The Daily Beast
When They Were Young
by Olivia Cole
17 December 2009
Acclaimed British painter Annie Kevans imagines the inner child of celebrities, dictators, and presidents. From Michael Jackson to George W. Bush to Hitler (VIEW OUR GALLERY).
Five years ago, the famed British art collector Charles Saatchi bought Annie Kevans’ Boys show in its entirety. The work featured paintings of the world’s greatest dictators—from Hitler to Ceaucescu to Pol Pot —in their younger and more vulnerable, and crucially, for her brand of weirdly unsettling portraiture, prettier years.
Since that first show, her work has been bought by other serious collectors from David Roberts and original YBA Mark Quinn in London to French photographer/playboy Jean Pigozzi. Kevans is now represented in the U.S. by Perry Rubenstein (her first solo show in New York will be in February) and at Art Basel Miami Beach, the gallery sold three paintings to John McEnroe.
The private view for Kevans’ latest show, Ship of Fools, took place on an icy night in the shadow of Tower Bridge, on the Golden Hinde, a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship. Here was Sylvia Plath (in her blond, overachieving college years) in the ship’s prow, Ernest Hemingway (almost unrecognizably young, slim, and handsome), Picasso , Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Disraeli, and Churchill, both of whom suffered from crippling depression. And here were the usual private-view crowd, stooped and clambering around the ship’s tiny cabins, high heels making the ladders potentially lethal. Like much of her works—mass killers who appear completely innocent, or child stars who, with their black underwear and red lipstick, seem to give the viewer the come-on— Ship of Fools, quite literally, put Kevans’ viewers in an uncomfortable place.
This gallery of breakable brilliant people is now on show until December 23 at the Fine Art Society on Bond Street. A few hundred years ago, she reminds me, “mad” people “were put on ships, sent off abroad, and just basically thrown out of the community. And that’s where the original idea came from.” (Foucault’s Madness and Civilization was key to her thinking.) Far from buying into the stigma, her literal ship, was, she maintains, “supposed to make you think about the horror of it.” Selecting her gifted subjects, she was struck by “how much poorer society would have been without them,” and wondered, as the viewer can't help but do, what might have happened if they had been born in the wrong century.
Comparing the faces of Kevans’ “fools” and her audience, the first question, one wonders if she buys into the oft-quoted belief that great art can only come out of suffering? “Do I think that their brilliance pushed them over the edge?” the 36-year-old British artist asks. “No.” Could her subjects be brilliant because they were more complex in the first place? “No!” she laughs. “There is that kind of idea but if you look at the percentage there are so many people who are not mentally ill who are extremely talented and successful.’”
With their black spells though, and untimely tragic deaths (from Plath to Jackson, Jackson Pollock, Hemingway and Monroe and Michael Jackson) gathered in sad company like this, that romantic idea of the genius for whom the world is too much, seems just one of the easy structures over which she paints an arch question.
From the depiction of childhood innocence in her sepia-toned Boys series, to the sexualization of childhood in Girls, to public vs. private morality in her 2008 Volta show All the President’s Girls (which featured portraits of presidential mistresses, from Sally Hemings to Monica Lewinsky), Kevans’ real motivation is “how we deal with things and how things change very quickly. I think that’s the main thing about my work, it’s always, really, about how we treat people: how we treat each other, and how things become acceptable." Today’s incarceration in institutions, is yesterday’s ship heading off to who knew where.
Despite the famous names she has depicted from Bush to Saddam, Shirley Temple to Jodie Foster, celebrity, she says, isn’t the point. The famous faces become a kind of shorthand: “It’s as though if you use a familiar face, suddenly everyone knows what you are talking about,” she explains.
Girls, for example, included a brilliantly prophetic depiction of young Britney Spears’ breakability. Spears was one of several dozen uncanny and unsettling depictions of child stars: exploited yet cleverly exploitative of the viewer too, as many of them (from the Olsen twins to Brooke Shields circa Pretty Baby) are far sexier (or trying to be) than they should be at that age. Kevans’ depictions face up to what Hollywood has often skirted around.
The ideas take on far more power through her technique. Her oil paintings have the lightest of touches, and look more like pencil drawings or watercolors than canvases loaded with paint, which creates a kind of tenderness. With faces, she tries to make her portraits appear as they do when you are talking to someone. The eyes are key, in her pictures, “because when you look at a person, the eyes always stand out as much stronger than anything else on the face. Originally I was just trying to capture facial features as you seem them.” That sense of intimate encounter makes her work powerfully affecting.
If there’s consolation in her new series, it’s perhaps that we are all mad now. Several of her subjects, (Darwin, for instance) are silent victims of posthumous diagnosis. “I love it.” she enthuses, slightly outraged. “It’s like you can die sane, and then 200 or 500 years later someone will diagnose you as insane and that’s it. I think it's hilarious. Everyone has to have a label these days.” It’s testament to Kevans and her strange ability to get inside the headlines and emerge with art as beautiful as it is unsettling, that it’s awfully hard to think up a label for her. Is she a YBA? Portrait painter? Pop artist?
“With celebrities, too, now, there are all sorts of illnesses that have just become quite fashionable,” she muses. “There’s a kind of thing where say they’ve drunk too much or they’ve had terrible relationships, especially in America, they are all coming out and saying, 'Well, I’ve just been diagnosed as bipolar and that’s why I did all those things.'” It’s a bold point, but I can’t help think that there’s some truth in the idea that fragility is to a celebrity (and/or his lawyer) who has trashed a hotel suite, what “intolerance” can be to a pathological refusal to eat, and what sex addiction is to a love rat.
Tiger Woods, there’s an Annie Kevans portrait in your future.