CRASS Art and Other Pre Post-Modernist Monsters
Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch
Monday, April 24 2000, 3:55 PM
Best known for her involvement with the anarchist punk band CRASS, Gee Vaucher is an artist who combines photo-montage with more traditional illustrator's techniques to comment on the hypocrisy of our world. In this era of Photoshop manipulation, the feel of this sort of work can be reproduced with relative ease, making it hard to remember just how difficult it was to make a good montage in the pre-computer era. But although the skill that went into Vaucher's art may have been obscured by our technological prowess, the art impresses on its own terms.
The iconography of most of the art in this book should be familiar to anyone with a knowledge of 80s punk culture: British and world leaders; advertisements and publicity stills turned inside out to reveal the deceptions they conceal; the truth of pornography revealed in female bodies broken down into bits and pieces; and the hot topics of the day, such as the war in the Falkland Islands and the ongoing strife in Northern Ireland. What sets Vaucher apart from other punk collagists of that era is her facility -- a product of her schooling as an artist -- for imparting a professional sheen to her subjects. In contrast to the ripped-and-pasted look of early punk posters, Vaucher's aesthetic makes room for subtleties of light and shadow. Even at its most fragmented, it exudes a smoothness foreign to most punk art.
I suppose this is another way of saying that Vaucher's work is not afraid to be beautiful. But whereas the beauty of political art can undermine its message, the beauty in her work actually seems to reinforce it. This can be attributed to the fact that she does such a good job of recontextualizing the icons she deploys. One of my favorite pieces is the inside poster she made for the CRASS single "Bloody Revolutions," which features an image of four vintage punks leaning against a wall -- except that the heads on these leather and chain-clad bodies are the beaming visages of Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, the Statue of Liberty, and Margaret Thatcher. The power of this image derives from the fact that it's not a photo-montage at all, but an original gouache with the look of photo-realism. Had the heads just been pasted onto another photograph, the effect would have been more obvious and less unsettling.
When Vaucher does use photo-montage, she tends to foreground that fact by playing up the contrast between different images instead of locking them together in a seamless whole. This makes it easier for her to comment on the dominance that commercial images exert in our "society of the spectacle." The inside poster for the CRASS live album Stations of the Cross is a good example, combining photographs from advertising culture, reproductions of famous works of art such as a nude by the nineteenth-century French painter Ingres, and a border made up of grainy shots of CRASS in performance. The contrast between the gloss of the central images and the grit of the CRASS photos invites us to interrogate the production of beauty, while at the same time attesting to the possibility of making something beautiful out of an interrogation.
Not all the pieces in the book are from Vaucher's CRASS era. We get to see a few things she did in art school, some commercial illustrations for the likes of Rolling Stone completed during a stint in New York during the mid-70s, and samples of her recent work, which veers towards a more explicitly feminist concern with the representation of the female body. While I suspect that the CRASS pieces will be the most interesting to people who peruse the book, the fact that they are contextualized in relation to Vaucher's work as a whole gives them added depth. All in all, a fine book which anybody interested in the history of punk art would be proud to possess.
CRASS Art is available from AK Press