hidden persuaders

A review of Louise Bristow’s Hidden Persuaders, at Brighton’s Permanent Gallery from 28 March - 24 April 2009 was commissioned by in a-n magazine (and appears on a-n Interface)

To those literate in cultural or media studies, the title Louise Bristow has chosen for her exhibition at Brighton’s Permanent Gallery will have an instant resonance: it is borrowed from Vance Packard’s influential 1957 study ‘Hidden Persuaders’, one of the first works to ‘reveal’ for a popular readership the manipulative psychological techniques used by advertisers. I’m curious about the decision, wondering if Bristow is simply hoping to borrow some of the import of this publication along with its name, for, according to the gallery’s statement, Bristow’s work ‘explores the persuasive power of images and ideologies inherent within everyday visual communication and the built environment.’ I suppose that I’ve grown a little wary of the somewhat overblown assertions made by press-release-speak and learned to look through and beneath such claims to discern the actual, usually more modest, realities. Such realities can often be more interesting, and for me, this is the situation with the exhibition here.

Packard’s book was important in its time, but this is, of course, a moment that is now half a century past. These days, consumers are well aware of the advertisers’ intentions and know very clearly that manipulation is at work, so Packard’s title here seems a historical curiosity and for me serves only to evoke a critical sense of the ‘not now’. This distance in time is also present in the imagery with which Bristow presents us, and in the technique with which these pictures are rendered: her series of very carefully worked gouache paintings depict a motley collection of modernist buildings, some celebrated and others more anonymous, married to re-presentations of book covers and other found imagery from the middle years of the twentieth century. There is an odd sense of scale as in Bristow’s images the buildings are dwarfed by books: these buildings, we realise, are themselves painted from models, examples of which are also present in the gallery. The resulting works are a curious species of wonky still-life, hybridised with set design and the whole seemingly in collision with graphic design. These combined pictorial registers are made yet stranger thanks to the illustrative style in which they are worked, which is quite clearly from another era: whilst it is reminiscent of certain encyclopaedias, with their heterogeneous variety of subject matter, it also has echoes of a the flat banality of surrealist collage. In any case, the artist’s diligent attempts to reproduce in paint the detail of wood grain on a surface are about as far as it is possible to get from the swish contemporary effects of Photoshop.

It feels quite odd to view these works now, to step from the visual clamour of a twenty-first century high street into a quiet gallery and look back into this, our relatively recent past. Even though these artefacts and buildings are not really so distant or so strange in themselves, their amalgamation here renders them so. It seems a little as if there is some secret code at work, some hermetic system, which we might unravel in order to understand the meanings of their combinations and re-combinations.  In this context even the model buildings arranged upon glass shelves take on the appearance of ritual objects… And so it is here that we seemingly return to the title Hidden Persuaders, which for me resonates not at all in the sense of Packard’s original usage, but as something much more poetic and more peculiar. I find myself wondering about what it is that we are being persuaded, and why that persuasion is so oblique. Amidst the familiar hubbub of contemporary communication these pictures keep their counsel; they allude to a host of possible readings, but refuse to be definitively pinned down. Encouraging us to linger a while, this exhibition works through echoes and resonances rather than explicit transmission; it suggests that semiotic subtleties are worth paying attention to and that ‘meaning’ often remains richly and uncertainly plural.