“I am the white male, there’s no disputing that,” says British artist James Ostrer over the phone. “I completely understand my position within the global context. I have an awareness of my own privilege to even be able to do what I am doing.” It’s from this maligned perspective that Ostrer has created the work for his latest exhibition, Johnny Just Came — a mix of large scale installation, semi-permanent sculpture, photography and video — curated by Azu Nwagbogu and currently on display at London’s Gazelli Art House. Taking on the contemporary white male tendency toward greed and corruption, Ostrer considers the exhibition to be “a portrait of our time”.
It’s certainly a curious position from which to critique the major problems of Western civilisation, which are so often brought about by the immoral practices of white men in power. Ostrer is critiquing from the inside, as a culprit — he’s part of the problem and he knows it. The work on display was prompted by a trip he took to Lagos, Nigeria in 2015. He went at the behest of Nwagbogu, who was impressed by the artist’s previous series, Wotsit All About — a selection of portraits depicting figures covered in a sticky selection of sugary substances (including frosting, ice-cream cones, rainbow sprinkles and chocolate bars) to critique the widespread addiction to junk food and sugar — and invited Ostrer to exhibit at the LagosPhoto festival.
This first visit to Lagos filled Ostrer with “a huge amount of fear”, he explains, after reading various horror stories of kidnappings at gunpoint, and he consulted with many friends before finally boarding the flight. In fact, the exhibition’s title, Johnny Just Came, is a play on the common phrase — “Johnny just come” — used to describe an African man who has just arrived in Euro-American cities. Ostrer, as a reversed “Johnny just come”, reveals that he acted like “ a bit of a diva” when his pre-arranged driver didn’t turn up and he refused to take a taxi from the airport. However, after spending an undramatic week in the Nigerian city, his fear soon dissipated, giving way to intrigue.
It was Ostrer’s newfound confidence in Lagos that triggered the enormous installation that serves as the backbone of the London show: an expansive collection of flip-flops, found along Lagos’ beaches, stud the gallery walls, resembling marble slabs in shades spanning indigo to turquoise. Ostrer found his first flip-flop — a child’s Prada sandal, incidentally — on Lighthouse Beach and, with the help of locals, quickly amassed a vast supply. At the time, the migrant crisis dominated international news and “seeing a flip-flop washed-up on the beach immediately created a sense of emotional loss,” explains Ostrer. “You just have to think of the infamous image of the dead child on the beach”. However, what began as a poignant pursuit, unexpectedly transformed into, what the artist calls, “a microcosm of the commodities trade in Africa” .
“Initially, I started collecting with two people, who I paid ten dollars an hour, which is obviously more than the minimum wage in London or Berlin. By the following day, however, I wanted increasing amounts of flip-flops and realised I needed more people. One of the first people who I employed became like a middle-man, and then it became like a corporation where I was at the top and detached from what was happening on the beach.” For Ostrer, the quick and unsavoury metamorphosis of the project “underpinned” Johnny Just Came. “Both emotionally and in terms of behaviour; I position myself as a left-leaning artist, but within a 24-hour period I became the type of person I might be critical about in my work.”
It is at this peculiar turn that the show becomes interesting. Ostrer is not criticising from a place of remove, but recognises himself — as a privileged white male — to be a perpetrator of greed and corruption, albeit unintentionally. At the heart of the exhibition is a lurid photographic portrait of a “white male chief” resting upon a makeshift throne engineered out of fishing net and a mattress. He sits with his legs apart — a classic example of manspreading, surely — with an animal skull and a skirt of shimmery silver fish concealing his modesty. His legs, arms and torso are crudely smeared in scarlet shapes and patterns — possibly the blood of his unfortunate subjects — and rope encircles his throat and ankles in menacing coils. A closer look at his face reveals a meaty mess of animal innards, fish flesh and flip-flops; red twine dribbles from his mouth in oozy ribbons; the head and tail of a fish take the place of ears.
It’s a shocking piece of work that is equal parts hideous and compelling. Surrounding “the chief” are five smaller portraits of grotesquely feminine forms — all protruding bosoms and fishnet stockings — bound and tethered “to create a sense of control”. According to Ostrer, this aspect of the exhibition represents a contrast between traditionally masculine traits of domination and greed and what he regards to be more commonly feminine qualities of “community, love and sharing”. “We need to focus on these attributes if we are going to move forwards in terms of how we interrelate with different people around the world,” he posits.
Along with the photographs, Ostrer exhibits a number of sculptures that resemble eye-popping re-workings of the totems and effigies strewn across art history. One such piece, Beginning of Everything, presents a primitively sculpted bust with impasto layers of paint, positioned atop a flamboyantly patterned plinth. Two enormous gold cylindrical shapes emerge from its head like giant alien antennae, in front of which sit two real pig’s ears. With these works, Ostrer hopes to enter into a conversation about the “genealogy of ancient art” and “contemporary symbolism”, representative by the choice of African textiles covering the plinths and in the multifarious substances that the sculptures consist of, including 24-carat gold, human teeth and magazine cuttings of AK-47 assault rifles.
Much like his previous series, Wotsit All About and Eco System, Johnny Just Came, demonstrates a keen engagement with the push-pull of the grotesque. Ostrer’s work is often beautifully rendered, but at the same time undeniably disgusting in its raw corporeality and coarse primitivism. When asked about this aspect of his art, Ostrer compares it to a car accident — “why do people stop to look? Humans are trained to look at beautiful things, but we are also attracted to visual disturbance”. Visual disturbance is certainly one way to describe his video, Snuffling for Love Truffles, also on display. Here, the artist has stitched himself into a suit indelicately crafted out of pig skin, even donning the fleshy snout and tissue of a pig’s head as a gruesome mask. In this vile and visceral costume, he munches pepperoni pizza and watches porn off a desktop computer. According to Ostrer, it is “a portrait of self-annihilation”. A little heavy-handed, perhaps, but who are we to argue?
Even if at times the overall approach is a bit ham-fisted — if you’ll pardon the pun — you’ve got to admire this white male artist (even if it pains you to do so) for taking the time to self-reflect and recognise his overall complicity in a global regime of avarice and over-consumption. He acknowledges the irony of an exhibition commenting on the world’s inequalities being held in a swanky Mayfair gallery, which is selling his work at high prices. But ultimately, Ostrer wants to create art that summons positive transformation — through pieces that are as “brutal as they are beautiful”. The process starts with himself: “I make work to make changes in myself,” he says.“I’ve opened up a whole continent in terms of where I want to visit, spend time, make work, meet new people and learn more about the history of the world from a perspective that isn’t a white male perspective”. When asked what he hopes viewers will take away from Johnny Just Came, his response is as grand as it is earnest: “I hope that we become a fairer society where people at the top consider everyone else more”.
Johnny Just Came is Gazelli Art House, London until July 22, 2018.