Vale Jennifer Phipps – esteemed curator, friend & colleague of RMIT Gallery

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The world will now be a bit more ordinary, following the passing of Australian curator Jennifer Phipps on August 21, 2014.

Jennifer was an esteemed friend and colleague of RMIT Gallery. RMIT Gallery Director Suzanne Davies said she was saddened by Jennifer’s death, and paid respect to an independent, creative thinker who brought a fresh perspective to every project.

“Jennifer was generous and a wise mentor and a brilliantly unpredictable curatorial force in Australian art,” she said.

We pay tribute with this extract of a catalogue essay Jennifer Phipps contributed to RMIT Gallery’s 2007 exhibition ‘Fashion Face: Fashion Photography by Robyn Beeche 1979 – 1989’.

This extract is accompanied by installation images from the exhibition.       

In this essay, Jennifer acknowledged discussions she had with Robyn Beeche.

The London Look of Robyn Beeche (catalogue extract)

By Jennifer Phipps

Robyn Beeche was a key artist in creating and disseminating the London look of the early 1980s: New Romanticism or New Puritanism that may be characterized as satirical rebellion through flamboyant aestheticism. It was an alternative to Britain’s Conservative government, growing unemployment, economic recession and the British class system.

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Vivienne – a look for the 1980s was commissioned in 1979 for the first edition of a new London magazine, Now! Beeche, asked to create the look for the future, found it at The Blitz Club, London, where post-punk music and styles were first played out. Here she photographed Willie Brown’s fashion parade of his Puritan collection based on traditional Austrian peasant costume.

This photograph launched the New Romantic look in London. Vivienne is austerely crisp and spotless, dressed in an Elizabethan ruff that Willie Brown designed on the spot, and is made up as a Puritan by the Australian make–up artist Richard Sharah. Beeche took a photograph that is exceptional for its flatness and uniform whiteness.  It hints at the German and Bauhaus films, and art from all ages, that stimulate Beeche’s invention.

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In 1980s’ London, Beeche kept an open studio for innovative artists in fashion and in hair and make-up. Costs were shared and people worked co-operatively. For these portraits, elaborate make-up that could take twelve hours to apply was first drawn up on paper, lighting was calculated meticulously and there was little thought of personal reward in a heated atmosphere of mutual creativity. (In a later commercial photograph, Four-face II 1987, Beeche ran out to Soho, while Phyllis Cohen applied the make-up, to buy and paste up the multi-language collage of newspapers that underline a message: the versatility of the face.)

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Steve Strange of Visage, founder of The Blitz Club, introduced Beeche to The Blitz, and  together she and Richard Sharah did Strange’s 1980 record cover Fade to Grey, as well as his Visage record single sleeves. The same year, Beeche photographed Leigh Bowery in the bedroom of his council flat, against his Star Trek wallpaper. He called this look “A Paki from Outer Space”.  Part Hindu God, his costume could be that of a Whirling Dervish but for its extra arms – a style taken up by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. The elaborate, brilliant make-up, extravagant and sexually diverse costumes, the transformed bodies of the New Puritans like Bowery and dancer Michael Clarke, come partly from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character of 1972. The Blitz had opened with a Bowie night in 1979.

3 thoughts on “Vale Jennifer Phipps – esteemed curator, friend & colleague of RMIT Gallery

  1. Jennifer Phipps was loved by her family. We are very sad she has gone. She said she was sick but never complained. This made it difficult to know how sick. Her life ended sooner than we expected and, by any measure, way too soon. Jennifer was a free thinker in the truest sense and an absolutely wonderful person to talk to. I have never known her to bag anyone, except in the most polite and oblique manner; yet she certainly had cause. I and those close to her will miss her and wonder always about the extraordinary people, places, things and experiences that entered her life and are now forever sealed away from the rest of us. Thank you to those who created this blog. Simon Phipps, 1st cousin

    • Thank you Simon, for sharing your words. We were just saying yesterday that we do not acknowledge enough how those we work with have enhanced our lives and how important they have been in extending our knowledge and experiences. And of course, how close we become to them as their orbits align with ours. We need to celebrate those in our world more, and when they are here on this world with us. We wanted to share our memories of Jennifer with those who read our blog, and also take time to let everyone know that her tremendous spirit touched us all. But most of all, we are saddened by her family’s loss. Our thoughts are with you.
      Suzanne Davies and The Staff at RMIT Gallery.

      • Dear Suzanne, thank you for replying. I thought my post had actually failed. I am very happy to find it did not. You may already know that Jennifer grew up in a modest household. She had one brother and one sister who have both risen to great heights in their respective, vastly different professions. Both of them have many children and, more recently, grand children. Jennifer lived in another world and had no children, but it is quite evident she left a special legacy of her own creation. I remember Jennifer as the cousin whose bedroom was filled with paintings and strange artefacts from New Guinea, some of which spilled out into the hallway. A child’s memory; no doubt out of proportion to reality. I also remember the chooks they had out the back. It was an interesting place to visit. Years later, yet still a long time ago, Jennifer came around to dinner with my own budding family. She had on a pair of platform shoes that were decorated in bright silver. I asked her about them and she said they used to belong to Gary Glitter. She had picked them up in her travels. She was like that. Her life was composed of the things that rarely, if ever, occur to me. I have a reverence for this that I cannot explain and a deep appreciation for the recognition you have given Jennifer. Thank you again, Simon

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