A L V I N B O O T H

LETS GET THESE NIPPLES DUSTED OFF
/ AND OTHER COMMON STATEMENTS OVERHEARD IN THE STUDIO OF ALVIN BOOTH


PORTRAIT BY EMILY JENNE


In his latest exhibition Nocturnes, Alvin Booth turns his focus to our relationship with the night, our enduring fascination with what may be hidden in darkness and what is illuminated by its selective light.  Large photographs and sculptures of cast silicone portray nocturnal themes; mysterious beauty, alluring sultriness, sexual fantasy and humorous meanderings - the type that might percolate from a half wakeful imagination.
 
Like all of Booth’s work, the pieces collected in Nocturnes use the vocabulary of the human body.  New photographs, apparitions of elusive beauties, are obscured by any competing light; the sculptures on the other hand are anything but elusive. Constructed out of a cornucopia of body parts they leave no vein unexposed. They are rude. They are also unashamedly charming, wry and captivating.  There is a long tradition of figurative art; the more Mr. Booth lets us in on the workings in his mind the more his singular vision on this classical theme shines through.
 
But what’s with all the vulvas and nipples and testicles, (oh my).  Who is making these pictures you can’t see and sculptures you can’t take home to meet your mother.  Who is this Alvin Booth?  In the way of clues, here is a sketch, and a few anecdotes…
 
Alvin Booth is utterly charming at a dinner party and charmingly impractical as well; he once brought an anvil back in his checked luggage from Burma.  He has a fatal allergy to bees and a horror of the sound of anyone chewing a banana. He loves cha cha music and hates John Wayne.  He tears up when he watches Kes. He is a true feminist; he does not hold doors.. for anybody.
 
He’s got deceivingly doe eyes and no upper lip to speak of, his hair rebels against gravity and his style in general borrows something from Struwwelpeter or Pigpen from Peanuts. He was once overheard described as “that guy who looks like a cheap imitation of Tim Burton”.  Some days he is dressed to the nines and some days the Comme des Garcons jacket is paired with steel toe cap welding boots and a bleu de travail. The lifespan of his reading glasses is terminally curtailed.  Some only last a day or two.  His conversation is littered with puns and wisecracks and although he turned 57 this year he still enjoys lewd jokes. Perhaps its because he spent the first 22 years of his life below sea level.  It must do something to the brain.
 
His time is split between New York and a village in the south of France where he compulsively buys up old buildings and restores them. The modus operandi seems to be never loosing momentum and he would probably work every day of the week if he could, “We only take Sundays off because the hospitals are closed”.  There are two kinds of Englishmen, those who endeavor to conquer their gardens, and those who endeavor to conquer the world.  Mr. Booth is one of the latter.
 
Between the art and the building work there might be just enough time for target practice, archery, gliding, or making sushi for a dozen close friends. Perhaps a quick trip to Oktoberfest or to Puglia. In France he motors around in a smoke grey Morris Minor and in New York a tandem bicycle. On the back is Nike, a perennial beauty with old New York style. They’ve been married since she was 25.
 
In other words, he couldn’t have a midlife crisis if he wanted to. He’s got it all. Things weren’t always so glamorous. He grew up in Hull, a flat, grey, industrial port in the north of England and went into the family trade, hairdressing. He worked his way up, turned down a job at Vidal Sassoon in favor of a plum position at a high-end salon in Oxford, and (in probably the greatest single stroke of luck in his life) met his wife, who came in for a trim. When the watch his grandfather left him was stolen (his second greatest stroke of luck) he spent the insurance money on a Mamiya RB67. He traded in hairdressing for photography, moved to New York, and started shooting nudes.
 
Although Booth hasn’t live in England for almost three decades he insists on preserving some small traditions. One highlight of this discrepancy is the obscene quantity of airtime given to BBC radio four in the studio.  Especially sacred is The Archers. He breaks for tea at least twice a day, and still has a special fondness for licorice allsorts, fish and chips, trifle, and Heinz baked beans.
 
Nowadays his studio is transient. Equipment for sculpting and framing migrates back and forth across the Atlantic between France and New York. Naturally there are lots of power adapters involved and additional luggage fees. The shooting setup however is impervious to locale.  The space needs only to be as big as the models proportions and as dark as possible with a single low light, Black Maria style.  A photograph that was taken in Manhattan could just as easily have been made in Kiev, or Kyoto.
 
On any given shelf in the studio you might find silicone release spray, a dusty bottle of merlot from a very good year, a pack of 8mm staples, a staple gun that takes 6mm, dental tools, electric motors for a rotocaster, baby powder, upholstery needles, and gilded shibari rope. The soldering torch might be in the kitchen though, for bruléeing the top of a tarte tatin.
 
Booth is positively giddy surrounded by his buckets of silicone and tools and his stockpile of casts. He is constantly stumbling on forgotten delights, although digging up just-the-right burnisher might take five minutes.  He darts around and pulling a plaster nipple out of a cabinet exclaims, with a puckish glint in his eye, “Japanese… she had great dimples of Venus”.
 
One can’t help but wonder what the original owners of all these body parts would think if they knew what was being constructed out of them. But the people who pose for Mr. Booth are no shrinking violets. Models come from all kinds of places, male and female, and different shapes and sizes although many of the more spectacular bodies that feature are those of dancers from The New York City Ballet, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and Pilobolus. Sometimes there’s a shopgirl or a bodybuilder scouted (understandably awkwardly) in the gym locker room by a friend.
 
The back catalog of cast body parts that are the building blocks of the new sculptures are selected and contorted with great care. The process is involved; form is translated from skin to alginate to plaster to silicone to plaster to silicone, painstakingly trimmed, filed and reconstructed where any rogue air bubble may have snuck in. With surgeons’ hands and two pairs of glasses Booth prepares the molds, cupping them as if they were a fledgling bird. When the finished molds are ready they are tacked together or onto a frame, seamed, and dusted with finishing powder. For him, it’s very important that everything be functional It can’t just look good. It has to work.
 
The form of the objects we live with is inextricably inspired by human anatomy. The furniture we sit on is a reflection of the shape and mass of our bodies. The food we eat and utensils we eat with are designed to the specifications of the mouth. Even the way we caress our phones says something about our intimate relationship with the objects around us, whose origin is often ergonomic and imitative of the human form. We even lend them anthropomorphic names: the legs of a table, the arms of a candelabra, the spine of a book, the tongue of a shoe, and even the butt of a cigarette.  The shape and the language of objects is so often derivative of our own anatomy. Booth’s sculptures, created by the partitioning, multiplication and reconstruction of the human body gratifyingly brings this relationship full circle.
 
In His and Hers, two obscenely large penises are the soles of a pair of shoes (size 36). The testicles forming an elegant heel.  Cushioned strapping connects the contorted organ to the envisioned foot of the wearer, who even in absentia asserts dominance.  Along similar lines Stress Balls invites a reactive interaction from the viewer. A set of unnervingly realistic testicles are presented in an ornamented box and constructed with two gel filled chambers with balls inside (originally cast from quail eggs) for the most authentic possible feel. Another piece, Leche Cul or “ass licker” a spinning stool topped with a spiral of tongues is a cheeky nod to the relationship between the artist and the art community.
 
Booth’s work touches on a taboo that still receives condemnation in the art world, humor.  Why shouldn’t sex be funny? Why is there guilt attached to finding something comic and serious at the same time?  The human body is inextricably tied to important questions of power, gender, and pleasure but it should not have to be relegated to the theoretical. Depictions of the body can act as a catalyst for all kinds of valid reactions. Art moves us is so many ways, why not let laughter be one of them?
 
Reclining Nude is as indulgent in its punny title as it is in person. This full size functional chaise longue is upholstered head to toe in hundreds of pert breasts and punctuated with an appliqué of autonomous nipples. Comforting in every sense. It is the counterpoint to a very Freudian piece made two years ago entirely out of penises. And why lie on an analyst’s sofa when you can address your inner idiosyncrasies by making your own? If you can upholster it in a plethora of breasts, so much better right?
 
The therapy seems to have worked. Alvin doesn’t suffer from the oppressive prudishness of our times, nor does he bottle up his proclivities. You could say its juvenescent to spend so much time anthropomorphizing household items with breasts or adhering them cheekily into stairwells in your house for unsuspecting guests to notice, but doesn’t it seem much healthier to be in touch with and act out our surreal fantasies in the playground afforded us in the making of art.  As for being cured, the proof is in the pudding - how many men do you know who can say the word vagina in conversation without batting an eye?
 
A uniting quality of Booth’s sculptural work is its exploration of heightened sensation.  Most of the sculptures are intended to be felt, not just seen.  The directness of the casting process heightens the graphic nature of disembodied and collaged body parts, and somehow, also renders them more blithely amusing. A funniness that seems appropriate as Booth’s work adopts a turn toward an increasingly lighthearted maturity.  These are sculptures eager to engage with their environment. By creating their own source of light, as both UNtitLED and the Nocturnes do, or by inspiring an audience to interact with it, to touch it. The eyes are not the only way we perceive art.
 
The Nocturnes also play with how we perceive art, and when. At first glance these sculptural photographs appear to be nothing more than glossy black boxes on the wall.  As night falls or as the ambient light in their environment changes a soft luminescence comes to life.  Lyrical almost balletic figures emerge whose movement is echoed in the gesture of the carbon sheath that obscures them.
 
The classical constructs of a photograph are turned inside out here.  The essence of what photography is, the act of capturing light, is translated literally.  These pictures surfaces hold and emanate their own light, and indeed hold their own secret world, invisible, unrevealed in the full light of day.
 
Photography is traditionally employed to capture detail, to be the next best thing to real life in terms of the amount of information it gives you.  The idea behind the Nocturnes series seems to be to create a more enigmatic photograph.  The image seduces a viewer, making them pause a little longer. By playing with the permeability between what is obscured and what isn’t, the images unveil themselves only gradually. The form is only elucidated by the subtle means of chiaroscuro, a kind of blending where darkness slowly and seamlessly evolves into a legible form.
 
In the light of day, the images are concealed.  All that we see is a black mirror; all that we see is ourselves. When dusk falls and the images begin to surface we enter that hypnogogic state, drifting towards unconsciousness, our dreams and our waking desires merge.  This inability to see clearly, paradoxically, gives us the means to illuminate what light cannot always help to elucidate. There are truths in the night.