Ruby Dickson at NiCOLETTi

At a time of collective grief, despair and misery, the criticism of innocuous visual culture or celebrity doesn't even feel indulgent anymore. It doesn't feel guilt-inducing, either. In a numbing sense, it simply feels part of the matrix of issues that exacerbates the devastations of the world. These things are bigger than all of us. but there are often players in the realm of popular culture who act as neat distractions. So it is with that in mind that I look to Ruby Dickson's exhibition, Maybe my fairy-tale has a different ending than I dreamed it would. But that's okay. Hosted at NiCOLETTi in East London, the show has a very simple premise: the artist has produced paintings of paparazzi shots of Kim Kardashian.

NiCOLETTi are known for grandiose installations and exhibitions within their adapted warehouse space; their previous show of works by Tyler Eash was incredible, absorbing, immersive, genuinely thought-provoking. By contrast, Dickson's exhibition of paintings is presented in a pared-down, scant gallery space. This is not to say that the works are not thought-provoking, but let's face it, the sight of Kim Kardashian is not going to immediately ignite groundbreaking ideas in most people. That's why the exhibition is successful! I left the gallery thinking about so many different facets of celebrity culture and what Kardashian stands for, contrasted by the devastation of the exact moment we are living in. 

Ruby Dickson, Kim Kardashian sparkled in an over-the-top coat as she attended a dinner with the SNL cast, 2024. Oil paint on canvas, 200cm x 120cm. Image courtesy of the artist and NiCOLETTi.

In the merging of so many crises, some of which might be distilled down to the financial, ecological, colonial, and mental (with several intertwining), this exhibition made me think about the scale of Kardashian's success, and it was gnawing at me. As a brand, I might dare suggest that she bares no relevance to, ultimately, anything that has ever happened. Okay, she championed the selfie, but that would have happened with or without her, and even if that wasn't the case, so what? As a response to being asked in a 2016 interview whether or not she was a feminist, Kardashian said, "I don't think that I am...I don't like to push my views on other people", which really produces a physical recoiling if you sit with it for too long. Perhaps that is her appeal; in an age where everyone is supposedly forced to have an opinion on everything, do her fans find it refreshing that she doesn't preach?

The NiCOLETTi space is blank white, with an exposed painted black flooring. Dickson's paintings are hung in a normal manner, at a pleasingly eye-level height. This is a show about paintings, and there is a real modesty to the works, which is an irony given its subject matter. Although I may sound bitter when talking about Kardashian and celebrity culture, I don't especially dislike her. How can I? I genuinely know little to nothing about her as a person (and neither do any of her parasocial fans or members of the public, even if they follow her on social media and watch her TV show). In the paintings seen here, there is no emphasis on our protagonist's facial expressions, partly because they are entirely blank, but Dickson has split the canvas so that Kardashian's face is divided. This breaks up the immaculate, perfected beauty being presented to us, and further enforces the idea of a celebrity as a product, and not a functioning, flawed human being. 

Ruby Dickson, Kim Kardashian seen with her sons Saint and Psalm as they arrive back at their hotel in New York City. 21 June 2022, 2024. Oil paint on canvas, 180cm x 140cm. Image courtesy of the artist and NiCOLETTi.

I cannot help but continue reverting to the context of the present moment. I seem to talk frequently about the "collective consciousness" being shifted, but through her exhibition, Dickson has reminded us that perhaps there is no such thing. We witness a mass ethnic genocide on the same platform as 364 million people watch Kim cavorting. It goes without saying that many influencers do this; I'm not singling her out. Onward, and an online search for "Kim Kardashian Gaza" brings up some interesting results, most of which are dated from October or November 2023. Most are individual Reddit users aghast at Ms Kardashian's apparent neutral stance, save an obligatory "thoughts and prayers" Instagram story a few days after the 7 October attacks. We're not naive, though; we know how PR works, and it generally doesn't bode well for a mega-celebrity to get tangled up in political issues. But as the old trope goes, being ignorant of "politics", or possessing an appearance of ignorance, is a signifier of immense privilege. "Politics" is something of an abstract entity until you're directly affected; when you've been evicted and made homeless, or another nation is bombing your community and murdering your friends and family, or you're at the helm of violence due to your gender identity. Conventional beauty, a wealthy family and a team of workers around you will isolate you from politics, lest we forget.

Installation view: Ruby Dickson, Maybe my fairy-tale has a different ending than I dreamed it would. But that's okay, NiCOLETTi, London. 16 February - 23 March 2024. Photograph by Issey Scott for Post-Art Clarity.

I may be mistaken, but this far into her career, it would appear that Kim Kardashian has not so much a fan base, but people who have almost hypnotically fallen into the process of following her and her family's every move, like an obsession that they might not feel entirely complicit with. A recent Polyester Zine podcast, in which hosts Gina Tonic and Ione Gamble discuss the rise of Taylor Swift, asked, "how many times a day would you say you think about Taylor Swift against your will?". This is, of course, an amusing way of thinking about it, but as celebrities with stratospheric status such as Swift and Kardashian gain their fame from the reproduction of their image, we lose sight of who they are as individuals, and becomes almost satisfying to see them, even in entirely banal ways such as walking into buildings and functions, as depicted by Dickson. It's like the old model of the soap opera (which Keeping Up with the Kardashians has adopted in a less-than-subtle way): while we're all getting lonelier and more socially isolated, the warm recognition of seeing and virtually following famous people is incredibly mundane, but oddly satisfying.

In her book, Replace Me, critic Amber Husain says that "those society lauds as visionaries tend to produce the most banal ideas", and while perhaps 'visionary' is too strong a descriptor for Kardashian, her ubiquitous presence in popular and celebrity culture is hard to deny. Harking back to Tonic and Gamble's discussion on Taylor Swift, I just wish I didn't know so much about her. Dickson's work at NiCOLETTi conveys the "banal ideas" of Kardashian's self-objectification via the means of branding. She will, after all, have been paid to wear certain clothes and attend the events she has been papped at. The common denominator here is sobering and deeply, objectively, uninteresting: we are looking at a sequence of images of a woman walking into, or out of, a building. The act itself is so deeply inconsequential that the artist reproducing these photographs in the medium of paint serves to emphasise the ways in which we are being distracted. I can't bring myself to believe the conspiracy theory that either Kim or Taylor Swift are psyops, but the PR machine is a high-functioning beast, and we're all wrapped up in it, whether we think we are above it or not.

Maybe my fairy-tale has a different ending than I dreamed it would. But that's okay, a solo exhibition by Ruby Dickson. 16 February - 23 March 2024. NiCOLETTi, London.

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