In 1965, Andy Warhol turned his camera on Edie Sedgwick, pressed play and walked away. The result was Poor Little Rich Girl, a listless portrait of the model and socialite presented through an indecipherable array of documentary film and performance, video art and cinema. The first 33 minutes of the film, notably shot completely out of focus, present a weary Segdwick slowly waking up, talking on the phone, applying make-up, smoking cigarettes and modelling various outfits – her existence thus publically exhibited as wholly unremarkable, stereotypically girlish and saturated with boredom.
Yet, somehow, situated amongst her possessions and daily rites – freshly squeezed orange juice, marijuana, the Everly Brothers, friends that remain strictly out of the frame – Segdwick is mesmerizing, responding to the unadulterated, alienated desires of a society that increasingly demanded the commodification of private life. Sedgwick blends into her environment like an impeccably placed prop.
The instrumentalization of girlishness, youth and what Wayne Koestenbaum excellently coined ‘boredom’s erotics’, is central to Julie Beaufils’ exhibition ‘Tu Vois; You Seek’ at Balice Hertling – and invites comparisons to Warhol’s 1965 production. The seven paintings, whose content is pre-empted by an image on the press release featuring a distressed looking Jared Leto from his days in the 1990s cult series My So-Called Life, are impressionistic renderings of feminine figures, arranged in subtle, muted postures across the canvases. These contemplative, nuanced characters are evoked through light brushstrokes and a coquettish palette, with an emphasis placed on cinematic compositions.
Respectively, the paintings are divided like a film reel stuck between frames, or split-screens depicting two equally fragmented portions of an image. Much like Sedgwick, the figures are melancholic, engaged in the vapid daily rites of girlhood: day-dreaming of boys rendered in thought bubbles, jotting notes in a journal, applying make-up, smoking cigarettes or simply lost in thought. The themes are familiar yet eschew any sense of nostalgia. Beaufils instead fast-forwards the image of the young girl into the ’90s through a youthful patois expressed in titles such as a crush toi (a pun on the French ‘accroche-toi’, or: hang in there!), Ex sex expresses excess and How are you say I, just cool say he (all works 2014). In these paintings, the cinematic is replaced by the sitcom, languid movement by quick-witted abstractions and the alienated desire that was Sedgwick’s by a self-valorizing girlishness – a mode of being that permeates the paintings with a sense of both sadness and emptiness.
As a young, female French painter born in 1987, Beaufils’s choice of subject is hardly surprising, particularly considering the recent resurgence of artists concerned with what the French collective Tiqqun termed, in the late ’90s, a ‘Theory of the Young Girl’. Yet, whereas Tiqqun discussed the ‘Young Girl’ as a genderless construct – embodied currency in a value system based on symbolic exchange – Beaufils’s approach avoids the political, clinging instead to an artistic style that embraces the semiotics of girlhood as a strategy through which to flirtatiously – and all too easily – give itself away to the viewer. The result is an assortment of heterogeneous gestures and motifs (cinema, pop culture, beauty, melancholy, Jared Leto, humour, infatuation, melodrama, Modernism and make-up) that are abstracted into a single representation of value.
If, as participants in the art world, we are to accept our complicity with a knowledge-based economy, then surely Beaufils’s expressions of girlhood and semiotic assemblages emerge as some sort of currency – their depth or significance notwithstanding. Beaufils belongs to a generation of painters, particularly those claiming an affinity with abstraction, who rely on semiotic excess and its contextual diffusion to legitimize their work. Painting, under this ethos, becomes somewhat generalized and its valuation process – as Tiqqun suggested in Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl (1999) – surpasses that of traditional capitalism, instead entering into a realm in which value is determined purely by social relevance – or fashion.
The girlish patois of Beaufils’s exhibition consists of visual idioms appropriate to a marketed image of girlhood. The apparent nonchalance of the figures’ expressions and the subdued tones of the palette only contribute further to this: the sensual, living and, at times, almost comic gestures are abstracted into weary submission, forming a very similar relationship with the viewer as Sedgwick’s dispossessed, idle demeanour in Poor Little Rich Girl. Considered in themselves, the paintings are vacuous and distanced (also forms of social currency, no doubt). Yet it is precisely their vacuity that functions as a catalyst for meaning. Instead of insisting on total meaninglessness, however, Beaufils imbues the works with a generational and fetishized ideal of girlhood; one that is critically, and aesthetically, beautiful, but empty.