Jody Paulsen

Water Me

08. 12. 18 – 09. 02. 19

JOHANNESBURG

SMAC Gallery is pleased to present Water Me, a solo exhibition of new works by Jody Paulsen.

‘Water me’ – according to popular culture – is a phrase that refers to when a man or a woman (preferably a man) is “super hot”. It also refers to R and B singer Lizzo’s 2017 hit, ‘Water Me’, which is “a celebration of black beauty and the meaningful freedom of water”. Water Me – Jody Paulsen’s second solo exhibition with SMAC Gallery – is perhaps an embodiment of both of these interpretations, however, with his inclusion of still life depictions of bouquets of flowers, it is most evidently a witty revival of the timeless, symbolic resonance of memento mori – a reminder of death, change, and the irrevocable passing of time.

A continuation of his meditation on ageing, Water Me comes as a derivative exploration of the traditional still life. Like previous bodies of work, this exhibition is an embodiment of the “spirit of now”, revealing a parody of himself as the ever-lasting millennial – especially coming to terms with living, ageing, dying and being successful – through the mediated experience of material consumerism.

Like a traditional still life painting – an art form executed as an affective reminder of the transience of life – Paulsen’s work is imbued with allegorical meaning and (literally) layered symbolism. A recurring motif in Water Me, it is, historically, a coded vocabulary that renders fresh flowers as emblems of death – and yet, for Paulsen, this body of work is not so much about the contrasting of the transient with the ultimatum of death as it is about the contrasting of the beautiful with the inevitability of ageing. He is a millennial doing what millennials do best – ironically complaining about the many challenges, and uncertainty, of successfully navigating contemporary life.

Using felt as his chosen medium, Paulsen’s challenge comes in transforming a traditionally three-dimensional image into a flattened-out, two-dimensional one – while maintaining the characteristics of a still life. However, after the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Marc Quinn, the flower in Paulsen’s work comes as a metaphor for youth, life, love and sex – and seeks to demonstrate the full bounty of life by freezing time in colourful felt cut-outs. Taking inspiration from phrases typically associated with lifestyle and glamour magazines – ‘The Art of Living’ or ‘Find Your Beach’ for example – Paulsen’s work, Soul Cycler, has created a plentiful ensemble capturing still life moments of the spirit of now. Filled with symbolism and allegorical meaning, one could argue that (social) media headlines – online, in print, on television – are contemporary symbols of human fallibility and mortality – not to mention a reflection of the mainstream media’s portrayal of the lazy, bored and narcissistic millennial who gets almost everything for nothing.

Paulsen’s depiction of what may most evidently be the death of beauty (or perhaps the death of beauty standards) speaks of a millennials desire for the ease of eternal youth. Located at the bottom centre of Soul Cycler, surrounded by a bed of flames, and just below a rising sun, is a phoenix – a symbol of renewal, time, the empire, and life in heavenly paradise. However, this phoenix has found itself surrounded by ‘XANAX’, ‘ZOLOFT’, ‘RITALIN’ – all big pharma medications used for treating anxiety of some form – where Paulsen is directly addressing the contradictions and contrasts of eternal beauty against the inevitability of mental maintenance, age, and time, and wittily weighing up the pressure of being young and ambitious.

Surrounded by luscious vegetation, stars, feathers or flames, and combining image and text – Paulsen has created narratives around both self-construction and self-de(con)struction, referencing the very real superficiality associated with social status, career reputation, and financial rank. Holding out for a Hero and Everything is Just Wonderful prove Paulsen’s mocking quest for eternal youth (and the benefits of being young, beautiful and “super hot”) – the attempt to hold on to anything and everything that might slow the crippling effects of time or judgement (a hero or maybe an economical truth) – and begs one to ask, is life nothing more than a series of memes, jokes and lies?

Water Me also sees the introduction of a new image for Paulsen, that of the reclining figure. A portrait of sorts, Lonely in the Canyon is of a suave figure clothed in a wildly patterned three-piece suit, as he lies lazily across a chaise longue which sits atop a carpet of florals in full bloom. Behind the figure is a plane of freshly cut green grass, an almost-sparkling blue pool, and a series of jubilant palm trees. Despite its otherwise title, it is an image of pleasure – surely every millennials dream of ‘pure potential’ – and illustrates today’s image of ideal beauty, status acquired through material consumption, and, of course, the inevitability of beauty’s expiry: death makes us all equal.

Water Me is a generationally specific ironic and sassy exploration of contemporary society – its ills, its treasures, the humans that inhabit it – and seeks to revive the timeless, symbolic resonance of memento mori, recalling “the spirit of now” and its interpretations of success and failure, beauty and age, ambition and laziness, and the permanence of time passing.