by MARTI JONJAK
Julie Cockburn, a London-based artist, alters everyday items to create unique forms. Her past subjects have included outdated maps, hand-scribbled shopping lists, and envelopes which once contained knitting pattern kits. These are methodically cut, sewn, and rearranged. The result, according to Cockburn’s website, HYPERLINK “http://www.juliecockburn.com” http://juliecockburn.com, is “a curious mix of optical illusions and the simple transformation of… objects.”
Currently on display at Winston Wächter Fine Arts are Cockburn’s vintage Playboy series. In “Entertainment for Men” and “Pretty Maids,” a pair of decades-old magazines (three are from ’68, one is dated ’71), rest in sets. Layers of shrinking concentric circles creates rings of indiscernible text and photography.
The “Nip-n-tuck 2” image features a centerfold model whose figure has been carefully removed. In her place rests a three-inch deep void of a multi-level landscape, filled with unrecognizable photo details that were culled from other centerfolds (the centerfolds’ faint white trisecting lines remain more or less a constant throughout the layering of these different images).
By altering the “Nip-n-tuck 2” centerfold image, Pryle Behrman of retitle.com insists that Cockburn is “freeing it from its setting and also inserting [Cockburn’s] own voice into what is archetypically an exclusively male domain.” She continues:
“By doing this, Cockburn is mirroring the fact that, although the wider culture undoubtedly has an effect on us all, we do not absorb it passively; instead it is always filtered and metamorphosed by the different viewpoints we bring.
There are thus many dialogues at play: …between subtraction (in this case removing the female figure) and addition (creating a new layer of history for the magazine by reinventing it in a new form).”
Cockburn’s pro-feminist message is uplifting to witness. But some longstanding impacts Playboy has on American life can not be as easily altered. (While Cockburn is a London-based artist, for clarity’s sake this essay we will focus on Playboy’s influence on American culture, and similarly, Cockburn’s artistic influence upon her Seattle-based public). Launched in 1953, Hefner’s model aesthetic consistently pairs the face of Shirley Temple with the body of Jayne Mansfield (Acocella). This juxtaposing image “managed to draw, simultaneously, on two opposing trends that have since come to dominate American mass culture: on the one hand… our country’s idea of its… innocence; on the other, the enthusiastic lewdness of our advertising and entertainment. We are now accustomed to seeing the two tendencies combined—witness Britney Spears—but when Hefner was a young man they still seemed like opposites.” (Joan Acocella, The Girls Next Door, The New Yorker, 3/20/06).
While the models have consistently held a simultaneous good girl/bad girl image, some specifics of their look have transformed throughout the years. In the creepily youth-centered sixties, playmates wore pigtails and bows. (Indeed, one of Cockburn’s models, or what remains visible of her, wears a ribbon in her hair. Another model, whose legs are wrapped in girlish tights, flirts with the camera while riding a swing.) In the seventies, heavy makeup became a prominent accessory. During the eighties and beyond, fake breasts coupled with sinewy bodies became the norm (Acocella). SHOULD I CUT THIS PARAGRAPH?
Cockburn’s alterations, which transform charged sexual imagery into simple scraps of paper, call upon an already-vacuous terrain: the later Playboy centerfolds, insist Acocella, are “bewildering” given their “utter texturelessness…”, while the models of the past decades look like “cold, shiny structures.” Perhaps, she concludes “the very remoteness of these women is their attraction.”
Beyond this, their obvious main draw is their nudity. There is no debating the wide-spread allure of pornography in America: it is estimated that sex sites encompass 40% of all internet traffic (Acocella). And given the boundless expanse of the computer age, huge volumes of disturbingly explicit pornography, which in comparison renders Playboy’s material innocuous, are instantly accessible.
While Playboy is still the best-selling American men’s magazine, its readership has dropped 50% following the influence of the computer era. Presumably the surging of this extreme and hard-core internet content is to blame. Regarding Playboy’s outdated bachelor-fantasy ideals and soft-core playmate spreads, Acocella writes: “That, in the end, is the most striking thing about Playboy’s centerfolds: how old-fashioned they seem.”
By instilling her voice upon these charmingly outdated magazines, Julie Cockburn, who “makes new work from old” ( HYPERLINK “http://juliecockburn.com” http://juliecockburn.com) has modernized an antiquated classic. Amongst art-lovers, feminists, and Playboy-readers alike, there is no debating the power of Cockburn’s work. As I carried her art down the street, three men surrounded me. Their eyes twinkled with wonderment. “Where did you get those?” one of them asked. “They must be worth thousands of dollars.”