Reading Rämistrasse #28: Leila Peacock on Jasmine Gregory at Karma International

A clown walks into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this? Some sort of joke?” The bartender is unsure if he’s in a joke, and, if so, is the joke on him? The clown’s presence alone is unnerving because it implicates everyone present. 

Clowns are disruptors both intentionally and by default. From under their grotesque make-up they are truth-tellers, masked anarchists and wise fools, simultaneously tragic and comic, a perverse  manifestation of the familiar ways we perform ourselves, and the emotional toll it takes. Their heavily-painted faces have been a subject for painters hundreds of years because they are also a conceit for painting itself.

Clowns feature prominently in Jasmine Gregory’s show of paintings at Karma International. The paintings slip and slide threateningly between fun and dread, like an inflatable castle that has been lubed for added LOLS. Even the application of the paint reflects this, sometimes amateurish and naive, other times coming into perfect focus around a single garish detail. 

Her palette hangs on a chemical imbalance of medicinal pinks and toxic greens. A lot of her horizons deploy the laser-green of a distant rave, or a climate apocalypse, or both. Is this the after-party, or the after-after-party, or just the end of the world?

A joke most often signifies a disruption in the symbolic order of things. Gregory’s entire show could be described as a disruption in the symbolic order of things, or the symbolic order of a certain white, Western history of art, on which it is a deft and irreverently histrionic take. The vanitas still-life is present in the particularly beguiling Warshed UP. The red dog in Lifeline from the Outside has all the authority of a Van Dyke royal portrait. Bosch’s demonic sprites are there, peering out from dark backgrounds that recall the high-drama of Caravaggio. Manet’s nude is still reclining, but inside a fart, and with an undecided emoticon for a face. If there is an emoticon for existential angst then this is it. In terms of traditional nomenclature, it’s not surrealism, and calling them figurative also falls flat, they could best be described as history paintings for our times. This is virtual realism, this is reality in drag and giving us ricotta rococo realness. 

Installation view of Jasmine Gregory's exhibition at Karma International

The altarpiece of this show is a work entitled What are y’all wearing to the civil war? It stands at two meters high and swallows you whole. A blue sky-scape of perfectly painted fluffy clouds that circle a swirling dark form, a morose weather system whose two eyes gaze heavenwards beseechingly like a Virgin Mary, begging for divine mercy, but who knows none is coming.

The 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift wrote that ‘satire is a sort of glass where beholders discover every face except their own’. His point being that we like to laugh with a confidence that the derision is not directed at us, we exempt ourselves easily, and yet the best satire does not allow this kind of safe space. Many of the figures in Jasmine Gregory’s paintings have an askance, forlorn look, troubled by their own predicament and their disintegrating bodies. But one, the fortune-witch with the green nails in the painting HBIC  (which stands for Head Bitch In Charge) stares out of the canvas, directly at us, through the fourth wall, with a half-smile that suggests we won’t make it out unharmed. 

In his most famous satirical work, Gulliver’s Travels, Swift portrays an academy of old and ‘learned’ men involved in nonsensical scientific experiments, one of whom says he is trying to reverse engineer human food from excrement. There is some form of similarly maniacal reverse engineering at play in Gregory’s work as she takes an array of contemporary detritus (plastic party paraphernalia, tramp stamps, Linked-in profiles, badly drawn butterflies) and imbues them with a decadence and grandeur that only painting can afford them. To be painted is to be transubstantiated. Gregory reverse engineers these cheap motifs back into the things of beauty from which their diluted aesthetic dialect is derived. 

Installation view of Jasmine Gregory's exhibition at Karma International

The spectre of a certain hellish online digital image culture looms large. The violent aesthetic of traded GIFS, fragments of media ripped from their context and forced to play out the same three-second guffaw, face-drop, raised-eyebrow forever. But also the phenomenon of ‘cursed energy’, which is contemporary parlance for an image that conjures a particular kind of creepy, where the infinite possibilities of the internet congeal into some unholy juxtaposition of disgust and foreboding that is compelling for all the wrong reasons. And beneath all of this there is a pervasive sense of that troll-shaped darkness that seeps from the deepest (butt) cracks of the internet, a sunken place where no one can hear you scream. 

The show's title 'Trouble at Casa Amor' is a quote from the highly popular British reality dating show Love Island. But this well-edited spectacle of beach-bodies and bacardi breezers™ fell under a long shadow when its much-loved presenter committed suicide after her own real-life relationship dramas became tabloid fodder. Love Island is an unwitting morality tale for our times. We long for good old-fashioned romance in a world of alt-right reddit crusaders who trade in LOLZ and factoids. Where the neoliberal logic that defines us tells us the problems we face are our own fault for not being self-motivated enough. A world where consumer desire structures all our #goals, the accumulation of stuff is the salve for the gaping void we cannot map. We live in a world where one in ten people in Europe were conceived in Ikea beds. Self-optimise bitches! But also, GO TEAM! Live your truth, which is in fact a case of choosing the lie you want to live by. A world where Britney stares out at us with her sad confused and pleading eyes from the instagram tower where her father keeps her locked up, and we feel her pain as though it were our own. Where it can often feel as though we are just contestants in our own reality show. Where the boundary between real and unreal is more like fifty shades of shady… and artists be like… oh so now you need us, to help divest you from this nameless horror (insert nail-painting emoji). And this is how everyone feels when the clown walks into that bar, or a gallery called karma, and it’s not funny anymore, because this joke's on you. 

Jasmine Gregory: Trouble at Casa Amor, Karma International, 14 November 2020-23 January 2021

Installation view, Karma International, Zurich 2020, photographer: Annik Wetter; work illustration, Karma International, Zurich 2020, photographer: Flavio Karrer

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15.12.2020