Just What Is It That Makes Phomohobes So Different, So Appealing?
by Blair Fornwald
Like cryptophasiac twins who speak a tongue that only they can understand, Jason Cawood and Colby Richardson, as the collective Phomohobes, have created a specific but ambiguous lexicon of images, arranged in adherence to the grammar of their shared visual language. In much the same way that their provocative collective title cuts up and rearranges phonemes of a recognizable word to render it nonsensical, effectively and wryly queering “homophobes,” Cawood and Richardson repurpose images of normative hetero middle-class desire, decontextualizing and reconfiguring them as dreamy, troubling and irreverent collages that hint at illogical and polymorphously perverse narratives.
Phomohobes’ image vocabulary is drawn from a vast archive of carefully cut-out figures, objects and body parts resuscitated mainly from the pages of 1970s and 1980s lifestyle, home décor, fashion and pornographic magazines, and books about space, ancient Egypt and pop psychology. These are spread across the surface of the work table or studio floor, loosely arranged according to type: cabinet televisions with the screens removed, Egyptian artifacts, late-modern living room furnishings, elegantly manicured women’s hands and disembodied erections, each in their own little pile. They await placement on full-page spreads of hazy landscapes, geometric textures, night skies or domestic interiors of both the chic minimalist and garishly over-decorated variety.
Having worked together since 2012, Cawood and Richardson’s collaborative approach engages ongoing aesthetic dialogues about what subjects and images are deemed worthy of reclamation, and how they are to be reconfigured and transformed. Their collage imagery suggests various themes and binary tensions: tropes of feminine glamour and masculine bravado, canonical and vernacular examples of mid-century aesthetics, and the strange affinities between science and religion, particularly in ancient, esoteric, or new age practices.
Another parameter involves working primarily with imagery sourced from pre-1990s print media, already decontextualized by the passage of time. Advertising imagery meant to manifest a singular desire for the products they once promoted are currently imbued with a new set of characteristics. They have become odd and anachronistic, accruing a multitude of unintended meanings as they float adrift in the nebulous space of collectively remembered images. Often, their selections reveal a camp sensibility, a queer appreciation for images that attempt to be serious, or glamorous, or (hetero)sexy, but fail somehow: the piss-elegant interiors and lavish but middle-class table party spreads featured in Better Homes and Gardens, the muscle jock whose hyper-masculine presentation now reads as inherently, if unintentionally homoerotic, ladies’ hands with formerly elegant, currently drag queeny manicures. If these images manifest desire now, it is perhaps in the form of reflective nostalgia or camp appreciation.
Because Phomohobes works with a repertoire of mid-to-late 20th-century advertising images, they face the compositional challenge of not simply recreating something that looks like a mid-to-late 20th-century ad.((Phomohobes, interview with the author, 22 December 2016.)) This is no small feat, since advertising of this era often placed products and models in surreal fantasy scenarios.
It is not enough to collage a picture of a lady in a bathtub into a desolate desert landscape—that would just look like a standard 1970s-era Koehler ad. Nor, Phomohobes reasons, should a collage create an image that could be produced through other means—nothing that could exist in real life, or could be photographed.((Ibid.)) Nothing like Richard Hamilton’s iconic Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, 1964, which uses collage to recreate a domestic scene that, despite inconsistencies in the scale and tone of its discrete elements, presents a wholly plausible scenario. Instead, Cawood and Richardson’s compositions depict unreasonable scenarios, as oddly incongruous and arresting as fever dreams.
Bedroom Spoon, 2012, bears a passing resemblance to Hamilton’s famous collage, with an oversize, black and white, bullet-bra and panty-girdle clad female figure and nude male figure in a wildly busy pink and green bedroom. Unlike Hamilton’s cut-and-pasted models (body builder Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski and artist Jo Baer, posing as a burlesque dancer), who gaze out at the viewer, Phomohobes have removed the heads, hands and feet of their figures. The female’s severed neckline curves to line up with the room’s decorative trim moulding, as if she were a headless caryatid supporting the weight of the ceiling. The male figure, although well-muscled, seems delicate in comparison, curled around the female torso like an accessory. His body, save for an un-tanned bum, is the same ham-pink as the room’s drapery, ceiling fan, trim moulding, bedroom bench legs, and the flowers that dot the surface of the comforter, wallpaper and decaled chest of drawers. Strange figures in a strange space, they manage to be both monstrous and surprisingly at home as just two more decorative elements in a veritable horror vacui of contrasting colour and dizzying patterns.
Vaguely sexual fragmented bodies like these populate many of Phomohobes’ compositions. Parts are often arranged into Hans Bellmer-esque clusters of limbs, torsos, and appendages: in Flesh Valley, 2016, for instance, a bodily mass fondling its own ass floats like a cloud amidst spiky yucca plants while a prickly phallic stalk sprouts from the French-manicured fingertips of its other, unoccupied hand. In Birth Chamber, 2016, a shoulder, bent elbow, forearm and a hand wearing a smart oversized cocktail ring create a vaginal crease. From this opening another arm emerges, appearing to have released a bubblegum pink orb into an otherwise-spotless minimalist bedroom.
Distancing Phomohobes’ work from the preexisting images from which they are assembled is a “problematic tension”((Jason Cawood, interview with the author, 22 December 2016.)) that charges the composites with a narrative potential. The desert landscape and lightning-filled sky that comprises the background of Salamander CD, 2015, for instance, is dwarfed by a huge pair of manicured hands. One extends from the top right of the picture plane, displaying a shiny compact disc with a translucent salamander dangling from the hole in its centre, while the other hand emerges from the ground, reaching toward the salamander, a gesture that may suggest malicious or benign intent. Kitchen Creature, 2015, is a chimera: part salmon-pink nail polish, part giant thumb, and part avocado-green garter snake, it is perfectly colour-coordinated with, yet disturbingly out-of-place in the late-1970s interior that it occupies. Even relatively restrained pieces like the elegant Heart Dress, 2012, which combines an illustrated diagram of a human heart and a long, full turquoise skirt to create a Jordorowskian Virgin Mary who stands against washed-out landscape of green-greys and soft oranges, or Underthings, 2012, obtained by cutting two figures from the men’s underwear section of a Sears catalogue and trimming body parts until their composite form curves gracefully, echoing the soft-focus mountains in the background, have an uncomfortable quality about them. Perhaps amongst the most classically “surrealist” images in Phomohobes’ growing body of work, they are animated by tensions between dreamlike beauty and nightmarish abjection.
While most collages have titles that simply name the objects that inhabit them (Anubis Lipstick Starfish, Chanel Leopard Balls, Anus Shell Lunar, Mascara Jesus or the aforementioned Salamander CD), leaving intent or meaning to the viewer to determine (or not), the absurd Checking in on my creations, 2016, bears a title that comically over-inscribes the narrative it depicts: God incarnate, a composite creature with bodybuilder legs, slender arms, a fall of Nice N’ Easy blonde locks for a torso, an emerald jewel for a face, and an Egyptian scarab amulet in place of genitalia, descends from on high to gaze down upon tiny male figures in Perma-Prest separates and catalogue poses.
Phomohobes state that their collages “present an ambiguous, cryptic agenda, but they do so assertively.”((Phomohobes, Artist Statement, artists’ website, accessed 3 February 2017, http://phomohobes.com/press-cv.)) The assertive nature of their work is due in part to their boldly confident compositions, which often achieve Rorschach-like symmetry or otherwise demonstrate an adept understanding of gestalt principles that balance an image and hold elements in productive tension. It is also due, in part, to the object qualities of the works themselves. Figures are removed from the pages of magazines with surgical precision, and once pasted in place, the composite image is scanned, printed on high-quality Hahnemühle paper and debossed with the collective’s name along the bottom border.
Many collages retain a sort of arts-and-crafts tenuousness, incorporating scrappy bits of ephemera that emphasize the seams and rifts between disparate elements. Artist and writer Ian Monroe argues that collage is “a methodology that deploys this edge, this elemental difference between materials, objects, images and subjects as its core concern”, that “it is this active boundary, where previously disassociated material is amalgamated that gives collage its frisson, its efficacy as a technique.”((Ian Monroe, “Where Does One Thing End and the Next Begin?” artist’s website, accessed 3 February 2017, http://www.ianmonroe.net/collage-1/, first published in Collage: Assembling Contemporary Art (London, UK: Black Dog Publishing, 2008).))
Cawood and Richardson’s images are indivisibly, irrevocably and sometimes frustratingly whole. Their collages don’t necessarily gain potency by emphasizing the difference in source materials, since the drawn-upon image lexicon is specific and limited. Rather, their reconfigurations reveal the flexible nature of images and articulate the humorous, subversive, erotic and political dimensions of finding the plural within the presumed singular.
The activated boundaries in Phomohobes’ collages are temporal and semiotic. Both affixing and unfixing, they bring images from the past into a liminal space where they simultaneously signify their quotidian and intended meaning, their retrospect failures and accrued unintentional implications, their potential as malleable forms. In Phomohobes’ works we might, as queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz writes, “see the past and the potentiality imbued within an object, the ways it might represent a mode of being and feeling that was not quite there but nonetheless, an opening.”((José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 9.))
Cawood and Richardson’s practice subjects the language of images to the whims of their “similar imaginations,”((Colby Richardson, interview with the author, 22 December 2016.)) where forms may be laden with, or completely devoid of meaning—a strangely utopian proposition.
Blair Fornwald is an interdisciplinary artist, curator, and writer based in Regina, Saskatchewan. She is Dunlop Art Gallery’s Assistant Curator and a founding member of artists’ collectives One Night Only and Turner Prize*. Fornwald holds an MFA from Western University, and her current work focuses on humour, pathos, empathy and affect.
This article was originally featured in BlackFlash issue 34.2.