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The Beautiful and Damned: Allan Gardner Searches For The Nuance Lurking Beneath The Sheen of American Celebrity

Allan Gardner is an artist who, in all mediums in which he works (and there are many—painting, sculpture, video, text) approaches both his themes and viewers with empathy and good faith. 

His latest exhibition which showcases artwork alongside Jack Kennedy titled, HE WILL ALWAYS BE MY SON is refreshingly free of any “takes” and tackles difficult topics that a lesser artist might take as an opportunity to moralise or antagonise.

Though the physical exhibition at Leeds’ Village was shuttered due to the UK’s national lockdown in late December, the gallery remains hopeful that the exhibition can reopen later in the year.

We sat down together pre-lockdown to discuss America’s greatest export: pop culture, the adoration and inevitable destruction of celebrities, the need for villains to hate, heroes to love, and the desire to watch terrible things happen to beautiful people.

Just as reductive as the impulse to shoehorn people and their actions into categories of good and evil, is the demand that art and the artist must condone or condemn the subject matter at hand. Instead of capitulating to an oversimplified narrative, Gardner’s work pays his audience the highest respect—allowing them to think for themselves, draw their own conclusions, engage or reject. He aims to understand, not divide. He will continue to build his bridges regardless of who may or may not choose to cross them.

You’ve mentioned before that you feel like an outsider to celebrity culture. The first thing that jumps out at me about the work in this show is its distinct relationship to American celebrity culture, something you’re obviously also outside of.

I don’t really have any particular interest in celebrity culture – I never have. I’m terrible with names of actors, stuff like that. People do ask a lot about the relationship my work has to American pop culture, which has been a major inspiration up to this point.  I think it’s because I grew up in Aberdeen, which is an oil city. Moving there from Glasgow felt like the culture that my family lived in ended for me at a very young age, I moved to a new-build suburb outside of a city where everyone else’s Dad worked on an oil rig, so it didn’t really have the same community. 

I got there and basically just watched TV, I played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and I listened to Eminem – I didn’t really care about anything ‘British’. I didn’t really feel connected to Scottish or English culture, but MTV spoke to me. I wanted to be like the kids in Jackass, not like a footballer. So, making work about American stuff feels natural to me. I might be from the UK but the culture I grew up in was definitively Americanised.

America’s greatest export is pop culture, and specifically, I think crime.

For sure. I think it’s really about narrative, that’s what American culture is for me. The reality of Anna Nicole Smith or of Jeffrey Dahmer is complicated and a lot of people are responsible for different things within it. The version of it that’s put out is simplified… it’s a Hollywood narrative. In very rudimentary terms: evil person, does evil things, starlet corrupted through their rise to fame. It’s a frequently trodden path, it’s simple and repeated, but it isn’t and never has reflected reality. 

I wanted to use visual cues to point out the unreality of it all, the hypocrisy of reducing human experience to entertainment. Their reality is not what was shown, their reality has been stripped away.

It’s funny, being an American and being very close to those specific stories because they were prevalent when I was growing up. I often feel protective over those narratives, like someone who isn’t American would be incapable of talking about them – but I feel like you’re distant from them whilst taking a lot of care in how you approach them. Maybe because you grew up consuming this media?

I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the idea that an American person has more of a right to the story than someone else but I do think it’s essential that we approach anything like this with empathy. The aim shouldn’t be to establish an opinion, it should be to understand its genesis – knowing why and how something happened. 

Thinking about Dahmer empathetically: he was villainized for doing bad things but this doesn’t present a natural inclination to paint him as a monster for me. He’s a victim, a vulnerable person who was left without care. 

With Anna Nicole Smith, her story is almost biblical, it’s constructed as a Christian narrative. This beautiful person is plucked from poverty and corrupted by money. She’s suspicious because of her marriage, tragic because of her addiction, but ultimately portrayed as somewhat deserving of the pain. The media needs the fall to follow the rise, otherwise, it’s not ‘a story’. 

The work blurs stories, time and narrative together. Some of the images of Dahmer are from movies, some of Anna are personal photos leaked to the press and some are from paparazzi. I wanted to use visual cues to point out the unreality of it all, the hypocrisy of reducing human experience to entertainment. Their reality is not what was shown, their reality has been stripped away.

The West has a major preoccupation with good and evil: often trying to fit people into those arbitrary categories because if that person is evil, it doesn’t implicate anyone but themselves. The wrongdoer is solely responsible for their evil as if they have only ever acted alone, and their existence is confined to a vacuum.

Taking away those binaries and making people reckon with the reality that we’re products – me, Jeffrey Dahmer and Anna Nicole Smith are products of the same culture.

With this work, it feels like you’re trying to wipe the slate clean and replace the binary with nuance.

Nuance is important to me. Discussing difficult topics, especially online, can quickly descend into establishing sides – identifying what cultural marker you should place on the person you’re talking to and the immediate effect that has on the conversation.

The good/evil binary extends into our lives in ways that we might not initially register and it permeates our ability to empathise with one another. I see a significant relationship between the rise of right-wing populism and the good/evil binary, specifically in the idea that some people are undeserving of basic human decency – we see it in prison systems, in demonstrations against support for refugees, in major national newspapers. The idea that because someone is bad, dependent entirely on the mind of the accuser, they deserve a bad life. It’s emblematic of a total lack of empathy.

In art, antagonism isn't someone painting dead bodies, it's bureaucracy, passive aggression – subtweets. It's bad for everybody and it's bad for art.

Is there a reason why you chose these people as the subject?

They’re part of a broader cultural fascination. I feel like the stories just leak into you and stay with you forever, you never get it out. For me, these are just examples. It’s more to do with recognising the dual-natured fact that this story floating around my brain is there for a reason, but is also a complete fabrication. 

Rather than writing an essay about the pervasive desire to narrativise our lives, I can make a painting that’s visually arresting and sits in a context whereby a viewer is encouraged to consider those themes. What I’m doing is essentially shifting the symbology in these characters, moving away from the story and towards a theory – reducing human experience to a replicable narrative is a negative social trait. Maybe even thinking about why we want to do that in the first place. 

Having made the work, I do feel more connected to those people, I guess it’s just social kinship. We should feel related to people who are victimised and people who are villainized. When I say the work is about empathy, I’m also interested in the idea that it can expose antagonism disguised as empathy – I feel like antagonism has a very different aesthetic today than what it did twenty years ago.

What do you mean by that?

I feel like it’s easy to hide antagonism within the aesthetic of empathy… like an insult, you know? “Oh, that looks great! For you”. In art, antagonism isn’t someone painting dead bodies, it’s bureaucracy, passive aggression – subtweets. It’s bad for everybody and it’s bad for art. Creating a funding form which requires you to divulge your mental health history is put forward as being empathetic, as is attempting to include a diverse range of practitioners, but the reality is that it exists because of a different funding form that the person processing yours had to fill out. Having to ask yourself the question as to whether or not trotting out your mental illness for an art opportunity is worth it is antagonistic, it creates space for gross opportunism as well.

One of the ugliest things in contemporary art is the desire to produce artwork as a tool to reinforce one's social identity – to gain acceptance or agreement from the audience.

You can smell a bad faith approach from a mile away, you can tell when someone is approaching something with bad intentions. Your work does the most gracious and challenging thing that any work can do for its viewers which is to not pander to them. You challenge people to meet you at the point where the conversation is happening.

The only didactic exhibition I’ve enjoyed was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Earwitness Theatre, in particular a work called ‘Sayndaya’. The audio piece actioned empathy in a way that written words probably couldn’t, sitting in the darkened room and straining against the sound of silence gave the viewer a microcosmic version of the experience the work tried to shed light on.

If you explained the story, it would be too abstract. That piece encouraged an empathetic understanding of those prisoner’s experience and it’s something that has stayed with me.

Speaking more generally, I feel like a great deal of art that aims to be didactic tends to say more about the artist than the subject of the piece. Too often it’s transparently about the career of the person making it – to present them as a good person, to make them look good and feel good and seem like a good option for curators. Honestly, I think it’s ugly.

It is, it becomes a cultural aesthetic within art.

The fight in art is all in aesthetics. There’s an aesthetic that implies empathetic practice but the reality of which is deeply cynical. Too often it seems like exhibitions are produced with the intention of reinforcing the academic training of an educated viewer. Art by people with PhDs for people with PhDs. It’s endemic to the culture around contemporary art, or the absence thereof.

I feel like contemporary art exists as the absence of subculture. We steal things from other places and bring them to the gallery. Growing up heavily engaged in subculture and becoming an artist, studying at places like the RCA, it’s surreal because the language (aesthetic and written) is stolen. One of the ugliest things in contemporary art is the desire to produce artwork as a tool to reinforce one’s social identity – to gain acceptance or agreement from the audience. 

If there’s one thing I want from my work it’s to give people the chance to start a fucking argument. To disagree and discuss, to be open and not tell people what to think. It’s not statements, it’s suggestions or ideas. We’re trying to learn.

Explore the range of Editions from Allan Gardner and Jack Kennedy‘s exhibition ‘HE WILL ALWAYS BE MY SON’ at Village / Leeds here.