Studio Voltaire, London, UK
Since his time with the incendiary 1990s art collective BANK, Simon Bedwell has perfected a toned-down but still rebarbative critique of advertising and interior decoration. His détourned posters are re-workings of the sort of high street advertisements that use images of scantily clad women to sell everything from toothpaste to mortgages, but with all extraneous text and branding obscured beneath bilious screeds of paint. If these images are wanton, Bedwell’s home décor is equally flirtatious: angular modernist furniture is muscular and macho, chairs are feminine, and incidental baubles wink invitingly. Everything is inscribed with this code; nothing designed is innocent.
For his exhibition ‘The Asphalt World’ at Studio Voltaire, Bedwell arranged posters and furnishings into seven tableaux, each entitled Grammar of Ornament (all works 2009). The title refers to a design guide penned by Owen Jones in 1856, which introduced exotic Arabic motifs into Victorian architecture. Scattered around are objects such as rattan stools and tropical seashells that suggest an imaginary, alluring Orient. There’s Eastern promise too in the posters: in one, a woman washes her hair exultantly beneath a palm tree; in another, a nubile figure reclines suggestively on a vast rattan chair. Beneath her you can discern the legend ‘Emmanuelle’– a series of popular softcore porn films from the 1970s. These powerful exploitative stereotypes (Orientalism, porn, advertising) possess what Pierre Bourdieu has called ‘symbolic violence’: social or cultural domination through images, literature or symbolic acts. Bedwell’s installation suggests that if these are removed from their specific contexts (the street or the home) by re-location to a gallery context, their covert powers can be undermined.
A fine coating of storeroom dust clings to many of these objects; a peppering that suggests failure and obsolescence. A stack of Playboy magazines is trapped beneath a ceramic foot; clay pots collapse impotently under their own weight or are shaped, amusingly, like oversized testicles. Rust eats into a metal clothes rack, feet have dirtied a carpet, a suite of seedy get-fit videos sit on a coffee table. Yet despite the deflationary aesthetic, Bedwell’s prognosis isn’t all doom and gloom. ‘The Asphalt World’, which shares its title with a 1994 song by the band Suede, telling of a man’s inability to woo a woman away from her new female lover, nods to an alternative masculinity. In this model, pop stars from David Bowie to Suede’s Brett Anderson buoy their self-image with small acts of vandalism against a heterosexual monoculture. Bedwell destabilizes gender roles not by offering alternatives (like Bowie or Anderson) but by turning heterosexual culture into a grotesque parody of itself. At Studio Voltaire (which occupies one end of a still-functioning chapel), Bedwell’s art seems transgressive and profane. Glamour girls transubstantiate into weeping Madonnas, stools into pews, and one fantastic object – a cast mannequin arm with a heap of mints nestling in its armpit – into a corrupted relic. The icons of religion, advertising and design merge; nothing is sacred in Bedwell’s ‘Asphalt World’.