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Alex Gawronski, Extinction, 2020

(Images from top to bottom: 1-3 – installation views; 4 – John I (acrylic on canvas board 310 x 410 mm); 5 – John II  (acrylic on canvas board 310 x 410 mm); 6-7 installation views; 8 – Fernando I (acrylic on canvas board 255 x 355 mm); 9 – François I (acrylic on canvas board 255 x 355 mm); 10 – installation view; 11 – Fernando II (acrylic on canvas board 255 x 355 mm); 12-13 installation views; 14 – François II (acrylic on canvas board 255 x 355 mm); 15 – installation view; 16 – Jean Pierre (acrylic on canvas board 255 x 355 mm); 17 – installation view; 18-22 – installation view with video, Extinction (hd video 5:53))

Taita Artist Studio Residency, Málaga, Spain, January.

“Here’s the thing about being rich OK, it’s fucking great! It’s like being a super hero only better. You get to do what you want. The authorities can’t really touch you. You get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani! And it doesn’t make you look like a prick”.

‘Tom’ speaking to ‘Greg’ over an ultra-expensive degustation meal in the HBO TV series, Succession, SE01 EP6, 2019.

The suit is a ubiquitous item of clothing. Although it has unisex applications, it is almost invariably associated with (certain images of) masculinity. Wearing a suit bestows upon the wearer a dimension of authority, the more expensive the suit the more authority (and ‘class’) the wearer is assumed to have. This is why for example in Succession (quoted above) there is a running gag in which the character ‘Tom’ (an overpaid functionary and ‘mere’ in-law of the real power-broking media-owning family) is repeatedly disparaged jokingly for the stylessness of his own corporate attire. He aspires (hard) to be an insider, yet he will always remain on the outside which in turn renders him even more competitively venal (as well as laughable).

The suit is also characteristically associated with dimensions of criminality, particularly of the mafia variety. Again, the suit bestows power, the more expensive the suit the more successful (and usually vicious – even from a delegatory position) the criminal. The suit confers prestige and confidence, but it can also function defensively, like armour or a disguise. In the initial sense, the suit-wearer conceals their subjectivity in order to more readily conform to the expectations of the corporate ‘team’ within which overt expressions of individuality (while played-out capitalistically in terms of an exacerbated emphasis on personal consumer ‘choice’) is hierarchically discouraged. Like corporate architectures, a blank and/or imposing sheen distinguishes an opaque but readily identifiable aesthetic.

In the latter sense, the respectability of the suit may camouflage illegal or barely legal activities. A high-end criminal will typically desire some sense of institutional credibility no matter how superficial. Meanwhile, corporations regularly pay top-dollar to identify the most labyrinthine legal loopholes to evade restrictions in order to heighten profiteering. Via such means they are able to render legal, otherwise borderline-legal or basically illegal (usually intensely unethical) actions for the sake of maximising profits. Of course, this is not to discount the obvious beauty and craftsmanship of a well-made suit! Nor is it to defer to backward ‘hippie’ arguments of a ‘suits are for squares’ type associated with a much older generation (many of whom curiously exited hippiedom to ride the crest of the neoliberal wave in the 1980s).

This exhibition includes references to the suit-wearing male protagonists of Luis Bunuel’s film the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972): these men (accompanied by several female conspirators) search endlessly for the perfect meal walking from one town to the next. They believe that sensual and consumer satisfaction is an intrinsic right of their class. At every turn  they are disappointed though, thwarted by typically sardonic Bunuelian frustrations. Repeatedly defeated they continue on their way again and again. And even though they appear increasingly uncomfortable trudging along under the full sun in their expensively lined attire, it is as if they could not possibly dream of discarding their suits for fear of being misidentified as members of the lower social strata.

The video accompanying this painting/installation multiplies its frames of reference. The closing sequence of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) is intercut with clips from a YouTube instructional video on male fashion and Sergio Leone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966). In the Pasolini scene, an upright, besuited, upper bourgeois corporatist inexplicably disrobes in the middle of Milan’s busy Stazione Centrale. Dismayed with his own class position as a result of equally inexplicable events occurring earlier in the film, we see him suddenly naked and dwarfed by the immensity of a grey volcanic wasteland: he chooses to abandon a symbolic desert (the domain of Agamben’s ‘bare-life’) for a literal one.

Excerpts from a YouTube video follow in which men are instructed on how to dress properly in a suit. In this generally artless clip, the instructor manhandles the male model as though he were a mere mannequin or (silent) ventriloquist’s dummy. He appears as a tool manipulated for maximum masculine effect. Lastly, we briefly glimpse barely identifiable shots from Leone’s ‘Spaghetti’ Western depicting the ‘man with no name’ (iconically played by Clint Eastwood) driven though an equally barren desert (filmed incidentally in Andalusia, Spain where this exhibition/ residency took place). The cowboy seeks individual freedom via the promise of stolen riches. However, in the absence of a means to chase those riches he is reduced to the condition of a servile, almost animal-like, slave unable to imagine any other alternative. The figure of the nameless cowboy is not too dissimilar from the self-seeking corporate crook. The point under consideration here is not ‘the suit’ per-se but varieties of masculine power that should be made extinct, yet which are still popularly lauded as the best ‘society’ can aspire to.

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This project was supported by a Visual Arts Fellowship administered by the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and funded through the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund

Written by alex gawronski

March 13, 2020 at 6:10 PM