Eileen Quinlan: Double Charlie
by Sabrina Tarasoff
The 23,000-square-foot location that up until the late ’90s held the Guggenheim Museum’s gift shop in New York City’s Soho district could now be best described as an exhibition hall-cum-retail space-cum Mecca (at least for those who hold Miuccia Prada as God). Taken over by Prada as its flagship store in 2001, with none other than Rem Koolhaas leading its redesign, the space stretches through a full New York block, not so much as a corridor, but a wormhole to the future: with cylindrical glass elevators, dressing room walls that turn opaque at a simple touch, and a wave-shaped double staircase in zebrawood that extends the full length of the interior only to serve as a spot for trying on clog-heeled sandals and the like. It is – or was – contemporaneity itself, expressed in conspicuous architectural moves, with, as the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp once suggested, “space as its ultimate luxury; space, and the dedication of so little room to stuff you can buy.”
While it would be speculative at best to assume that Eileen Quinlan paid any particular attention to the Prada flagship ordeal in her recent exhibition at Campoli Presti, it seems to stand as a viable example of the strategies of presentation that are disseminated in her work. The redefinition of Prada’s retail identity through pervasive winks to museum-like presentation, particularly considering the scarcity of products actually on display, puts into equal question the intertwinement of art and commerce – or rather, the subsumption of artistic practices into commercial environments. Quinlan’s exhibition, Double Charlie, inverts this hierarchy, as the economic propensity of a photograph – and its infinite reproducibility – is aired out. In a poignant art-world faux pas (but a faux pas nonetheless), Double Charlie consists of 12 chromogenic prints, or, more specifically, two almost identical images installed in full editions of six (all 2015). Acknowledging this multiciplicity within the exhibition space asserts a very welcome attempt to remove some of the hush that surrounds the commercial aspects of artistic production. It’s a necessary breach of etiquette aimed at destabilizing the ever-present (mis)conception that art and commerce exist in separate realms. Quinlan’s photographs force an engagement with both sides: on the one hand, demystifying the art object from its mythic singularity by displaying full editions, and on the other, acquiescing to collector protocol by titling and presenting them as installation.
To engage in this strategy plainly would appear downright cynical, were it not for the artist’s rigidly intuitive process. The images themselves are mystical abstractions of something akin to leather bathed in a theatrically amber light. A soft and supple Prada bag, perhaps, staged as a still-life in an elusively ambiguous frame, waiting for the supposition of an opaque market slogan and a ritualized brand name to provide it with value. Of course, to give away too much would be vulgar or promiscuous; to give too little or too grudgingly, ineffective. Instead, Quinlan relies on a process based partly on rigidly self-imposed rules, and partly on strategic reflections on commercial photography. Though a full object is never displayed, it is hinted at through textures and curves, rendering it a ghost of its former self.
Though she has previously discussed the partial lack of meaning in her titles—using the names of obscure perfumes in order to alter a viewer’s perception of the work, without any real significance to the product per se – it is hard to consider these images without conjuring a parallel to the lingering powers of scents. Charlie, for example, was a successful perfume manufactured by Revlon, marketed in the mid-’80s with the confident, Annie Hall-esque Shelley Hack as its spokeswoman. Though there are surely ways of linking the perfume’s factual history to an ancillary discussion on marketing strategies, Quinlan’s use of Charlie as a title seems to be more about an emotive extraction. With the tensions of the Charlie Hebdo attacks still fresh in the spring air, the title is naturally evocative to a Parisian audience. The title infuses the work with a subsidiary meaning, in order to sway the viewer in a preferred direction through memory and emotion. It is a marketing strategy in itself, veiling the essence of the “product” in misleading and affective slogans – not unlike a darker version of Prada’s Candy: “with joie de vivre as a starting point for new ideas!”
If this was Quinlan’s intent with other similarly entitled series, such as After Hours (currently on view at Campoli’s London space), Double Charlie, then, does not seem to be a disingenuous or tactical move. Rather, there is something touching about faintly dedicating the exhibition to the events of January past. Without delving into too much detail, it professes an ability to be vulnerable and real in spite of one’s artistic regime or outside expectations of emotionally void and impersonal practices. Quinlan extends herself and her own sentiments into the space and in return, the work gains the viewer’s trust.
Perhaps this navigation between disingenuity and sincerity in the art world and its mechanics is at the core of Quinlan’s explorations into studio photography. Prada may have Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, the Dan Flavin-church-cum-grotto in suburban Milan, and both an artistic and philosophical history to legitimize its practices, yet it makes no pretense to exist outside of the market that sustains it – regardless of its impact. Art, on the other hand, operates largely under the illusory forcing of a market that has sought to maintain total opacity. At best, the systems of editioning and dissemination that have been devised – particularly for photography – are arbitrary, and purely intended to increase value through scarcity and elusiveness. In Double Charlie, Quinlan opens up a discourse in favour of transparency. She untangles art and commerce only to navigate the boundaries therein, and locate where photography, as a medium as well as an object, fits within the contemporary – and its markets. It is a realistic and inquisitive approach with room for hesitation, interjection and intuition.
In the end, the “double” in Double Charlie could refer to any number of things: the double edition, the double standards of the art world, or the illusion of specificity that doubles the value of objects. Whatever one’s take, the exhibition raises crucial questions regarding the interplay of value, display and objects in an age of luxury, while forgetting to acknowledge the complicated role of the photographic medium itself.