Rachel Maclean Hates Good Taste
The Glasgow-based artist's new film, "Make Me Up," is a bubblegum pink feminist fantasia.
“I like bad taste! And I really don’t like good taste,” artist Rachel Maclean, sweet and earnest, explained to a coiffed and contoured mall shopper. “It pisses me off, the whole idea of good taste: there’s a snobbiness to it because it implies other people have bad taste, but somehow you have a superior eye for things.” The shopper had drifted into Maclean’s temporary studio at the Bullring megamall in Birmingham, England. She may have gotten more than she bargained for.
Maclean does not pursue her crusade against the tyranny of good taste by half measures. Of her film works, the description that pops most readily to mind is “grotesque“ (though “funny“ and “disturbing“ follow close behind). The Glasgow-based artist has makeup, costume, and lip-synch skills worthy of Drag Race, but is as likely to transform herself into a gargoyle as a glamazon.
A documentary film crew followed Maclean for the month she spent at the Bullring last year. By the end, she was approaching the public dressed as a nightmarish “satisfaction bunny“ in a corpulent fun fur rodent costume with straggly yellow facial hair and gremlin teeth straight out of bad trip.
Ahead her new exhibition in London, Maclean’s blue-streaked hair is cut in a neat Sassoon bob, sharply offset by dangling smiley face earrings and violet hosiery. For her show, the Zabludowicz Collection — a polite neoclassical sandstone building — has been redecorated like a garish wedding marquee straight out of a 1980s soap opera.
The gallery’s old chapel space is hung in swags of cobalt and canary-yellow satin dressed with huge floppy bows above a floor carpet that glitters like Lurex. A Barbie Dreamhouse aesthetic dominates a back gallery so intensely pink, it’s like being swallowed. Between the two is a VR suite decorated with Union Jack doormats where Maclean presents an immersive new commission set in a virtual London constructed from tourist tat.
The color palettes relate to film works projected in situ. In the blue and yellow is Spite Your Face. Debuted last year at the Venice Biennale, it’s a looped fable charting the rise and fall of a lying, sexually-abusive puppet as he becomes the most powerful, “best-loved“ figure in the land. Maclean’s new film, Make Me Up, is a feminist fantasia featuring muted dancers in Harajuku costumes, extreme plastic surgery, VERY nasty sausages, and the voice of the British art historian Kenneth Clark. It is, like the room it’s projected in, overwhelmingly bubblegum pink with accents of sky blue.
“I like using colors people associate with femininity and telling them that they need to take this seriously,” says Maclean over tea sipped through highly-pigmented red lipstick. “I think people dismiss the feminine as silly or frivolous. Why should you default to a ‘masculine’ color palette to be taken seriously?”
(I wonder, by extension, what impact this has had on how Maclean’s work is read in the art world, with its pervasive misogyny and desperate craving to be taken seriously? Despite a solo display at Tate, an upcoming outing at the National Gallery, and the Venice gig, she’s not represented by a commercial gallery. Are the black suits unable to see beyond the pink frills?)
Spite Your Face was made in the aftermath of Trump’s election and the UK’s Brexit vote, both of which rewarded audacious falsehoods with public approval and political power. “When you were a kid you had an idea that adults knew what they were doing and that the people in power were equipped to make decisions,” says Maclean. “That’s been smashed to pieces: the people leading us are walking into a shitstorm.”
Maclean’s modern day Pinocchio covers his corruption with the beguiling perfume of “Truth.“ As his nose grows, so does public adoration. “Truth,“ coincidentally, is also the name of the perfume Stormy Daniels released this June, a life-imitates-art echo that Maclean finds “really weird—it even looks like the perfume in Spite Your Face.”
The pivotal scene is a sexual assault in which Maclean, hidden under layers of latex and prosthetics, plays both characters, an experience she found unexpectedly disturbing. In the months after Spite Your Face, the Harvey Weinstein revelations unfolded, and the #MeToo movement gathered force. “People’s attitude to sexual violence has changed: the rape scene is something people now bring up with me a lot more,” she says. “I like it when artworks change according to the political context.”
In Make Me Up she performs with the voice of Kenneth Clark, whose 1960s TV show, Civilisation, celebrated a Western white male view of human creativity that Maclean—complete with magenta beehive, meat cleaver, and smirk—gleefully sends up. “If you break down civilization, who loses?” she asks. “The people benefitting from that power structure.” She enjoys playing arrogant twats— perhaps most memorably the former British Prime Minister David Cameron: “There’s a degree of satire and piss-take,” she says, but it’s also oddly empowering. “You get their sense of power and certainty.”
The “male gaze“ in Make Me Up becomes universalized and non-gendered surveillance. Disembodied eyes descend from the ceiling to track and judge the characters’ behavior. Maclean suggests this gaze has now been internalized. “There’s a lot of self-surveillance,” she says. “When you’re maintaining an alter ego online that needs to be maintained with new photos and videos, it’s almost surveillance-level documentation of your own existence.”
By coincidence, Maclean’s exhibition launches the same week as The Circle, a British reality show conducted entirely within the medium of social media, where, as the slogan goes, “Being ’liked’ is everything.“ It sounds dangerously like the premise for one of her dystopian artworks, in which social approval and personal information become forms of currency and nourishment. Real life is catching up with Maclean’s grotesque fictions almost as fast as she produces them.
Rachel Maclean, Zabludowicz Collection, London, September 20–December 16