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Review: Gallery Girl by Wendy Holden

gallery girl holden Review: Gallery Girl by Wendy Holden

Given the slightly bemused look my grandmother gives many of the objects in my home (No, gran, thats a toaster. Thats the vase Ive been talking about), its fair to say that weve perhaps entered a new era of design. Or at least some sort of world in which aesthetics and function seem, rather like a skipping rope wielded by a Jump Rope for Life competitor, to cross over and then dangerously veer away again. It seems that were approaching a blurring of the boundaries of art, design, and fashion, and either no ones entirely sure what to make of it, or theyd rather not let on. Indeed, there has been a lot of talk recently in Australia about the death of the critic. But according to Wendy Holden, all of this has less to do with the vanishingly small art community, and rather more to do with the fact that the very definition of art has taken a left turn somewhere at, and is now utterly incomprehensible. And so, with an opening scene that involves the auctioning off of a set of gold-painted false legs (a piece titled Prostheseus Unbound) for the unconscionable sum of twenty million pounds, Holden sets to work with her own critical artistic eye, and its one that allows few individuals of the British modern art scene to escape unscathed.

Gallery Girl, the most recent outing from the best-selling author,'features an ensemble cast of art world unfortunates: we have the crass and soulless Zeb Spaw whose oeuvre extends from gold painted hospital beds to gold painted toilets to gold painted gold (okay, so perhaps not the last), and whose career is kept afloat by the fickle patroness Fuschia Klumpp, who collects artwork the way other wealthy people collect chihuahuas; Alice, the earnest gallery assistant whose love of art gets rather in the way of the fiscal side of things; the vulgar but admittedly driven art-dealer Angelica whose career ebbs and flows with her husbands drug addictions and mental illnesses; kind portrait artist Dan who has retreated to the countryside in order to support himself and his passion; and Siobhan, a would-be abstract painter whose dreams have been put on ice by her husband, an erstwhile boy band member who wants nothing more than to relive his glory days of floppy hair and matching baggy trousers. For the sake of brevity, Ill cut the cast list short, but do be aware that the true number of characters that youll come across in this book is something like a geometric progression of this lot.

Ordinarily Id attempt a plot summary, but as noted the extraordinarily large number of wheelers and dealers in this novel makes it somewhat of a fraught affair, as does the fact that the book lacks a central protagonist, teetering instead all over the place as it offers first one character then another the main role for a few pages or so. This unfocused approach perhaps explains the length of the novel, which comes in at just under five hundred pages, making it a considerable tome given the rather narrow focus of the subject material. At her best, Holden is witty and incisive, skewering the art world rather like an entomologist might an overly garish butterfly. However, the joke does become rather played out after the first go around, and after a while, reading this novel feels like gazing at Zeb Spaws endless iterations of gold-sprayed stuff. While Holden has a great deal of fun hamming up the notorious excesses and pretensions of the art world, her characters become rather lost in the whole affair, and every now and then certain potentially main characters would rear their heads without explanation, leaving me to go leafing back through the book as though I was reading a choose your own adventure novel.

There are, however, moments of utter hilarity in this novel, and its a shame that the overall pacing is so uneven and unfocussed, as this detracts from the snort-worthy value of these scenes. Holden offers up a nihilist painter, Zero, whose entire body of work consists of nothing at all (and which is bought up at a handsome price by Fuchsia Klumpp for her downstairs entertaining area); the decomposing work of modernist art that makes its way into gallery attendants bellies rather than into a display cabinet; and all manner of groanworthy puns and linguistic callisthenics (whether you respond well to punny names such as Roger Pryap or lines such as dancing under the tsars will have rather a lot to do with how well you take to this bookalthough if you pride yourself on your sense of propriety, you may find yourself cringing at regular intervals throughout).

In all, though, while the novel has much to recommend it in terms of its clever approach to language and its ruthless depiction of the vapid, money-grubbing modern art world,'Gallery Girl suffers not only from a bloated and sprawling narrative that never really heads towards any clear climax or denouementand indeed, its conclusion lacks clarity due to the fact that its never entirely clear for whom we should be cheeringbut also from the fact that so many of its characters are just utterly unlikeable. All of those who have come up out of the primordial soup that apparently gives rise to artsy types are frankly awful, and the few characters who seem to have evolved from a similar gene pool as the rest of us unfortunately receive limited page space. Unfortunately, even these characters are thrust into rather bewildering circumstances more for the sake of creating tension or tormenting them rather than out of any narrative need to do so, and as such the novel is besieged by cheating spouses and partners, elderly rock stars (well, as much as elderly rock stars are capable of besieging anything), gormless, wimpy women, and random walk-on characters whose presence is largely unfathomable. Moreover, there are strange seeing of the light moments had by a number of the characters that result in them undergoing whiplash-worthy personality changes seemingly overnight. (Well, that, or the proofreader had some fun with find and replace at some late stage of production) Its a shame, because Holden clearly has a knack for satire, and if Gallery Girl had been given a little less canvas space, it could have been a fabulous outing from this best-selling author.

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With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy.

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