Kirsty Budge ‘Gawkalitis’, essay by Brodie Lancaster
There’s a thin line between seeing and snooping. Noticing your neighbour bringing home a date is the former; walking down the street and looking just a second too long into a stranger’s lit-up living room falls into the latter; cocooning yourself in your own living room to watch as the Kardashians or a gaggle of Housewives (whether Real or fake) or the servers at SUR erupt into ground-shaking arguments over cocktails is a satisfying combination of the two.
Against black walls, Gawkalitis by Kirsty Budge emerges as a wall of windows with the curtains pulled back; illuminated portals you’d normally cast a furtive glance at that are now inviting you to take your time looking. Each work is a rear window, and each of us is Jimmy Stewart.
Informing the work is both a genuine obsession with reality television and a curiosity of other people’s lives that is loaded with subjectivity and projection but, at the same time, magically free of judgment.
Gawkalitis marks the first time that figures have dominated in Budge’s abstract work, and they do so with ambiguity, allowing us to insert our own narratives and perspectives onto those of the people inside these painted worlds, just as we do when we play the part of voyeur and linger outside a window or eavesdrop on a juicy conversation longer than we’d admit.
Pairing abstract figures – of women at home alone, of a couple in bed, of downstairs neighbours losing their minds at the noises coming from upstairs – alongside more detailed images of reality TV king Andy Cohen and the stars of shows like The Real Housewives of New York and Vanderpump Rules invites comparison and compassion, but not scorn.
Bringing a quote-unquote “low” artform like reality television into the gallery context has not been done in the hopes of questioning or legitimising it, but rather to remark upon how observing other lives unfold – whether through screens or walls or sunglasses – informs such a significant part of our own lives. As well as being windows, the works in Gawkalitis serve as mirrors. If we stare too long we’ll start to see ourselves.
It also reminds us that the distance between capital ‘A’ Art and reality television is smaller than it might seem. Like art, reality television is an abstraction of truth and life and actual reality. There’s a whisper of reality there, but it’s often hiding in plain sight beneath layers of decisions and questions and editing. Sometimes it’s so controlled it almost disappears.
Just as we do when we watch people’s personal crises unfold on reality TV shows, when we decide to watch or listen to strangers we’re constructing what is ultimately a phoney version of them. The neighbours whose arguments we use to inform the kinds of people they are, are more like holograms of humans than real ones; we think we know them, but we’ve only seen one dimension. And it would take time with and proximity to their specific kind of chaos for us to build up the opacity of our perception, and for them to be complete. But until then, we’ll keep an eye on them.