WORKING CLASS HEROINE
Imagining the hands of great artists through history is a delightful pastime. Take Michelangelo, whose Renaissance charcoal drawings of male nudes would have left traces of deep grey under his nails, or Leonardo before that, famed for his use of reddish pastel, which would inevitably be smudged into his fingertips. Likewise, the sixteenth century works of Caravaggio, so deeply imbued with extremes of chiaroscuro, would have resulted in darkness staining his skin. And then we have painters from the twentieth century: the likes of Jackson Pollock and other greats from the Abstract Expressionist movement fingering, flinging, dripping and splashing paint everywhere — hands becoming coated in the process. Or there’s Richard Serra, whose charcoal drawings use dense applications of matter, so black and opaque as to seem impenetrable. Even now, we still identify and recognise artists through their stained overalls or their dirty hands —their dishevelled wonder so ingrained it’s un-washable.
Michael Müller’s tongue-and-cheek artwork WORKING CLASS HEROINE plays with the idea of the obsessive artist who can’t leave their work alone, or the struggling working-class artist who traverses the economic divide from rags to riches. It’s essentially a form of makeup: a product that can be used to create a false sense of aesthetic perfection. In centuries past, it was the rich alone who had access to cosmetics. Queen Elizabeth I was famed for her use of elaborate makeup and white face powder, which contained lead. Seventeenth century France was the centre of perfume and cosmetic manufacture, further emboldened in the eighteenth century by King Louis XV who requested bounteous supplies of perfume.
With makeup traversing the divide to become a mass-consumed product in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, contemporary artists have adopted cosmetics as a material that can be used both on the body and on their artworks. Take Scottish artist Karla Black, whose fragile sculptures combine materials such as face powder, soap, nail polish and lipstick, or the British emerging artist Samara Scott, who has been known to squirt coloured body wash into her sculptures, as well as gluing eye shadows shaped like moons and suns onto the wall. Serbian artist Milovan Destil Markovic’s series Lipstick Portraits sees lipstick being massaged, rubbed and embedded within the surface of pure silk velvet, each individual colour acting as a portrait of a famous figure.
Interested in the line that divides art and fashion or even art and life, Michael Müller’s 2017 exhibition at Galerie Thomas Schulte, “Teil 18. Die Welt gibt es nicht!” (Part 18: The World does not exist), presented a gallery that could be mistaken for a fashion store. As such, the status of Müller’s objects within the exhibition was unclear: are they artworks or products?WORKING CLASS HEROINE raises this exact question. With the gallery being situated in a former Jewish fashion store, Müller’s concept sought to expand upon this history and shift the usual rules of engagement when it comes to art, blurring the line between fine art, fashion and life, often leaving viewers confused and intrigued.
— Louisa Elderton