Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Triumph of glossy style over any real substance

Stephanie Key
Stephanie Key

Browsing through Stephanie Key's photo blog, I was startled to find a picture of a young woman in love-heart glasses and lingerie holding a small pink phallus on a stick between her teeth. Why hadn't the Daily Mail fixated on that? Admittedly, no one was topless, but the genitalia imagery was explicit enough, should one want to pick a scandale like a fight or a scab.

But then, unlike the gun-toting, topless Untitled (Poppin Cherries), this lollipop picture wasn't a self-portrait. Key only took the photograph; the open mouth - the orifice dentata - is not hers. Ergo, no news. If Key had posed topless for another photographer, that would be news. But when she photographs models posed provocatively, apparently nobody cares. Her vision as an auteur - her art and its potential meanings, even its potential politics - are not of interest. Only her body.

Does Key care about this? Does she care that right-wing fan boy Cameron Slater has sleazily declared he wouldn't mind having a Key self-portrait on his wall? (Eeew.) Perhaps she does care: her photo blog was removed last Sunday.

(For 10 months it attracted no notice!) Then again, perhaps she was pressured to remove it, and doesn't care who enjoys her cheeky sex appeal.

But for whatever reason, gone is the hour-glass Victorian-corseted fetishist eating a banana; the woman in the sexy red apron with dog; the burlesque model in Crazy Horse star pasties; and the teenager posing in a Statue of Liberty crown, balconette bra and stockings reading "ne regardez pas" ("don't look"), with French flags over her nipples, and bruises on her arms.

They're not particularly original (one might say Key is "revisiting archetypes"), but the images of sexuality dressed in glamour, food and international exoticism are full of chutzpah and assured aplomb, surprisingly so for a 20-year-old. Some are pure fashionista; others have a Rolling Stone magazine, Annie Leibowitz, post-Gaga, pre-MTV Miley feel to them. In fashion's best tradition, they are also a deliberate triumph of style over substance. For example, an image of Key clothed in McDonald's is hard to read as a critique of globalisation or the objectification of women when it mirrors a bright image of her clothed in sashimi and a smile, a la nyotaimori, the Japanese practice of using naked women as dining tables. If anything, she is contrasting Western factory food with handcrafted Japanese elegance - food culture is the message, not the metaphor.

The bruises, national symbols, grotesque octopus (a favourite accessory), and the "Poppin Cherries" frame of strap-ons, Virgin Marys and the word "sold" - these might be disruptive. But instead, thanks to the works' overriding attractive glossiness, such elements act merely as shock chic, a Vogue advertising pay-attention technique. Concerns become props.

Like that of most fashion, the works' politics - in my eyes - are conservative. And why not? Key is a promising, privileged student at an expensive private university in Paris. The system works for her.

- NZ Herald

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