Charlie White's Femalien (1996) is a photography project made in conjunction with Cheri - a glossy hetero-porn magazine that, despite its inviting cover-line ('200 Naked Nymphs Invade Middle America!') is mostly phone-sex ads, along with some dewy vulval close-ups and cum-shot tableaux. White's contribution to the Cheri holiday issue is an eight-page pictorial depicting a space-alien babe playing - sort of - with three otherworldly dildo worms. We know she's an alien because her body is painted blue and her hair is covered by a spotted, skin-like skullcap; otherwise she's got all the right equipment. The pucker-faced worms ('arousalites' according to the captions) emerge from a kind of egg in the middle of a big white room, and over a succession of photos wrap themselves around Femalien's limbs causing her great, if inexplicable, sexual pleasure.
Despite the model's colouring and the spaceship set's bright fluorescent lighting, the photos in Femalien are no different in tone from the staged masturbatory scenes elsewhere in the magazine. (One difference, however, is the unusual cost of all that body paint and foam rubber, borne by Cheri in the name of Art.) Nevertheless, the gallery's press release is full of high-flown nuttiness about the 24 year-old artist's virtuoso (and precocious) merging of pop culture and fine art, billing Femalien as an orgiastic explosion of cultural taboo-busting and high wire intellectual gunplay. In reality, White has succeeded only in reproducing the kind of workaday smut that might have appeared in television's Star Trek - the old generation.
For all his impressive ambition, White - currently an MFA student at Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena - succumbs to the primary fiction proffered by all academic art institutions: that conceptual art is a skill which can be taught. (Teaching someone to be an artist is like teaching them to be funny: in the end it's all in the delivery.) Despite what the professors say, out here in the world, an artwork's success is hardly ever about whether its political message or subversive scheme comes full circle or not. In part, this is because so many things can get screwed up along the way - for worseor for better. A case in point: when I went to check out White's magazine at the gallery, I assumed I could just pick it up for free and - ahem - study it in the privacy of my own home. Absolutely not, says the gallery attendant. You gotta buy it, just like a real store. It's all part of White's conceptual plan. Game, I ask exactly where my six dollars will be going - to Cheri, I assume? Nope, says she, White still gets the cash, but he'll be donating it to a 'charity to be named later'.
And it gets worse. I ask where the original photos are. Can I see them? Are they for sale? No and no. Same deal - it's all part of the concept. But then a little French guy saunters up; his shoes are worth more than my entire ensemble. Frenchie wants to buy one of the original photos as 'a Christmas gift for someone'. The gallery staff immediately offers to give him White's home phone number.
During the past few years, there's been serious critical discussion about the value and yes, avant-guardism of popular entertainment culture, despite its inherent compromise: e.g. the need to put profit and often, the lowest common denominator, above all else. Some artists and curators have taken this to mean that glomming on to entertainment - bringing it in as a stand-alone reference or lauding it as either better or simply different from visual art - is a clever and cool thing to do. But that's not how it works. Uncritically championing entertainment is as bad as dumping ad hominem critique upon it. There is a fertile and interesting middle ground between popular culture and visual art, but to get there one must intimately understand, and more importantly, respect both poles. This entails an acknowledgement that not all entertainment is the same, and that not all consumers of it are either.
As for pornography, some artists have figured it out: Robert Mapplethorpe made porn but refused to call it that, which made things interesting; Jeff Koons did the same, but he was pornographic to begin with, so it all evened out in the end. Perhaps the best example is Matthew Barney, who succeeds in melding the universally tastiest aspects of porn - fresh-faced young women, rippling male glutes, Vaseline and bondage, to name a few - with the safe and intellectually flattering impression that you're still looking at art. So it can be done. But in White's case, crowing 'look at me' while slumming it is not nearly enough.
First published in Issue 33