Sustaining her infectious interest in Hollywood’s golden age, the selection of works that form Nina Mae Fowler’s latest exhibition both revel in the era’s sheer visual richness and take a cool-headed look at its sometimes lurid inner workings. Steeped in both the glamour and grotesquery of stardom, the show brings a mortician’s scalpel to the immaculately made-up corpse of celebrity culture.
The exhibition’s title comes from a statement made by Marilyn Monroe to her make-up artist Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder. When she died, said Monroe, she wanted her corpse to be made up while it was still warm. A frivolous remark, perhaps, yet scored with the infinite sadness of acknowledging herself as pure image, pure object. And the fact that she had the statement engraved on a money-clip gifted to Snyder perhaps signalled Monroe’s own dark awareness of herself — or her image — as pure, disembodied capital.
It’s this way of seeing that stimulates While I’m Still Warm: a perspective where every photograph or cinematic frame is both a memory and a death mask, and the act of filming is simultaneously one of embalming. Fowler’s work toys with the analogies suggested here, and the dark room achieves its ultimate form in the chapel of rest, where one’s image is finally polished and perfected before being projected back to the public for the last time. Here, at the end-point of our complicity with the sordid underbelly of fame, is the lifeless figure as pure spectacle.
It was a real chapel of rest, the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in New York, that provided the stimulus for the work Notable Burials. Visiting this place in the course of her work on Rudolph Valentino, Fowler was offered a list of their best-known customers. The work is on-going, (the list is vast) and the brooding, hooded sculptures we see here are a selection of those filed under ‘B’. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yul Brynner and others march in procession like a host of Dante’s lost souls. Fowler’s brooding drawings of Vivien Leigh and Terence Stamp, Through the Love You Gave Me I Became Aware of My Illness (Male + Female), are similarly haunting, complete with her distinctively intricate sculpted frames.
Intrigued by what fame obscures as much as by what it reveals, Fowler’s work also asks about those not deemed ‘notable’. In a world of celebrity that has consistently, and resurgently, been one of vaunting machismo, the silenced voices are often those of women. As part of While I’m Still Warm Fowler has created an installation piece where we are invited into a reconstructed inner sanctum of the macho, witnessing Marlon Brando taking a shower in preparation for his notorious performance in the 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Fowler also approaches taboos more directly. Every Girl Crazy, for instance, turns the techniques of cinema against themselves by montaging images of female stars eating into a scene that is both subversive and carnivalesque.
If works like Fowler’s large-scale montage piece Swansdown depict Hollywood culture in ruins, then elsewhere the artist revels in its magic. Brando’s shower situates the image in a space — a sepulchral, almost a mystical space — but the works drawn from the series The Day Cary Came To Norwich respond to the cinematic image’s extraordinary mobility, making a small group of faces familiar around the globe. In these works, Grant’s image floats on an immaculate white background, as if floating in nothingness. The title, however, alludes to his actual visit to Norwich in 1918 — performing under his real name of Archie Leach — reminding us again of that fertile, gorgeous, yet sometimes dark and noxious fissure between the private and the public that Fowler’s work prises open, revealing a territory where self and image become radically unbound.