Those Fabulous Pre-Fabs

The Pretender Series: Patrick Hartnett
March 21 – April 12, 1997

a response to the exhibition by Al Rushton

With six minutes of every TV half hour devoted to claims of commercial quality, it’s refreshing when someone comes along and says, “Hey, this isn’t the Real Thing.” Patrick Hartnett’s recent Ace Art installation: The Pretender Series does just this. Using computer photo manipulation, Hartnett flies in the face of vainglorious advertising claims and frowningly serious contemporary art, both presenting themselves as Gospels of the moment.

I wander into Ace Art, invite in hand, the morning after the opening. I’ve heard that Hartnett, in royal garden party fashion, had served cucumber sandwiches. Though I’ve missed the opening, I’m curious about how the work, much of which I’ve seen, will stack up as an installation. Taking out a ball point pen, I fold the installation mail-out in four and start making notes in the margins:

*Big stick-on, museum style, letters announcing the artist and exhibit (adding official status).

*Official looking photos of the British Royal Family shown at work and play (exhibit nice range).

*Each image set off by a gold frame (appropriate for this content).

*Each framed image set apart from the gallery by gold stanchions and braided rope (Hartnett might be on to something).

Past the big text, there’s an image of the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, Princess Margaret, Edward – the whole family except Philip. They seem to be watching a parade. The Queen Mother, who must be in her late eighties, waves demurely from a velvet festooned balcony, apparently to passers-by. Meanwhile, unfamiliar in this context, there’s the computer artist, dressed in uniform, mugging over the Queen’s left shoulder. Though this is both humorous and vaguely disconcerting, I find myself drifting off… to the first family…to Hartnett…to the imaginary crowd below…. As if dreaming in a queue at a government office, I’m jerked short. The artist’s gold stanchions and glittering rope keep me at a respectful distance. No pushing please!

Appropriately chastened and categorized, I move on. Another braided rope. Another reconstructed image. Fergie In Canoe. Sarah Ferguson and the artist are presumably off for a weekend’s R&R in the back woods. Fergie, complete with corny coonskin cap, holds a blond wood paddle aloft, while the broadly smiling Hartnett dips water with aluminum. He’s upbeat, pacing himself in a physical workout; she’s a pampered tourist whisking away flies.

The Order of the Bath. Here, a younger, more vital Queen Elizabeth and (someone who must be) the Archbishop of Canterbury stand bedecked in red velvet robes and gold tassels. As she prepares to bestow her highest order, the by now familiar (though not quite familial) face of the interloper grins widely behind her. He’s everywhere, or at least everywhere they are.

On the west wall of the exhibit, hangs the seemingly incongruous 1986: Family Portrait. Three boxy grain elevators background a large farm family dressed in oversized shorts and T-shirts. I scan the well-fed faces until I spot Hartnett, aged maybe 15 or 16. To the left of this solid group, he’s situated Queen Elizabeth wearing a powder blue coat and matching hat. She’s thin, almost emaciated.

In the lion’s share of the work, the artist insinuates himself at the centre of British Empire power and prestige. In 1986: Family Portrait, the Queen is more of a footnote, an add-on. As far as a Saskatchewan farm family goes, maybe she’s the Pretender. Perhaps The Royal family and a Prairie family boil down one Family writ large? (Perhaps I’m pretending.)

Hartnett’s approach to the familiar photography – “Truth or Fiction?” strategy seems to stress The Family of Man ideal in both senses. Tension between the family he was born to and The Family he appropriates leaves us asking tougher questions about ‘fit’ -about where one family leaves off and another begins and why.

Beyond “…lampooning our cultural obsession with celebrity, and the underlying social inequalities supported by that obsession…” (Richard Noble, Border Crossings. February, 1997.), Hartnett’s work has to do with the medium of computer technology itself. Insinuating himself (a commoner) in photos of the royals is both pro-active politically and parallels the carefully measured bursts of electric power directed to transform successive photographic layers in an image processor or similarly the stages in a word document. Finesse is required. Documents, art work and celebrity are constructed phenomena. Still Hartnett might never be interested in appropriating the Royals if they didn’t have a celebrity cache he could cash in on?

In an effort to track down this definitive ‘why’, I talked with Allison Gillmor who hired both Hartnett and Di Thorneycroft to present their work to a university level art history class. After they’d finished, Gillmor probed the students for a response. The consensus was: “Hartnett’s too light and Thornycroft too heavy.”

As impressive for its innocence as for its summary rush to judgment, the students’ art “weigh-in” is telling. Thorneycroft uses photography to, among other things, explore shrouds of mystery and an almost androgynous sexuality. Hartnett photo-manipulates his way into Royal tableaus, and then photo-manipulates a royal into his own family photos.

Thorneycroft and Hartnett deal with the politics of perception. Hers is a more personal language, his more public. With Hartnett, we get a whole range in photography between truth and fiction. We see photography as a tool (of power), a toy, and as a means to experiment and entertainment.

That out of the way, I search my gallery mail-out file for royals used in other contemporary art contexts. I land on Shirley Brown. She situates cut-out Queen Elizabeth Is in snowy fields. Movable monuments like her Q.E. Is seem light years away from someone who ingratiates himself to two dimensional images of the Royal Household (to a double matriarchy).

To zero in on this student “too light” thing I venture further afield, contrasting Hartnett’s work to television comediennes like Roseanne, Hyacinth of Keeping Up Appearances and Candice Bergen’s character in Murphy Brown. I’m interested in how they steam-roll their opposite genders, neighbors and co-workers to-a-man and how Hartnett gets laughs, albeit subtle and understated, by other means.

At bottom, Hartnett’s is a quieter work, one that goes on behind the front line of the warring, dressing and re-dressing icons of the moment. Hartnett’s well placed image is a visual stand in for a parent or a diplomat’s “well placed word”. A re-situationed comedy like Hartnett’s is deceptive in it’s ease. While often intellectually rigorous beforehand, lyrical work like this best when it appears to come off-the-cuff.

While intentionally not seamless in his commoner-royal integration, what’s finally most important about Hartnett is not that he exploits satire, parody or a computer, but that humor and finesse presented this straight forwardly in art are so rare. The same rules of abundance and scarcity apply. Frowningly serious contemporary work is simply in more ample supply than its witty and diplomatic mirror image.


Al Rushton is a son, father, common-law husband, media producer, cultural writer and aesthetic demographer, currently based in Winnipeg..