The work of Rachel Maclean is made of sugar and spice and all things gleefully eccentric, with a hint of black humour thrown in to season her aesthetic cauldron. On one level, her work appears to re-present that fantastical domain which you would be transported to were you to mount the winged, commercial Pegasus of My Little Pony. Maclean's work at first appears to be positioned "somewhere over the rainbow" but on closer inspection we quickly realise that this particular brand of Munchkinland is all masquerade, and that the Wicked Witch of the (capitalist) West has run off with the ruby slippers. Here fantasy is used to tease and ultimately poke fun at our reality. Maclean's work occupies the bridge between the sticky sweetie wrappers of little girls' sleepover parties and the garish nightmare of late capitalism. The work is at once nauseating and knowing. It subverts from within and claws at the safety valve of our civilised screen (Foster, 1996, 113). As the artist herself explains, it marks that moment of rupture, that inevitable, tragic moment of postmodern hysteria when the precocious princess of pop shaves her head, attacks a car with an umbrella, then lets it all hang out on the graphic dissection table of cheap, glossy magazine covers. Pure post-pop-surrealism, the work of Rachel Maclean offers a version of kitsch that has been complicated; fetishistic surfaces that have been surgically enhanced and somehow injected with creative depth.
The pressing question for my purposes is this: can we realistically build an aesthetic theoretical framework around this practice or does it lie deliberately beyond the realm of comprehension? It is possible that theory can neither accommodate nor keep up with this digitally enhanced imagery; academically sanctioned, regurgitated postmodern assemblages of hybrid culture lag miles behind this unique aesthetic. The work is beyond the "faked sensations" of Greenbergian explanations of kitsch (1939), and seems to disrupt the reproductive logic of the Baudrillardian simulacrum (1968). The bastardised intertext pushes parody to its limits. As Susan Stewart reminds us: "both kitsch and camp imply the imitation, the inauthentic, the impersonation" (1993, 168), but here the grotesque carnivalesque ogres, in the fancy dress box of Maclean's imagination, obliterate any straightforward attempts at cultural classification.
Maclean's practice marks an important moment for the feminist project though, in the parlance of the last 30 years, one might question what exactly do we "wanna"? The roll-call of "high" art historical references (Bosch, Michelangelo, Poussin) blends all too smoothly with those dystopic icons of 1980s' and 90s' "girl power": Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and more recent exaggerations of the sugar pop industry and generational continuum: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, et al, whose music has become as, if not more, reliant on methods of visualisation in its dissemination. Lauper's (somewhat under-developed) early 80s thesis proposes that "fun" might be the goal of the third-wave feminist message. Maclean's work should certainly be viewed this way first and foremost, especially in its ventriloquized lip-synching of well-known lyrics and comedy sketches, and in its playful uses of props, digital deities, jewel-encrusted shrines, flamenco dancewear and fluffy bear costumes. Indeed it is hard to think of another example of when sheer tastelessness has been served up so deliciously.
Maclean forms part of a confident generation of Scottish feminist practice. As a direct contemporary, I have to admit that I find myself turning instinctually to my intellectual mothers for guidance in the navigation of her garish landscapes and their inhabitants. In many ways the film theorist Laura Mulvey's essay on Cindy Sherman, 'Cosmetics and Abjection' (1996), could be re-read with Maclean's work in mind – Sherman no doubt a visual soul-mate of Maclean. For example, the "gradual collapse of surface" (72) in Mulvey's text and Sherman's photographs is mirrored in Maclean, as is the use of "soft-core pastiche" (69) "nostalgia" (66) and, once again and most importantly, "fun" (65). They appear to share a visual vocabulary and speak a similar language in which words often fail. Like Sherman, Maclean is the only actor/model in her work. The costumes, prostheses, and face-paint are reminiscent of Sherman's Old Masters and fairy tale series but the overall mood of a Maclean seems more akin to Sherman's later bulimic pictures.
When discussing the vulnerable "blonde clown," a staple of the Sadeian pornographic imagination, the writer Angela Carter was prompted to evoke the chamber-pot of Jonathan Swift's Celia and the revelation that this otherwise perfect specimen of feminine wiles should shit like everyone else: "how can it be possible such a precious being, all angel and no ape, should ever do such a thing? God must be very cruel to shatter our illusions so" (1979, 74). Here Maclean's fallen angels and earth-bound Care Bears not only defecate but wallow in the multi-coloured excrement of commodity culture. Carter's flatulent trapeze artist, Fevvers, offers another archetype for Maclean's myriad characters, especially this new body of defecating damsels. Here the fairy tale has dropped its veneer and the monstrous bursts forth and runs riot; that moment in the dream or narrative logic when we realise that the anti-dote will only transform the bogey into something more ominous and even more terrifying.
This text was commissioned to accompany "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!", a solo show at "The Jenny Haniver Gallery" in Aberdeenshire, Summer 2012.
Warm thanks to Dr. Alison Rowley for an illuminating conversation, and Jim Livingstone for opening a porthole for the cultural imagination in Aberdeenshire. Long may it continue.
Dr. Catriona McAra is Research Assistant in Cultural Theory at the University of Huddersfield. She recently completed her PhD on Dorothea Tanning and Surrealism at the University of Glasgow, and currently works with several emerging and established artists including Tessa Farmer, Nikos Mantzios, Robert Powell, and Aberdeen-born photographer Alicia Bruce.