‘Greed, for lack of a better word, is good, greed is right, greed works’, reasons Gordon Gekko, the ruthless corporate raider played by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street . Considered to be the quintessential portrayal of 1980s corporate excess and financial skulduggery, the film is just one of Graham Little’s many influences in this solo exhibition.
In the large gallery, ‘Facts are stupid things (fruit vs fashion)’, 2007, is a sprawling MDF assemblage comprising clustered cuboids and jutting beams. Drawing inspiration from the gaudy yuppie apartment of Wall Street’s protagonist Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), the sculpture’s many surfaces are adorned with a giddy mix of meticulously drawn motifs. Hard-edged geometric patterns, pink drapery, hideous dated wallpaper designs and succulent pieces of fruit all jostle together in an uncomfortable mishmash of clashing colours, shapes and styles. It is a disorienting visual menagerie similar to Little’s previous 3D works, though this is by far his largest and wildest to date.
Until recently the Gekko ethos was still alive and well in the world of high finance but, as we have witnessed over the past few credit-crunching months, greed really isn’t good at all. Ironically, Wall Street was released soon after Black Monday and Little embarked on this meditation of opulence and excess long before the current financial crisis. The circumstantial timing of this exhibition imbues the work with a distinctly cautionary overtone, causing his veneers to appear all the more superficial: fruit rots, fashions come and go, markets boom and bust.
In the adjacent gallery are three far less rambunctious, exquisitely rendered pencil drawings, all ‘Untitled’, 2008. Compared with ‘Facts are stupid things (fruit vs fashion)’, you’d be forgiven for thinking these works on paper were by a different artist. This is the other side of Little’s bifurcated practice and, although executed in his beautifully elegant style, they represent a departure for the artist. Gone are the fashionistas culled from glossy magazines such as Paris Vogue and Elle that populated his previous works, replaced here with images of his pregnant wife.
The poses remain though, with Little’s spouse assuming positions typical of contemporary fashion photography. The virtuosic drawings (fastidiously copied from his own elaborately staged photographs) contain a wistful mix of baroque aesthetics, surrealism and high fashion. Rich drapery, ribbons and unidentified bulbous objects echoing his wife’s parturient belly suggest a sense of anticipation and celebration. There is an idiosyncratic iconography at work in these enigmatic images, which, after enticing you in, resist any determinate reading.
In the past, Little has spoken of his obsession with baroque and renaissance art. This is clearly evidenced upstairs by another deft display of untitled drawings. While works downstairs celebrate the anticipation of new life, these pieces offer a sombre contrast. Little’s wife features again but this time appearing as though dead. In one cadaverous image she lies expressionless, mouth open, amid sumptuous drapery and vibrant lemons, while in another sepulchral work she is bound by netting that could be read as a shroud. Stylistically these tableaux evoke artists such as Botticelli or Titian or bring to mind paintings like Caravaggio’s ‘Death of the Virgin’, 1605/06, with its dramatic lighting and tenebrous subject matter. Yet the depth of Little’s engagement with art history beyond a superficial appreciation for certain aesthetic sensibilities is uncertain.
Counterpointing the drawings is another eccentric sculpture inspired partly by the postmodern furniture of Ettore Sottsass. Standing at head height and appearing like some kind of demented easel, the intriguingly titled ‘What about all those Librarians with all their lovely beards’, 2007, is far less whimsical than the larger piece downstairs. The triangles, cubes and other geometric shapes constituting this work are covered in soft organic forms, architectural details and more baroque drapery, all punctiliously drawn. Little’s sculptures have always reflected his love of pattern and surface but this piece does so in a gentler, more congenial way than any other.
The aesthetics of excess permeate this exhibition. From the extravagances of corporate greed to baroque grandeur, Little’s works are both elusive and allusive, which is what makes them so alluring.
David Trigg is a writer and criti c