culture than the film “Heathers” itself. They reflect a cynicism prevalent in contemporary artwork that is sometimes so subtle as to be barely noticeable. It’s a cynicism that teeters on the brink of complicity with only a hint of irony, since these artists’ resistance to popular contemporary culture has become entirely futile. The film “Heathers” ends with a vein of optimism as Veronica saves the school from destruction. These young contemporary artists seem to offer us no such hope for the future. 

Text by Kate Neave

“Heathers” is on show at Rowing, London until 25 October 2014.

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