The genesis of Remarkably Well Preserved for Cloutman began with Barbara Cartland, and there is a painting of the same name in the exhibition. A well-known figure in the United Kingdom and among fans of period romance novels, Cartland is perhaps lesser known to a broader American audience. Cartland was larger than life. In addition to being one of the best-selling writers of the 20th century (unofficially dubbed the Queen of Romance), she was a regular figure in the higher echelons of London society and the step-grandmother to Princess Diana. To those who know Cartland, the image conjured in their mind’s eye is a woman in her 70s with perfectly set hair (think the curls your grandmother would’ve done at the salon), wearing a bright pink gown, generously applied makeup (big eyelashes and blue eyeshadow style), diamonds dripping from every available appendage, and clutching the fluffiest of small dogs. Cloutman captures all this apparent majesty in the painting titled Barbara Cartland, using her thickly layered strokes Cartland is everything described above, but in the painting there’s a sadness to her appearance. Her eyes are wide open and set straight ahead, her lips form a slight frown, and it’s clear the way time has betrayed her body despite the elaborate dress, with breasts clearly sagging and a bulge around the middle.
Cartland’s place in Remarkably Well Preserved is a playful jab, the older she became, the more extreme lengths were taken to create a facade of her younger years making the aging process even more heightened. It’s a sorry reality that figures we love (famous or closer to home) often go so far in their attempts to conceal aging that it leaves only a failed facsimile of who they once were. For Cloutman’s first exhibition in Los Angeles, how the worm of preservation has burrowed into our collective minds, a place filled with glamour, but also at the forefront of rejuvenation remedies. Hollywood is a place where it’s not enough to simply be well-preserved; instead, Dorian Gray-like feats are attempted to turn back the hands of time and remain eternally youthful.
In Bette Davis, the actress is depicted as Elizabeth I from the 1939 film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, which was the only color film made at the height of her career. Davis portrays Elizabeth I in her trademark powdered face, a look the Tudor queen regularly wore after a bout of smallpox left her face riddled with scars. It was her attempt to hide the imperfections and hold onto the virginal beauty of her youth, it’s how Elizabeth I is most easily recognized to contemporary audiences. It’s not the only time that Davis played a character heavily powdered, she did it again in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a film that embodied the culmination of a decades-long feud with fellow actress Joan Crawford. Davis’ long career in Hollywood was marked by times of feast and famine, bouts when she was highly sought after and continuously nominated for Oscars (though she only won twice) and those when her box office power waned in her 40s and 50s as she began to age. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was a renewal of her career but she didn’t quite know how to transition into middle and old age, she kept her trademark 1930s styled bob haircut for the rest of her life.
The work Mutton Dressed as Lamb is a delightfully dark visual play on the same English adage. The old sheep carries the broken lamb on its back, doing its best to disguise itself but completely failing as puffs of dark gray wool dominate its coat. There just isn’t enough lamb to hide the mutton. It pairs well with Polaroid of Frederica Bimmel, a reference to the first victim of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and Paper Doll, a play on the ubiquitous dolls that seem to only appear in toy stores in holiday towns the world over. Paper Doll displays the layers of priming needed for the doll to become a woman out in the world: the eyelashes, hairbrush, jewelry, and La Mer face cream. It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again, indeed. These three paintings reveal the layers we put on to become, transform, and hide who we are as the hands of time tick along.
Cloutman’s depictions remind us of the fleeting nature of time, and the often vain attempts humanity undertakes to halt its relentless march. They capture both the absurdity and the poignant desperation inherent in this universal struggle. Her exhibition doesn’t offer answers or cast judgment, instead it presents a mirror, reflecting the lengths one will go in the pursuit of eternal youth. Each piece serves as a candid snapshot of our cultural psyche, offering a hauntingly beautiful, yet sobering exploration of the price of preservation. In an era where immortality is sold in jars and vials, Cloutman’s work is a much-needed counterpoint, reminding us that time, like her artwork, is a beautifully textured layered narrative to be embraced, not feared.