Guy Bourdin’s sleek, decadent editorial work for Paris Vogue and Charles Jourdan defined the erotic-chic aesthetic of the seventies. Yet while he created some of photography’s most sexually electric imagery, his signature shots actually reveal very little. In Phillips de Pury & Company’s pre-auction exhibition of exclusively printed large-format and smaller-size Bourdin photographs selected by Simon de Pury and Bourdin’s son Samuel, accessories, limbs, and details are presented like the incriminating clues to a baffling mystery. In one image from 1970, a model’s head is covered by a pillow and her body is under a matching sheet, with only her pale breasts exposed. Bourdin had a sense of humor, too—albeit a dark one, as in a 1979 Charles Jourdan ad that shows an envelope with a woman’s fishnet-clad legs and high heels visible through the address window in what can only be a photo accompanying a blackmail letter. And unlike the many contemporary photographers whose work he influenced, Bourdin had only his eye, the models, and various printing processes to achieve his effects—he worked long before the dawn of Photoshop. “Guy Bourdin Unseen,” Phillips de Pury, Victoria House, Bloomsbury Square, London WC1, through November 24. For more information, see www.phillipsdepury.com.
“Downtown ’81″ is perhaps the seminal film of the East Village scene of the eighties. It stars Jean-Michel Basquiat as a lightly fictionalized version of himself, and follows him on a “Ulysses”-like quest around downtown Manhattan. This week, “Downtown ’81″ ‘s soundtrack is finally getting the release it deserves. Featuring work by mostly forgotten artists such as Kid Creole, James White and the Blacks, DNA, the Plastics, and Basquiat’s band Gray, the compilation stands on its own as a document of the era. Here, screenwriter/co-producer Glenn O’Brien talks about—among other things—the bands he still loves, New Wave nostalgia, Julian Schnabel, and ten-dollar style.
Let’s backtrack. What was the initial inspiration for “Downtown ’81″?
Elio Fiorucci, who owned the famous fashion store, was fascinated by the New York scene and suggested we make a film about it. I thought it would be corny to make a documentary, so I constructed a very simple story that would enable us to use the bands and personalities we found most interesting.
It took 20 years for the movie to be released. Was it something you’d been working on all along, or was there a specific impetus to finish the film when you did?
I almost got the project going again in the late eighties, but the deal didn’t come off. Then, when I saw Schnabel’s “Basquiat” in 1996, I vowed to do everything I could to finish the film, so people could see what Jean-Michel was really like. A very lively, cool, incredibly talented, and original young guy, and not a confused, depressed protégé of Schnabel’s.
You selected all the music in “Downtown ’81.” Are there any particular songs or performances that hold up best for you?
I think they all hold up really well. Kid Creole never got the recognition they deserved in the U.S. They had number ones all over the world, but not here. James White was decades ahead of his time and the band he plays with in this film is probably his best, in terms of musicianship. For me, as a performer, at the top of his game James was up there with Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, and James Brown. And DNA represents a sort of avant-garde power pop that has never been surpassed—a possible direction in jazz that wasn’t taken by anyone after them.
Why is the soundtrack only coming out now?
Actually, we released the soundtrack a few years ago, but it fell out of print. The impetus for a re-release was seeing that copies were going for about $150 on eBay. Obviously there was a demand.
You’re GQ’s “Style Guy.” What do you make of the fashion in the film?
Everyone in the film looks great, and they probably paid ten bucks for what they were wearing. There were no designers and yet somehow people looked better than they do now. Can you imagine how we lived without fashion designers? It wasn’t about trends then but about individuality. People had their own looks they put together themselves, not a personality they bought in a store. If something was distressed, that didn’t happen in a factory. I like the way girls wore a lot of makeup back then. They weren’t afraid to act grown up.
Upon its release, a lot of critics talked about “Downtown ’81″ being a “time capsule” of pre-Giuliani, bad-old-good-days New York. Do you see it that way?
That was something that struck me on seeing the footage almost 20 years later. The amazing physical transformation of the city—from Times Square to 14th Street to the East Village, Alphabet City. Now it looks brilliant and delightful; it was also very tough and dangerous. But that’s all gone. I know Giuliani takes credit for that, for “cleaning up crime,” but it’s all about real estate. Criminals can’t afford to live in Manhattan anymore. And they’re getting priced out of Brooklyn, too.
Do you think a movie like “Downtown ’81″ could be made in New York today?
Absolutely. I’m thinking about making a sequel that takes place in those clubs where you pay $1,000 for a bottle of vodka and get punched by some rapper’s bodyguard.
Though it may be a bit of a stretch to imagine nudes and still-lifes as subject to fashion, native New Yorker Ellen Altfest’s meticulously rendered realist life studies are one of contemporary art’s sleeper hits. While the New York scene was lauding grungy, neo-Fauvist, slapdash painting techniques and far-out fantasy imagery, Altfest was devoting months to scrupulous depictions of objects like driftwood, cacti, and a haggard-looking tumbleweed. Despite, or perhaps because of, her art’s untrendiness, Altfest’s two inaugural shows at New York’s Bellwether were sell-out successes and her current one at London’s White Cube gallery, her first in the U.K. after her participation in the Saatchi Gallery’s “USA Today” exhibition at the Royal Academy, is set to follow suit. “It’s a good time to be a realist painter,” she said recently. “Right now an artist can do anything, and if it’s done in an interesting way it will be accepted or at least considered.” And in her case, it can even change ideas about what’s considered cool. For more information, see www.whitecube.com.
Since wowing audiences at last spring’s SXSW music festival with their special blend of Southern-style rhymes and booty-shaking, throwback, electro club beats (courtesy of British producer David Alexander), Yo Majesty is popping up on cool-hunting radar screens nationwide. When you factor in their unique sound, outrageous live performances (they’re notorious for ending their sets topless), and the fact that the duo are lesbian rappers in a historically heterosexual, male chauvinist industry, you’d be lying if you said you weren’t intrigued. Straight outta T-Town (i.e., Tampa, Florida), Shunda K and Jwl B. hold court here, enlightening us on how they’re reinventing hip-hop and why the fashion world is going to be the next to join their royal cavalcade.
With so many different ways to classify your music—from rap and R&B to rock and gospel—how do you describe your distinctive sound?
Shunda K: We bring the truth, not this bubblegum crap that you hear on the radio—and the kind of response we get is, “Man, that was refreshing.”
Jwl B.: We started this genre of music—sonic hip-hop. We are the queens of punk rock, rap, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul.
Your live shows are becoming somewhat notorious for their, um, showmanship. How would you describe a typical Yo Majesty performance?
SK: It’s just about the people. They come expecting to see something, to experience this freedom, and we give them insight, encouragement, and a chance to loosen up a bit. By the end, we got people on stage, taking their clothes off, and sweating.
And you guys have been known to partake in this “freedom” every once in a while, I hear.
JB: Yeah, but it’s not conscious at all—I don’t have anything pre-planned, like “tonight I’m gonna take off my shirt.” That’s just the way I get out my pain, I let it all out on the stage. And then I leave it on the stage and I feel better. It’s not to make us more famous.
As an all-female, openly gay group, do you feel like people will pigeonhole you—herald you as the new Salt ‘N Pepa, or say that you’re using your sexuality as a gimmick?
SK: If you want to compare us to Salt ‘N Pepa, well, praise the Lord! I’m honored. They’re definitely somebody I listened to. But you can’t hate on us for keeping it real—there’s so many gay people in the music industry who keep it secret just to sell a record.
JB: And we’re not a “gay group.” We’re a “professional group.” If I were doing an interview on “Oprah,” I would say, “Yes, I’m a gay woman, but I really don’t want to talk about that.” I want people to see me as a writer, as a composer, as an artist. Not “Oh, that gay black girl who shows her breasts.” I want people to be like, “Oh. That’s Jwl B. and she can bring it.”
What can we look forward to from Yo Majesty in the new year?
SK: Hopefully another single before the year’s up, and then we’ll drop our first album in the spring. We’ve also got a new song called “Hott.” It goes, “Hot, hot, hot to trot. Work it supermodel, work it.” It’s gonna be all over the runways, you’ll see.
In a global e-world where trends, bands, and bloggers come and go faster than e-mails, it’s nice to know that some things will always be considered cool. “In the Know: The Classic Guide to Being Cultured and Cool” (Penguin), a handy, handbag-size reference book of culture, fashion, and lifestyle hit lists—written by Style.com’s own Nancy MacDonell—provides hours of impressive cocktail party fodder, from insight into Jackson Pollock’s considerable art-world sway to where to relax in Uruguay. The lists are fad-safe (no one’s calling Cristobal Balenciaga a flash in the pan), entertaining in themselves, and provide handy pronunciation guides to tackle the Schiaparellis of the world. Read it and you’ll have one less thing (“is it REALLY cool to wear these shoes?”) to worry about.