Friday, 24 April 2009

BLOG: Purposeful Controversy? Ray Caesar at Richard Goodhall

Published: 'Art City' Blog, MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS, April 2009 (no longer online)

"Purposeful Controversy? Ray Caesar at Richard Goodhall" 

I went to the Richard Goodall Gallery this week to have a final peek at Ray Caesar Angels in the Opera House. Working with 3D computer software, his technical skill is certainly incredibly impressive; at some points the digitally created skin of his waif like subjects is indistinguishable from a photograph. 

However, the images themselves I find quite difficult. They are beautiful in many ways, yet, if I’m honest, I do not know what their agenda is, whether I like them, dislike them, or even hate them.
Consisting almost always of a childlike female figure, human but mythical; they are surreal and disturbing, kitsch and kinky. They are sexualized, with both science fiction and cartoon elements, and I just don’t get it. 

Is it meant to shock me?

I guess on some levels Caesar’s work does shock me. Without their alien qualities, the women are perfect, pubescent ‘damsels in distress’. Their frames are tiny (I mean really tiny), their stature similarly minute in proportion, their faces angelic – large eyes, tiny lips, clear and pale skin. They look fragile and petit, possibly rather ill. Indeed, their form of attire reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood and Bo Peep indicates similar vulnerability. Without their robot claws, mechanic vessels or tentacles reaching out from under their skirts, they would be helpless innocents. It is odd to look at an image of an imp sized childlike girl, heavily sexualized, demure and knowing in glance. 

Yet, this is in a sense extremely prudish of me. Young sexualized figures are hardly shocking in art. You need only look to Manchester Art Gallery and gaze at John William Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and Nymphs’ to see some pubescent breasts and knowing eyes gazing straight into the attractive Hylas as they suggestively pull him in to the water. 

The difference is while Waterhouse’s nymphs are subtly seductive, Caesar’s are dominating and demonesque. Rather than being so of their own accord, like the sexual, even manipulative, Lolita of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, they need weaponry and instruments of damage. 

They are in a world dreamlike and separate to our own. This both safe guards Ray Caesar’s images and makes them problematic. These girls and women belong to a fantastical realm and are thus distanced from the viewer. However at the same time, this sexualizing of obscure female forms, like pornographic cartoons, turn women into unrealistic figures of gratification. What is presented as attractive in Caesar’s work is what is unattainable for real women to actualize. 

Some would say the girls of Caesar’s images are liberated and powerful. Indeed, they do man large machines and mockingly ride and punish their male counterparts. Yet  a girl wielding a whip so tiny that without it the fat lump of a man she is riding would crush her in an instant is hardly that. There is a side to these images, which diminishes the sexual female.

It is such aspects such as these, which even if you deslike Caesar’s images, make you appreciate them. They provoke and cause questioning and disgruntle your perceptions. They are also very beautiful, the colours exquisite and details intricate. While I would not have one hanging in my hall, the number of removed price tags shows that clearly many people would and will. Whether if be for controversy, appreciation or technical skill, or even fetish something in Roy Caesar’s work pleases the crowds.

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