Tuesday, 30 August 2011

'Warhol and the Diva' at The Lowry Galleries

There’s no need to consider everything that shows at Lowry Galleries in the context of Lowry himself, but it’s no bad starting point. I’m not the biggest Lowry fan, I like my working classes to have real faces, my favourite pieces are the portraits rather than the grim matchstick effigies. As you move through the Lowry collection on your way to ‘Warhol and the Diva’ though, take a good look around, at his portrait work in particular. The selection of Warhol pieces brought together for the first time under the banner ‘Warhol and the Diva’ have more in common than you might think with the gallery’s namesake.

Lowry’s pieces record anonymity, Warhol’s subject is international celebrity, but Warhol’s transference of faces from starched death-mask Polaroids to too-perfect, gaudy block-coloured multiple reproductions is an exercise in reductive (and seductive) celebrity branding. How many versions of Jane Fonda or Marilyn are necessary to efface the original, the ‘real’ version? Suddenly the less-than-unique duplicate figures peopling the adjacent gallery don’t seem at such a remove.

Lowry painted people he saw around him every day, and so did Warhol – Joan Collins and Debbie Harry were the people he saw every day. Warhol conferred particular status on his subjects through imitation and (mass) reproduction, and the connection between Lowry’s factories and Warhol’s Factory is one consciously drawn upon in our own cultural heritage. Factory Records was a postmodern morphing of those two disparate places.

Enough about Manchester though, the modest gallery space here seems far from any Northern city. The décor is part MOMA, part boudoir. The rooms have been fantastically adapted to house work ranging from screen prints and Polaroids to film and sketches – a movie room, corridor and walls of blown-up monochrome snapshots complement loud technicolour prints. Warhol’s trash aesthetic and love of genuine glamour were at scintillating odds through his career and the same applies in the kitsch yet considered presentation of this collection.

The corridor of reproduction ‘Interview’ magazine covers is a surprise highlight – the mass reproduction represented by magazines is something even Warhol’s screen-print Factory days could not have matched (but which Manchester’s printing presses easily could.) Liza and the Marilyns are exhilaratingly iconic of course, but stand also in migrained glory before Pia Zadora, rendered in the colour of children’s toys. The naff cache of Zadora and the questionably talented Lorna Luft have an inherent camp value only a queer sensibility like Warhol’s could sense the value of.

The theme of ‘Diva’ pulls the collection neatly together. Jagger and Divine take their anrodgynous place under this banner, as does Warhol himself in the seldom-seen Christopher Makos portraits that chronicle Andy in make-up and partial drag. The movie installation shows the lengthy preparation for the original photoshoot – Andy has false eyelashes and heavy white make-up applied in a kind of mesmerising but much-improved version of his early endurance-testing movie work.

It’s not unthinkable that the term ‘Diva’ itself might continue to evolve under such observations – from its origins describing a lead female opera star, later to the gutsy heart-and-soul female icons of the disco era, to its current besmirched condition as a term connoting any belligerent female celebrity. It may one day go on to mean a powerful feminine or androgynous presence – such as one that might have been immortalised by the artist Andy Warhol …

‘Warhol and the Diva’ is showing at The Lowry Galleries until Sunday 25 September. Entry is free.

Images: Top, 'Portrait of Ann' by L. S. Lowry, bottom 'Liza Minelli' by Andy Warhol, ca. 1978, Collection of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

Thanks to Catherine Braithwaite and Kate Farrell for the viewing.

No comments: