The haunting tension between beauty and decay, nature and artifice, captured by James Ostrer’s cinematic photographs can readily be traced to his first career, as a set painter for the English National Ballet. During the seven years that he toiled offstage there, devising atmospheric backdrops for the romance of the theater, the 35-year-old British artist witnessed thousands of performances and rehearsals that offered him an insider’s view into a ballerina’s world. It wasn’t until a piece of scenery “fell out of the gods,” as he recalls, causing serious injury to his back, that he decided to leave the ballet and pick up a camera—and although he never set foot backstage again, the enduring contradiction between the illusion of grace and the obsessive perfectionism embodied by those dancers has continued to inform his work.
In the years since, Ostrer has gained an international reputation for the raw, disconcerting brutality of his photographs, which depict rigorously honed, disciplined bodies in uncomfortable spatial relationships with accessories of their contemporary existence, and earned him the National Gallery’s London-Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize in 2010. This exhibition, on view at Gazelli Art House, is anchored by a suite of works that Ostrer was commissioned to create in 2014, as the National Portrait Gallery Curator’s Choice. Collectively titled “Wotsit All About,” they feature human subjects plastered in coats of sugary comestibles, from commercial cake batter and cupcakes to sour straws and gummy eggs.
Pictured from the waist up, seated and facing the camera against vibrant, solid-color backgrounds, the subjects of each image concurrently pay homage to and parody the history of portraiture, traditionally used to celebrate and immortalize an individual. Ostrer’s models, ironically, exist as faceless poster children for a diet-obsessed society, even while they are treated formally with the exaltation of a royal. Wax-lip mouths agape, candy-shaped eyes bulging from crusty green and pink flesh, heads distorted by donuts to resemble African masks crowned by tribal adornments, the figures are unrecognizable as living people, so thoroughly have they been transformed into gruesomely frosted figurines. The show’s title operates as a clarion call for reflection: it suggests the fraught reality of a globalized world in which the feverish dissemination of mass-produced, synthetic materials increasingly dominates cultural exchange.