‘Rear Window’ is an online exhibition inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1954 film about the seductions, and the dangers, of looking.
Hitchcock returned obsessively to the theme of voyeurism, delighting in forcing on his audience the queasy thrills of the unobserved observer, and implicating them in the associated risks of seeing what one shouldn’t, or misinterpreting what one sees.
Rear Window could be thought of as a lock-down movie: photojournalist ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (James Stewart) has a broken leg which keeps him stuck in a wheelchair in his apartment, and we are trapped there with him, all the action confined to his field of view across a Greenwich Village courtyard through a sweltering New York summer. Jeff can hardly tear himself from his window, as if the scenes unfolding in the stacked windows of his neighbours’ apartments are like so many films unspooling in front of a mesmerised cinema-goer. The dramas that play out there seem much more captivating to him than the physical presence of his glamorous girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), who only claims his full attention when she too is framed by his binoculars. Accomplices in his voyeurism, we join him in piecing together clues to the lives of ‘Miss Torso’, the dancer stretching in her underwear; ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’, entertaining an imaginary date; the struggling songwriter; the amorous newly-weds; and the salesman, Thorwald, tending his nagging, bedridden wife, who becomes the focus of Jeffries’ suspicious attention. Until the film reaches its grisly conclusion we are unsure whether a crime has in fact been committed, or whether Jeff has cooked-up a story from scant clues and his runaway imagination.
‘Rear Window’ is an invitation to consider how artists construct scenes and suggest narratives, use cinematic devices to tease our innate voyeurism, and how they explore and challenge the idea of ‘the gaze’ which Hitchcock’s film was instrumental in formulating.
Curated by Susanna Greeves, Director, Museum Liaison, White Cube.
Artists: Ellen Altfest, Jeff Burton, Gillian Carnegie, Julie Curtiss, Judith Eisler, Celia Hempton, Danica Lundy, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Laurie Simmons, Jeff Wall and Carrie Mae Weems.
Jeff Wall constructs his images much like a film maker; casting performers, sourcing props, and scouting locations or building sets. We search the scene of Summer Afternoons for clues in order to fashion a narrative around the vulnerable naked man and the self-contained, pensive woman: how do these images relate, is it a relationship or a fantasy, does the décor locate this moment in the past, therefore perhaps a memory? The mystery seems to deepen the longer one looks.
Since the 1970s Laurie Simmons has been staging scenes for the camera, arranging dolls and dollhouse furniture and investing them with a decidedly grown-up psychological charge. In The Boxes (Ardis Vinklers) Ballroom, Simmons emphasises the theatricality of the scene by appropriating a tableau assemblage by Latvian artist Ardis Vinklers, making it the stage for an appropriately buttoned-up male doll and an exhibitionist paper cut-out − a proxy James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
In the Long House series, made between 2002 and 2004, Simmons’ dollhouses take on a distinctly cinematic quality. Coloured filters, raking light and deep shadows create a noir-ish atmosphere in which the paper cut-outs are cast in the roles of vamp or victim.
Despite their documentary appearance, Carrie Mae Weems’ ‘Kitchen Table’ photographs are staged and constructed images, in which the artist plays the part of a woman shown in everyday interactions with her lover, her friends, and her daughter, all of whom she cast from around her neighbourhood. Weems was driven to create these scenes of simple domestic intimacy in order to address a general dearth of images properly representing women, and Black women in particular.
The lack of representation that the artist identified across all our cultural landscapes was also the spur to Weems’ later series ‘Scenes and Takes’. However, these works are intended to mark what Weems had identified as a major cultural shift spearheaded by network television shows with predominately Black casts. The artist’s black-robed figure is seen visiting the set of one of these shows, juxtaposed with text evoking the old Hollywood epitomised by Hitchcock and Vertigo.
Hitchcock implies that all cinema is a form of voyeurism, but one might argue that this is most nakedly true of the porn industry, in which Jeff Burton has spent much of his working life. In tightly framed images usually focused just outside the action, he shares glimpses of an LA world of artificial glamour and artfully constructed fantasy that runs parallel to that of the Hollywood studios.
Untitled #133 (reclining nude woman), 2000
Judith Eisler’s paintings are taken direct from films, which she watches obsessively, but the moments she chooses to freeze-frame are often peripheral to the story. Separating these images from their context, she paints them with objective, photo-realist exactness, capturing the physical properties of film and its magical luminosity.
Danica Lundy typically crowds her paintings with a press of bodies, using surprising perspectives and tight framing to place us inside the action. Captain, framed as the view from a car window, is from a cycle of works inspired by Lundy’s memories of navigating the treacherous line between girlhood and womanhood and of experiencing the intense physicality of contact sport as a teenage athlete. Though her title signifies an active, commanding role, this young ‘captain’ is pinned by a predatory gaze and meaty limbs, which break the laws of physics to trespass inside the confines of the car. A note of ambiguity creeps in when we spot her fingers curled around his neck, complicating this mini-drama of consent.
Le serpent qui danse, 2020
Julie Curtiss composes her enigmatic, erotically-charged paintings with a cinematographer’s eye for cropping and framing. In Le serpent qui danse the sinuous leaves of a plant are quite ineffective in screening a woman’s naked body, rather seeming to caress the figure and lead the eye to her attractions. Like Salome’s dance of the seven veils, a game of mock concealment increases the titillation of the reveal.
Only the figure’s head is effectively hidden behind a veil of hair, bringing to mind Jeffries’ nickname in Rear Window for his dancer neighbour ‘Miss Torso’. It also evokes that textbook Surrealist image, René Magritte’s 1945 painting Rape (Le Viol), in which a woman’s face is replaced by her torso, nipples becoming eyes: the ultimate objectifying, sexualising view of woman, albeit one that stares back.
Hitchcock’s indulgence in voyeurism in Rear Window and Vertigo – his scopophilia, in psychoanalytic terms - make those films key exhibits in the case for ‘the male gaze’ which film critic Laura Mulvey laid out in her hugely influential essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (published in 1975). Under the male gaze, the woman becomes ‘the bearer of meaning and not the maker of meaning,’ according to Mulvey − a passive object and not an active subject. The female form is on display for the delectation of the males inside the drama, and for the viewer, who is assumed to be male. Mulvey later reflected that her essay could have been extended to ‘questions of race and the invisibility of African American performers and talent in Hollywood, and how it was really an apartheid cinema’. Her argument, and its subsequent development by other writers on the ‘female gaze’ and the ‘queer gaze’, has had a far-reaching influence on film studies and art criticism, as well as on artists who posit the act of looking as something other than a possessive act of consumption, or to cast the viewer as someone other than a white, heterosexual male.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya uses the photographer’s props of dark cloth, tripod and mirror to screen and reveal, allowing us glimpses into his studio, an intimate space of tender, playful male sexuality. His images feed on the charged erotic circuit between artist, subject and viewer, but he alternates the current of power and desire: the creative process is reciprocal and collaborative, the gaze is reflected and includes the artist.
Ellen Altfest turns her gaze on her male subjects with an extreme, almost myopic scrutiny that substitutes detachment for desire. The paint-spattered stool on which the model sits is registered with the same topographical rigour as each hair, vein and variation of skin tone: another definition of objectification. As Altfest explains: ‘the paintings of men seem to have an inverse relationship to still life, with the men becoming less like human subjects and more like still life objects.’
Gillian Carnegie is both artist and model in the self-portrait series she calls ‘bum paintings’. Varying in composition, lighting, shading and technique, their deadpan pretext is a formal exercise in painting, showcasing the artist’s accomplishments. But Carnegie’s in-your-face exhibitionism, and that inescapable dark cleft, forces us into an erotic encounter with the artist alongside our academic engagement. It’s an invitation and a challenge that puts the artist firmly in control and leaves us pleasurably discomforted.
Through the social networking site chatrandom.com, which connects strangers via their webcams, Celia Hempton has found a way to open a virtual window onto intimate, domestic spaces. A click brings to her screen men – they are always men – in darkened rooms all over the world, lit by the glare of their screens, often masturbating. She paints them for as long as they are willing to keep the connection open – a fleeting, intense moment while they are the subject of her scrutiny.
With a cinematic eye for framing, Julie Curtiss turns the space of her canvas into a window, outside which three faceless, monochrome figures are positioned. No longer voyeurs, it’s us, and our proxy on our side of the frame, that are under surveillance. The sinister figures beyond are identified not as watchers, but as ‘The Whisperers’, acknowledging the fear that to be observed is to be judged.
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