SMAC is pleased to present a solo project by Cape Town-based South African artist, Jody Paulsen. Working almost exclusively with vividly coloured felt as a medium, the artist is known for his generous approach to experimenting with images and text, combining them to create narratives around self-construction which reference his mixed cultural heritage and queer identity. Paulsen’s characteristically exuberant public confessionals – often taking the form of large banners, plastered with witty and cutting slogans and the logos of luxury brands – form a deconstructed flattening-out of the artist’s worldview.
Created during the course of the last year, this new body of work introduces a series of single-subject portraits which capture the same interest in consumer culture, identity, and self-deprecating generational anxiety through the expert use of expression, gesture and abstraction. Interchangeably referring to them as imagined portraits and self-portraits, the artist intentionally uses the dissolution and reconfiguration of the subjects’ features to construct a more fluid identity for each of them. “There are queer and genderless aspects about each of these portraits”, says Paulsen, “and I want it to feel relevant to a broad spectrum of people who are/feel queer”.
The introduction of the strikethrough as a visual device indicates an important element of Paulsen’s process; the deliberate disclosure of a change of thought. These scratched out words seem to be first drafts for titles – “stalker”, “stoner”, “dreamer” – all centred around attributes that Paulsen appears to have actively dismissed, yet still wants the viewer to be cognisant of. The strikethrough is sometimes used as a comedic device (as in Thinker (2017), an interpretive portrait of the universal ex-boyfriend), in much the same way that someone might disguise a muttered word, perhaps with a cough. Used in another way, the struck descriptions could be aimed at making the audience aware that he is slightly embarrassed or not fully comfortable with any of them, as seems to be the case with Delicate Boy (2017).
Although his works are often seen or referred to as ‘tapestries’, Paulsen identifies more strongly with collage and its art-historical roots, taking influence from his contemporary peers as well as earlier inspiration from the Synthetic Cubists. The most direct reference of this can be seen in The Fag Hags (2017), where Paulsen borrows the composition of Picasso’s famously provocative Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Paulsen cites its inception from a night out with friends, all bedecked in full drag; “Looking over at them all on the dance floor,” said the artist, “I had a vision of them as the Demoiselles”.
Picasso’s original abstraction is reinterpreted on a backdrop of African textiles – Dutch wax prints that still translate as capital goods for many African women, while now also having been absorbed by the global fashion and goods industry. Yet, Paulsen’s tongue-in-cheek reinterpretation of this serious art-historical work is not ironised, but rather stands as a triumph of cultural identity and mixed iconography. The work becomes an elaborate meme, coded by personal experience as well as relying on collective visual knowledge.
Rather than attempting to create work for an ageless, universal audience, Paulsen celebrates the possibility of complex, generationally-specific readings of his work. The centrepiece of this project, Pushing Thirty (2017), achieves exactly this, parodying the millennial experience as a way of making sense of the emotional conflicts of youth. Having turned thirty earlier this year, the honesty of Paulsen’s practice reaches its peak in this self-interpretive and jocular commentary on the subject of queer aging. The day-glo brilliance of his felt compositions and the ample generosity of his conceptual content act as a guide to Paulsen’s means of understanding the contemporary culture that informs his practice.
As M Thesen Law describes his practice:
Although flippant, Paulsen’s engagement with a collective “millennial” identity, and with his own specific identity, is all processed and regurgitated through the symbolic language – that of late stage capitalism – which is most familiar to young people. These brand names, logos, and symbols of commodity culture are less frivolous than they may be read to be, as they are signifiers of a much larger culture of meta-ironic, concurrently self-aggrandising and self-deprecating aspirations for leisure and luxury in the context of an increasingly unstable social, political landscape.