Art

01.17.14

Seduced by Art & Beauty ‘At the House of Mr X’

When cosmetics magnate Stanley Picker died in 1982, he left behind a gorgeous house and notable art collection. Elizabeth Price's documentary invites viewers to come in and explore.

“Enter the beautifully vacated house … and inhabit its luxurious interiors.” A suspicious invitation? Maybe. Seductive? Certainly. I wouldn’t hesitate to cross the threshold: inside is an art-and-design lover’s dream.

Fortunately for the easily swayed and trespass-prone among us, the message (or is it a command?) that flashes across the screen in Turner Prize-winning artist Elizabeth Price’s 2007 film, At the House of Mr X, is notional. She’s offering only a virtual tour of the spectacular former residence of New York-born cosmetics magnate, Stanley Picker (Mr X). Like the rest of the text appearing line by line in motion graphics, it’s a piece of (let’s compromise) advice offered to the viewer by the narrator of the film, our onscreen guide. My advice would be to make your way to London’s Whitechapel Gallery, where Price’s 20-minute film is showing continuously from January 14 to April 15.

The opening shot places the viewer outside, in the dark, looking at a house warmly lit and glowing with fiery hues. Right on cue, as if to sanction a visit, ten choristers from the Royal Holloway Choir start to sing. Before you know it, you’re being ushered inside, the soundtrack a version of The Fleetwoods 1959 single, “Mr Blue.” Who could resist those soothing “Wahoo wahoo wahoos?”

Click. (The film is punctuated with these sudden breaks.)

The authoritative text accompanying the image begins documentary-like, the narrative equivalent of an unusually well-informed real-estate agent. You’re told that the house, located in a quiet cul-de-sac in Kingston-upon-Thames, about 12 miles southwest of London, was built at the edge of a suburb on the side of a hill; it’s sold to you as a fine example of 1960s modernist architecture and, most importantly, as something that is perfect. “Survey the modern, open plan interior … the perfect division of spaces….” It turns out that the information is collaged from archival records and documents relating to Picker’s house, art collection, and business ventures: architectural plans, art inventories, and notes on his cosmetics empire set the scene.

As soon as you enter—“Ready?” reads the screen—the sun rises and it becomes daylight outside. It’s immediately apparent that the house is uninhabited, save for the sculptural figures standing guard in every room (a torso of a female nude greets visitors upon entry), and despite the curiously alive plant life that suggests otherwise. The house, only briefly inhabited by Picker, has been this way since his death in 1982; both house and collection have been maintained by a trust since then. The effect is ghostly. The house is eerily pristine and immaculately preserved; your visit is the only thing threatening to disturb it.

“[In] the final part of the film, [the] viewer and architecture merge; you no longer inhabit the house, the house inhabits you.”

The narrator is kind enough to provide directions through the patches of light and dark (“descend the ash stairway”)—shadows are the only disadvantage of having a house flatteringly free from overhead lighting. And there are moments for you to catch your breath. During the tour, you’re invited to “rest” on the orange, velvet settee, enticingly squashy-looking, and to sit at the table in the dining room and “eat.” But there’s no food, either on film or in the Gallery’s auditorium, a reminder that this isn’t your average cinema trip, full of popcorn and sugary treats.

“Enjoy all the wonderful things.” That you can do. Objects are scrupulously labeled by name, manufacturer, and material. In one room, the three-grace-like nudes of Enzo Plazzotta’s Triptych Bronze prance on a tabletop; in another, a leather Kukkpuro armchair commands the space. The materials are endlessly varied, but what they share is their existence in unencumbered, refined states: every metallic surface is polished, every marble veneer gleams.

Click.

And then it all becomes clear. Really, there’s no need for guesswork. Stamped across the screen is the explanation, the history behind the house. All this beauty and luxury were paid for by cosmetics brands Outdoor Girl and Miners, because Mr X, a friend of fashion designer and British fashion icon Mary Quant, invented “eye gloss,” “eye wipers,” and “loads of lash.”

In an instant, the make-up motif becomes obvious. The measured real-estate agent narrator becomes a fanciful cover girl; the on-screen writing, now more commercial than curatorial, turns pink. There’s talk of “lip-shine glossy as lacquer,” “soft center candy floss,” and “natural tint.” The message of the make-up ads is less is more: “Everything that is needed … nothing that is not.”

And then, with the innuendo of advertising copy, things get a little steamy. As the screen flashes over sensual interior shots, the narrator announces, “Make-up to make love in … let’s put it on … at the house of Mr X.” You’re told to “make your way along the mezzanine … and into all the bedrooms.” There’s no privacy here, no locked doors; the viewer is given free reign, invited to inhabit the house completely.

Click.

Then, just like that, silence. All of a sudden you’re staring at a bedside table, on which rests a white lamp flanked by two identical clocks. Without realizing it, the cover girl has crept into your conscience and caused you to see things differently; cosmetics product descriptions are applied to the house as though it were a face. You become aware of the complexion of colors and “the restrained luxury of the surfaces.” The still life before you is no longer symmetrical simply to be tidy; it’s fetishized, made symmetrical like a person’s face. Could the faces of the clocks and the ticking of time allude to ageing? Might they allude to a beauty-world calling for botox?

Click.

In the final section, the instructions begin to get a little strange. In a long list of imperatives, the narrator entreats the viewer to “Run the taps,” “Switch on the lights … switch off the lights” (should somebody call Martin Creed?), “Lie … sleep … wake … doze.” The instructions become a tad irritating, especially for more independent or stubborn members of the audience. And then, just like that, Price throws a curve-ball: “Pour on your liquid stockings.” You’re invited to physically blend yourself into the slippery surfaces of the house, to “make silvery gold and viscous trails … a delightful décor, of lustrous puddles.” This is the final part of the film, when viewer and architecture merge; you no longer inhabit the house, the house inhabits you.

Click.

After being invited to go “here and there as you like,” the viewer is at last drawn to the window. Through the striped blinds—incidentally, the same shades of oranges and reds as the Gallery’s auditorium chairs—you’ll notice that it’s light outside, a clue that now is the time to leave. I happened to walk out of Price’s film to hear the tour guide of the Gallery’s new Hannah Höch show (the first major UK exhibition of the Dadaist) utter, “totalitarian ideas of beauty and the body were at the forefront.” Well, he may have been talking about 1920s Germany, but I’d say that, with Price’s study of seduction and consumption, the same applies here.

At the House of Mr X has been selected by Artists’ Film International, a yearly touring program of film, video, and animation chosen by 15 partner organizations from around the world. It premiered at the Stanley Picker Gallery in 2007. Since then, it has been screened at such venues as the British Film Institute, Southbank London (2008), Frieze Art Fair (2010). It will be on view at the Whitechapel Gallery January 14—April 15, 2014.