– Autumn/Winter 2007

Her Pornographic Imagination

Monika Szewczyk

D.H. Lawrence once ventured that the English could not paint because they were afraid of the pox.1 What he meant, of course, was that they were afraid of sex, as this was the main way of getting the cursed pox in his day, and that only this secret ingredient - a sexy, dirty, fearless quality - could enable true painting.

I cannot help but start with this damning decree when face-to-face with the paintings of Gillian Carnegie, born in Suffolk, educated in London, as English as they come. Carnegie is not only one of the most skilful painters of her generation, but also someone who presents a body of work that begs to be looked at in relation to what Lawrence euphemised as 'the pox'. Times have obviously changed; I will dispense with the euphemism when considering her practice specifically and the life of contemporary imagery in general in the context of that ever-present and ever-expanding phenomenon of visual culture: porn.

In her essay (and apology for) 'The Pornographic Imagination', Susan Sontag acknowledged at least three types of pornography, one being 'a minor but interesting modality or convention within the arts'.2 Forty years later, an update or reconsideration of the pornographic imaginary is in order. Today, we are immersed in a culture where (what once passed for) pornography has become the dominant form of imagery exchanged in western culture. It is definitely the most

  1. Thanks to Peter Schuyff for this anecdote.

  2. See Pierre Klossowski, 'The Philosopher-Villain', Sade My Neighbour, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991, pp.13-40.

  3. Susan Sontag, 'The Pornographic Imagination', A Susan Sontag Reader, New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p.205. For Sontag, this modality of artistic practice was separate from the psychological phenomenon (read individual perversion) and from pornography as a leitmotif of social history.

  4. Much more could be said about the relationship between the proliferation of war and the proliferation of porn, which may be traced to the Vietnam era or, if he is inclined to consider the Marquis de Sade to the post-French Revolutionary Terror. I have began to explore this eerie symmetry in a short essay published in the journal AS (Andere Sinema), but much more thought is required on the subject. See Monika Szewczyk, 'De Sade's symmetry', AS, no.177, Spring 2006, pp.56-57. However, Gillian Carnegie's work is not the site for exploring this further, as it relates to what may be termed 'the pornocracy of contemporary culture' in distinct ways.

  5. This inescapability of de Sade's pornographic imagination from the religious imagination is something that Sontag saw as a great limitation. See S. Sontag, 'The Pornographic Imagination', op. cit., p.231.

  6. Georges Bataille, The Solar Anus, first published in 1927. Available online at http://www.greylodge.org/occultreview/glor_010/solar.htm (last accessed on 10 July 2007). Could Bataille's final line be a summary of the bum paintings? 'The solar annulus is the intact anus of her body at eighteen years [Carnegie's are visibly those of a young woman] to which nothing sufficiently blinding can be compared except the sun, even though the anus is night.'

  7. The symmetry Carnegie draws between her work and that of Malevich's iconic paintings draws out the multiple and strategic deployment of his squares, which are most often discussed in the singular. Apropos the Little Red Riding Hood imaginary, it could also be added that Carnegie is a fan of Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski de Rola), the Polish-French painter of nubile erotica and brother of Pierre Klossowski, whose own seminal study of the Marquis de Sade did much to politicise porn after World War II, especially around the Tel Quel group in France, and also influenced Balthus.

  8. Alison M. Gingeras, 'Totally My Ass', Artforum, September 2003. Also available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_1_42/ai_108691797 (last accessed on 9 July 2007).

  9. Ibid.

  10. Email conversation with the artist, 2 July 2007.