It’s funny, looking at Frances Goodman’s latest exhibition at Smac in Rosebank, to remember how, a few years ago, one of her artworks was Instagrammed by singer Miley Cyrus and racked up more than 250,000 likes. The sculpture, called Lick It, is a giant tongue (in part inspired by Cyrus herself) constructed using hundreds of overlapping acrylic false nails.
It’s funny because Goodman’s latest exhibition Offstage, which opened last weekend, explores images as commodities and plays with the way we consume them, particularly in the age of social media.
So, what gives an image value – 250,000 likes? That’s certainly a kind of currency. Goodman’s latest works explore the way in which digital images on social media affect the way we value ourselves – how we consume them can be both oppressive and liberating.
The stand-out piece on this exhibition is a series of large “sequin paintings”. Goodman – with a studio of assistants – has taken images of women in moments of privacy and repose – in the bath, on the loo, exercising, taking a selfie, looking in the mirror and so on – and transformed them into metre-long images “painted” with thousands of hand-stitched sequins. They’re accompanied by another series of massive, pillowy, disembodied lips rendered in hand-stitched sequins, which also plays with notions of female sexuality. Smaller works include embroidered pictures of women dancing in front of the mirror in their underwear and intricately hand-stitched pictures on satin of eyes decorated with elaborate make-up.
The result is a series of powerful images. The sequins in the large images look almost like digital pixels but, rather than work in the same way as easily consumable digital, these reflect and disrupt the way we look at them. You have to bob around in front of the images to see them properly as the glare off the shiny surfaces makes it hard for your eyes to take them in all at once.
Goodman has done this before with stills from trashy sexploitation films, looking at the way women’s facial expressions are forced to enact cheaply exaggerated sensationalist emotions and how they manipulate the gaze of the male viewer. This time, delving into social media, she takes this exploration into a more pervasive realm and into private spaces. As always, there’s a weird tension between whether the women in the images are victims, their bodies and lives commodified by social media, or whether they can exploit and manipulate its conventions in a way that is powerful. In this exhibition, Goodman explores a strange crossover between public and private existence – the idea that when a woman is looked at, she performs, but what happens in private?
The labour that goes into making these works also plays complex games with value. She uses laborious craft to reframe, or reinterpret, a cheap, trashy image – the time and effort spent on it transforming it from a disposable consumer image to something precious, human and loaded with complex meaning. She uses craft to subvert consumerism but, at the same time, explores the disconcerting overlap between consumerism and sexuality, particularly the way women’s sexuality is commodified, coded and controlled.
Before you go, take a look at these earlier works from Goodman’s portfolio.
BANNER SERIES (2007)
Some of her earlier works include wall sculptures in the form of banners embroidered with sequins spelling out phrases from interviews with professional bodybuilders as an exploration of the way we see ourselves and value our bodies. Like the beautiful little embroideries she made transcribing obscene graffiti copied from toilet walls and the oval wall sculptures she made with embroidered beadwork spelling out phrases describing emotions, she uses craft and stitching to complicate the way we read words and pictures. The stitching harnesses the obsessive, intricate details of traditional women’s craft to express the anxiety and neurosis in the affirmations they spell out and the way emotions are commodified. She followed the theme through in a range of media, using beads, false eyelashes and even vajazzles.
REVENGE SERIES (2011)
This time, Goodman used car parts as her canvases, scratching, riveting and otherwise decorating and defacing bonnets and seats. By playing around with the vandalism of cars – which stand in for an expression of the way male sexuality and ego is commodified – and the idea of a crazy, unbalanced, wronged woman, she engages with the crossover between sex, commodities, emotions and obsession.
This series of beaded or sequinned tapestries depicts bank notes. Once again, Goodman finds a new avenue to explore the idea of value created through consumerism, this time with a swipe at the way high political ideals get cheapened by consumerism. By depicting currency using a medium that takes traditionally feminine skills and hours of labour – not to mention cheap materials like beads and sequins – she teases out a complex relationship between money and value.
NAIL SCULPTURES (2013-2016)
In these sculptures, made from hundreds of acrylic false nails overlaid like scales to create flower-like, serpentine or simply oozing, formless shapes – the famously Instragrammed tongue among them – Goodman takes an intimate bodily adornment and pushes the possibilities of its expressiveness to the extreme. Exploring the border-territories of the body, like fingernails, and artificial standards of physical beauty, Goodman uses the very materials of glossy, commodified feminine sexuality to explore the ways in which the tension between excess and control turns desire to repulsion and the sexy becomes grotesque.
Offstage is on at SMAC Gallery, Johannesburg, until 13 October.