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Postcards From London

January 25, 2011

Kitty Hudson reviews two new shows exploring the postcard as an artistic medium.

Gilbert and George’s ‘Urethra Postcard Art’ and Rob and Nick Carter’s ‘Postcards From Vegas’ opened simultaneously last week at White Cube and the Fine Art Society respectively, pushing the postcard to centre stage in the contemporary art world. Both use this form to create bold, colourful and witty statements about the modern world. So is this pure coincidence or does it mark the beginning of a new trend?

Using postcards in art is certainly no new concept; British Surrealist Roland Penrose introduced the postcard as an autonomous object into his art in the late 1930s (see Untitled, 1937). This was an offshoot of the Cubists’ use of everyday materials in their collages, and of photographs by Dada artists such as Hannah Höch. By arranging the postcards in repetitive clusters or at a particular angle, Penrose took them out of context and forced them to play two different roles: they have an identity (and imagery) in their own right while also becoming part of the painting as a whole. It is the dissonance between these two identities that interested Penrose as a Surrealist, and makes the postcard eminently well-suited to the Surrealist mindset: as a ‘found object’, arbitrary, irrational and spontaneous, which juxtaposes clichéd images to open up associations in the subconscious – the supreme goal of Surrealist art.

Even Gilbert and George’s use of this mode is almost 40 years old; they began their ‘postcard sculptures’ in 1972 with a similar approach to that of Penrose, assembling quirky collaged compositions of reverberating images. However, their present return to postcard art lacks innovation; the endless repetition is visually striking in the manner of pop art – think Warhol’s soup cans – but the content is simply not interesting enough. Rather than ‘infusing’ the work with ‘a still confrontational libertarianism’ as the exhibition catalogue claims, the unifying theme of the urethra symbol seems entirely irrelevant and rather facile, a gimmick selected to add the requisite ‘shock’ value to an otherwise anodyne offering (see Big Ben Flagsky, 2009, right). There is nothing that energises the rigid arrangements; any ironic comment relies entirely on the combination of sordid or tacky cards with the pseudo-scientific mode of display, and on the vaguely disturbing realisation that the functions of the cards chosen (promoting either prostitution or ‘Britishness’) sometimes coalesce.

Rob and Nick Carter take a different approach to the postcard. Rather than using it as an everyday object to be incorporated into a work of art, the postcard itself is the work of art, here presented as a cibachrome print on a large scale. Superimposing incongruous neon signs enlivens these retro images with a witty humour and visual flair (see below: Pink Flamingo, 2011). The saturated colour and imagery of tourist resorts and seedy entertainment bring to mind the photography of Martin Parr, but these works inevitably lack Parr’s originality and his sympathetic eye for the idiosyncrasies of human nature. They provide serious visual impact, but no intellectual depth or cultural comment.

Without doubt the simple picture postcard offers a multitude of artistic possibilities. But it works best when it is absorbed into a work of art and is given an identity at odds with its function in the everyday world, sparking associations and provoking thought.

Urethra Postcard Art runs until 19 February 2011 date at White Cube, Mason’s Yard.

Postcards from Vegas is showing at the Fine Art Society until 15 February 2011.

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