ARTIST VS. MUSE (Part Seven: The Icon)

Featured photograph by Chris Levine.

This is the final installment of my series about the singer Grace Jones and her romantic and creative partnership with the artist Jean-Paul Goude. You can find the previous posts here: PART ONE, PART TWO, PART THREE, PART FOUR, PART FIVE, PART SIX. I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the many lives of Grace Jones, but even if you didn’t, I welcome your feedback. Leave me a comment, or subscribe for more painstakingly-researched, certainly overthought writing on queer art and artists.

PART SEVEN: The Icon

The persistent influence of the work of Grace Jones and Jean-Paul Goude is obvious to anyone who knows where to look. Watch Nicki Minaj’s video for “Stupid Hoe” and you’ll catch the rapper mimicking Jones’ famous arabesque and invoking her 1978 Roseland performance by repeatedly swapping places with a leopard in a yellow cage. Had you opened the August issue of Complex back in 2009, you would’ve found the model Amber Rose reiterating a slew of Jones’ most recognizable poses. But Goude hasn’t left it to others to rehash his work—his infamous photoshoot with Kim Kardashian for Paper recreated one especially reprehensible image from Jungle Fever. The original photograph, which Goude titled “Carolina Beaumont” but is often referred to as “The Champagne Incident,” depicts a nude black woman holding a bottle of champagne, its contents bursting forth, tracing an arc above her head, and filling a glass balanced on her protruding backside. The model’s face is stretched into a ludicrous grin; her hair sticks straight up like a fright wig. These visual echoes of minstrel show horrors, in conjunction with the nudity and the cruel humor of the champagne, make the image a vicious racist joke that should not have been retold. Contemporary photographers, including Goude, would do better to come up with new concepts rather than perpetuating the same stereotypes that have hampered women, particularly women of color, for far too long.

carolina + kim k
“Carolina Beaumont” and Kim Kardashian: two Jean-Paul Goude portraits taken nearly four decades apart.

Disregard for a moment the pernicious fallout of some of Goude’s work, and you’ll hear the ongoing reverberations of Jones’ sound and image. In the glorious pompadour and android operas of Janelle Monáe, in the trippy ruminations and bold style of Willow Smith, in Shamir’s beautifully transgressive countertenor, Frank Ocean’s glitter-freckled face, and Syd’s carefree androgyny, you’ll find the kind of subversion, individuality, and audacity that was impermissible for black artists until performers like Jones flouted the unwritten rules that constricted their self-expression. Without the pathbreaking work of Jones, Prince, Erykah Badu, and so many others, the symphony of black alternative music that surrounds us now would be reduced to a few scattered soloists.

Jones has received mountains of praise for her singular image, and Goude has been the target of frequent castigation for his more flagrantly offensive artwork, but the chatter surrounding these two public figures has been suffering from a severe deficit of nuance since the disco days. Goude is either a creative genius of such monumental importance that one is compelled to overlook the questionable elements of his work or a racist, sexist monster hell-bent on demeaning black women at every turn. Jones is either a queer goddess beyond reproach or a prop in Goude’s racist diorama. There is some merit to each of these arguments, but only by considering all of them, not despite but because of their contradictions, can one arrive at something approaching a full understanding of the impact of these two complex artists and human beings. Just as Goude can be both an influential artist and an incorrigible racist, creator of both liberating and repressive representations of black women, so too can Jones be a heedless collaborator in the production of imagery that harms herself and people like her, a talented and sincere but limited singer and songwriter, a terrible actress, and an iconic performance artist illuminating and annihilating the yokes that tether us all to preconceived definitions for the multitudinous terms of our identities.

merge
A few of Jones’ aesthetic descendants: from left, Janelle Monáe, Frank Ocean, and Syd.

While others reproduce the images that made her famous, Jones has pushed herself to undiscovered territories of her talent in collaborations with the photographer Chris Cunningham and the light artist Chris Levine. Cunningham’s photographs, which were published in Dazed, capture Jones’ naked body contorted, adorned with wire, and pressed against glass. According to Jones, the images “represent volatile continuity, not dreary, nostalgic, sentimentality.” Levine’s portraits, which formed the basis of a 2010 art installation entitled “Stillness at the Speed of Light” at The Vinyl Factory as well as Jones’ music video for “Love You to Life,” provide a prismatic counterpoint to Cunningham’s dark, unsettling pictures. The installation documented the celestial results of the combination of laser light, a reflective Philip Treacy hat, and the radiant star that outshines them both—Miss Grace Jones. (Goude himself made much less exciting use of the same model and hat in the cover for the remixed version of Hurricane, released in 2011.) Jones’ recent work shows that she is moving forward, not looking back. On the final page of her memoir, and again and again as she moves through her many lives, she asks: “Do you want to move forward with me, or not?”

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