The iconography of our youth appeals to our psychology as a kind of universal cultural symbolism. In the 90s, thanks to the introduction of cable, TV shows were a pervasive influence, and saw in a new brand of icons. Now, the first screen-nourished generation are transferring their early visual experiences to their artistic practice. This “neo-nostalgia” aesthetic has most traction in the US, the heartland of pop suburbia, where the ultimate commodities - scrunchies, glitter-kitsch and dungarees derived from ‘90s televised hits like Clarissa Explains it All, Sister, Sister and Clueless – are relived via 20-something artists. It’s evolved in tandem with fashion trends, but there's something more uniting these artists, in the obsession with precious teens hanging out, and the kind of neoliberalism and multiculturalism that characterised the 90s.
Pussy Pat, a recent group show in NYC, curated by Petra F Collins (the preternatural plat du jour, currently appearing in the latest Urban Outfitters campaign) brought together a bunch of these fresh female artists including Japan's Monika Mogi, Arvida Bystrom, Kristie Muller and Brittany Shepherd. Also featured is Mayan Toledano, who art directed the new video for Garden City Movement's Move On. The teen girl love story presented is a neo-nostalgic visual utopia: dripping with perfectly twee details and saccharine colour. But the plot - the break-up of a young lesbian couple – though unsurprising in its beautification and eroticism of the sapphic theme (yes they get naked and kiss) is an appeal to a generation galvanized by images - depicting a changed social climate, where the struggle is not for tolerance or acceptance but to find love in an increasingly unstable world.
From this feeling of youthful unrest, there’s an emotional return to the iconography we inhabit as children too – once a form of comfort. Photographer Andi Gáldi Vinkó who address childhood icons in an explicit way in her work, exposes the bonds these apocryphal figures create. While her aesthetic too is clearly influenced by the chimerical worlds of the tv shows and films of the ‘90s (saturated sunsets, and desultory compositions). Heroes is a series exploring our emotional attachment to iconography: some of the children who feature come from Budapest’s wealthiest families, while others were shot in the city’s squats, where they live in with their families, but their connection to icons of modern culture is the same. Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, where history barely stretches back far enough for nostalgia, photographer Dafy Hagai reimagines hanging out in the youth habitats of suburban Israel. It’s not quite what I imagine when I think of my own ‘90s childhood in the unglamorous suburbia of southwest England but her images are a homage to the pubescent chic of Harmony Korine, Mike Mills and Larry Clark.
From sentimentality to psychological dysfunction, other artists touch on the way fascination can spiral to obsession. For some, the idols of our adolescent days become deeply rooted in our pyschosexual make-up. Bronies, connected with the adult subculture of Furries (fans all kinds of anthropomorphic animal characters who meet and converse, generally in cyber space) have been key inspirations for artist Anja Carr, based in Oslo, who connects to the imprint of these artificial images on our subconscious, and the profound effect they can have as our minds evolve. Carr, who we are currently collaborating with on a London project, explores the hallucinatory world between fun fantasy and disturbing perversion, performing in giant, psychotropic costumes made by her own hand.
To further elucidate the question, a new documentary recently released at the Tribeca Fim Festival, A Brony Tale, directed by Brent Hodge, tells the personal stories of adult male uber fans of TV franchise My Little Pony, who travel to a convention where the largest number of bronies meet each other and some of the voices of the show. There are reportedly 3 million bronies worldwide, the majority of whom are heterosexual – though the movement is not based on fethishtic fantasy, but living by the My Little Pony motto “Friendship is Magic”. Looking at the syrupy, reverential works of this group of emerging artists, the aphorism would seem an apt to define the feeling the works evoke.
Perverse or benign, our attraction to childhood symbols might just be best summarised in the words of one Brony in Hodge’s film. ‘I’ve tried myself to figure out why I love the show so much and honestly I can’t come up with a great answer.’
Charlotte Jansen runs the great art project No Way!