The model has become a modern icon of desire; created, promoted and ultimately consumed through fashion photography. British artist Jennifer Martin makes use of high fashion editorial as inspiration for paintings that question not only the nature of contemporary desire, but what we perceive as beauty in people, objects, and perhaps most interestingly, in people as objects.
Before enrolling on her Fine Art M.A. at Central Saint Martins, Martin completed a BSc in Psychology and Neuroscience, an influence that could explain the knowing approach she takes to dismantling received perceptions of popular imagery. For a society saturated with the representation of woman, the effect of her half-recognised imagery, distorted by her own hand, offers a thrilling disorientation.
Fashion is Martin’s raw material – magazine images are ‘adapted’ through copy or collage to become her art. Martin’s role as artist begins in the choice of initial photograph. Each piece then develops as a response to this original image, building layers with oil on canvas or collage with pencil and paint. The layers both mimic and disguise the original, and in turn question our perception of beauty.
Jennifer Martin’s work has an unusual allure that is tinged with violence. Isolated features of the original photograph surface like apparitions from raw abstraction: contours of a face, the outline of hair, a set of full lips. Her paintings seem to ‘bleed’, a visual decay that reveals the qualities of her chosen materials and also those of the corporeal, the bodily; what is so often lost in airbrushed perfection.
Emblematic of modern society in its thrall to the all-pervading influence of fashion, the tongue-in-cheek titles of the works are drawn from fashion’s vocabulary of glamour and desire: ‘I Want Her Fur Coat’, ‘Perfect Skin’, ‘Vanity Fairest’. There is also explicit reference to make-up in the thick slatherings of paint applied to faces. Jean Baudrillard argued in L’échange Symbolique et La Mort that a made up woman is one whom one does not touch. Martin’s ‘make-up’ works in reverse: revealing and even creating blemishes in these ‘untouchable’ idealised images in a genuine attempt to debunk the glossy perfection of fashion, and its presentation of woman.
The photographs are the starting point to be improved, in direct contrast to fashion’s presentation of image as the ultimate finished product – perfection pre-packaged. We can perceive the ‘defacement’ of these photographs as a form of defilement, perhaps defilement of what society has held as icons of desire. However Martin’s paint serves not to obliterate the images but to highlight them, forming her own points of emphasis, her own erogenous zones against the material’s freedom.
Jennifer Martin constantly questions our idealisation of the fashion model. In her obvious construction of a façade, she draws our attention to the process of ‘fashioning’ the magazine image itself: in this case, the original is as much an artificial construct as the final product. She has spoken of her work as ‘a journey away from the illusion of perfection,’ and if we consider the female body as represented through fashion as a consumable object, Martin’s work seeks to convert that object back into humanity, with all its associated imperfections.