Crass act: INSA peddles sexualized art in Montreal
London-based street artist INSA treads an uncomfortable line in stiletto heels.
INSA is best known for works focused on tits, ass and high heels — his signature image is a stylized lady’s leg culminating in a three-quarter view of a stiletto heel seen from behind. A variation of this image has become INSA’s brand, found on murals, billboards, buildings, stickers, T-shirts, hats, postcards, tea cups, Dunny dolls and footwear.
INSA’s signature high heel is appealing, and its infinite variations are explosions of colour and contrast. On a grand scale — say, covering a building — it becomes majestic. On the small side, it’s playfully cute. But it’s difficult not to cringe at the commercialization of the motif, especially when the artist espouses an ethics of, “Do not think owning things makes you better than any other person.” Why do we hate it when our friends become successful?
Alas, my mind instantly goes to Banksy’s never-quite-sure-if-its-a-documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and its prescient warning to the urban art community: people will buy anything that someone with a little bit of street cred says is cool. Can you still hold your head up as a cult artist after your work is featured on Nike shoes and Kangol hats? Admittedly, the sneakers look pretty hot. Perhaps we should ask Shepard Fairey, whose Obey T-shirts are now at Winners. At least INSA has done time in the Brixton prison for vandalism. Every day in the pen has got to be worth a year of legitimacy.
INSA’s work itself is full of contradictions. Much of it is T & A imagery, crass to the point of funny. The inspiration is ‘80s hip hop culture — airbrushed and chrome plated, all big round butts, tiny waists and pneumatic breasts. Can images of fish-eye focused and hyper-sexualized women be ironic statements about the use of sex to sell goods or a lifestyle? “Irony does not justify anything but it is a good way of expressing one’s own contradictions,” reads the artist’s disclaimer, a frustrating statement of self-awareness.
Sometimes, INSA pulls things off with great success, such as his light box “Only God and You Can Judge Me (Jumbo Edition),” featured in the Tate’s exhibited response to Chris Ofili. Ice-T’s barely-bikinied wife clad as the Virgin Mary stands in a blaxploitation power stance. Other times, though, his work is little more than a soft porn shoot à la Suicide Girls, such as Girls on Bikes, his series of voluptuous women on bicycles photographed in front of his murals. Provocative, over-the-top, even funny — yes. But as to any claims he makes to ironic social commentary about objectification, the message is lost in translation.
But what if we take INSA’s message seriously, and see the corpus as a reflection on the relationship between desire and consumerism? Although never explicit, the work implies that banal things are irresistible, that we will pay money for a fantasy we cannot have. This puts the viewer in the tenuous position: liking the work feels indulgent, or worse: one is guilty of the very thing he seems to address. The contradictions INSA raises are not just about images and society, but also about conflicts between the viewer, artist, and the work.
In the end, I prefer not to over-intellectualize INSA’s work. Let’s just call a spade a spade. Sex sells. Many people buy things because they are afraid to be less than cool. In the end, INSA’s makes great use of ‘80s motifs in all their vulgarity — something never in doubt. But to think his work provides any real critique seems like a post mortem justification for creating things he probably enjoys. The guilty are in no position to judge their crimes. ■
The vernissage for INSA Montreal and launch party for LNDMRK, a collective aiming to fuse corporate imagery and art, takes place tonight, Aug. 28 at Yves Laroche’s Projet Beaumont (550 Beaumont), 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.