Adorned in Dreams: Deborah Paauwe's The Crying Room
Deborah Paauwe's recent photography draws together flesh and fabric. It is at this junction that the significant relationship between textiles and the human body becomes an interface to the social world. This new collection of images continues the artist's highly refined visual strategy of young, female, headless bodies in contrast with cloth, objects and other skin. However, this time there is more of an emphasis on image styling. In The Crying Room the arrangement of carefully selected components raise purple, peach, green, pink and red tulle, velvet and chiffon to a key position along side the human elements of Paauwe's images. These fabrics lie with the bodies of the artist's subjects, in, on and around them. The peaks and troughs of net and pile are a soft but tangible landscape setting for a new, capricious, world created by Paauwe.
In light of this, The Crying Room - a series of ten large square type C photographs - resembles another genre of image making driven by temporal scrambling, image fetishism and the drive for desire and illusion: fashion photography. This series skates along the rim of fashion imagery more than any of her previous bodies of work. Indeed, The Crying Room might be said to evoke fashion photography's key principles, where the powers of seduction lie in an ability to veil the real and create a dream space where viewers lose themselves in fantasy and reverie.
Photographer Richard Avedon once described his role at Vogue as 'selling dreams, not clothes'. Fashion advertising is not concerned with cataloguing the everyday or with facts, instead, it "hides the origins of things." It is this template that seems to offer the most productive window through which to view Paauwe's photographs. There are a growing number of fashion photographers, that, like Paauwe generate images that snare desire without the aid of an obvious commodity object. Instead, they exist on the level of the sign and tempt viewers through the construction of mesmerising enigma.
Fashion academic Caroline Evans writes that the fashion commodity has "evolved into a mutant form with the capacity to insert itself into a wider network of signs". Under these terms, fashion is a prolific virus with the power to infiltrate already highly symbolic zones. According to Evans, this mutable identity is defined by fashion's large web of relations and ability to define itself "as image, as cultural capital, as consumer goods, as fetish, art exhibition, item on breakfast television, show invitation, or collectable magazine". Art photographs such as Paauwe's that share an appearance with fashion imagery then, might find an entry point into this system of relayed signs, suggesting a kind of image power that exists only outside the white walls of a gallery.
Whereas in past series by Paauwe they have played a key role, the absence of children now moves the uncertain narrative that is a central feature of her work to an adult fantasy. Here the risk or anxiety associated with viewing faceless, splayed bodies can be an issue of semi-subversive engagement without such high moral ties as the bodies seem to unselfconsciously invite scrutiny. Images of the adult body can be pushed even to the brink of death and humiliation in the name of mass-consumed viewing pleasure as the fashion photographs of Izima Kaoru and Juergen Teller show. Paauwe uses this tension and invites that same pleasure on two levels. The surface register combines young smooth flesh in a opulent setting of rich fabrics while the layer of detail that sits beyond is what 'pricks' us, the punctum that Roland Barthes described.
Bitten nails that leave long figures with protein stumps, a red back rash and too big veins are snippets of the 'real' which Paauwe uses to draw us further into the image for long, close looking. Such 'defects' in the beauty so consciously realised are left to wrestle in a game of fascination and repugnance while the little ruptures they induce are dazzling. Paauwe plays on the fact that the commodification of desire most often leads to the promotion of relentlessly similar beauty icons. Her models shed their status as the human embodiment of the dress-maker's dummy and in fact invite a kind of unpleasure when we see beyond the airbrushing and other touch-ups that characterise most fashion photography.
Paauwe's two female characters, and their sexy slothful state, have a secretive, far-away feeling that is a mixture of youthful self-interestedness and ennui. The women wear floaty dresses with ruffled necklines and waist-ties in antique cream silks. These garments are so strongly infused with nostalgia and an infantilism that the appearance of the women's loosely draped fabrics, their glossy tumbling hair and the invitation to pry into their secret whispers and actions, prompt a range of psychic, voyeuristic and fetishistic affects. Paauwe's stagecraft turns these girl-women into image objects, from their previous role as live beings. Moreover, our access to these figures is given a heightened sense of prying interference when we consider the title of the new series. Crying Rooms are sound-proofed areas in cinemas and churches, designed to dull the sound of crying babies. Seemingly, Paauwe has put us in the position of watching two women weep who do not want to be found out.
Fashion photography can be a kind of guillotine for women's bodies that dissects an image so as to extract key information. In the sixteenth century, this kind of dismembering took place in a blazon, a type of poem that described the body parts of a woman. When traded between poets, the blazon created an image of women through their selected anatomy, not unlike the experience of flicking through a fashion magazine. Paauwe's amputated bodies, and the way her camera selects only slices of cocked and prone postures is perhaps a modern day blazon; a poem to women's bodies that forms an epic work in light of an oeuvre of odes to cropped figures. She offers visual pleasure but asks how such a response and its inherent instability and transience resonates in the present.
© Kate Rhodes 2006
Kate Rhodes is Curator at Craft Victoria. She was formerly a curator of photography and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria from 2001-06.