In the 1993 film True Romance, Patricia Arquette as a hooker named Alabama made enviable a look that no women before or since has been able to pull off: a turquoise puff-sleeved crop top, a cow-print skirt, and cowboy boots. But aside from the film's sartorial significance, True Romance has enjoyed lasting legacy in art and culture, as well as in the hearts of 90s teen girls and boys.
Directed by Tony Scott, the film was Quentin Tarantino's first major motion picture screenplay. In it, Tarantino's fondness for violence is apparent, but True Romance is, of course, about love. While the film's theatrical release bombed, the cult classic has since been spawned countless romanticized Tumblr posts ("If I'm with you, then I'm with you. And I don't want anybody else."), and it was also the namesake for Charlie XCX's 2013 debut album, of which fraught intimacy was a major theme.
Together the film's star-crossed lovers, Clarence Worley—an Elvis fanboy played by a then-dreamy Christian Slater—and Alabama—who also serves the film's narrator—made trashy cool, and it's sort of stayed that way ever since. Now artist Grear Patterson has created an entire body of work inspired by the film for his new show, True Romance, which opens June 24 at Marlborough Contemporary in London.
The young, New York-based artist tends to ruminate on childhood; he has described the way he uses materials for his work as being "like toys." True Romance is just another touchstone from his youth. He was so enamored with the narcotics-driven narrative of the film that his mixed-media works sometimes evoke it in a literal sense; he created vast sunsets out of color-blocked paper as a meditation on True Romance's closing scene, where the couple has their happy ending in the sun. At other times he pays homage to the film in more abstract ways, through sound installations.
But Patterson's work isn't always what it seems. He has also formed dreamy sunsets out of found objects—including parachutes, boat sails, wedding tablecloths, and vinyl—mirroring the film's obsession with adventure, trash, and ephemerality. The overwhelming sense is one of nostalgia. We caught up with the artist to ask him a few questions about True Romance—the exhibition, the film, and the idea.
BROADLY: Why make an art show around True Romance?
Grear Patterson: It's a masterpiece on all levels: casting, sound, cutting, cinematography, you name it. [The film] acted as a foundation for knowing what I wanted to do, like a cue: making you believe something was possible. One of the first movies I watched was Good Will Hunting. I was nine, and it made me cry. I couldn't believe you could make a movie that shifts a person's emotional scale completely. It inspired me and made me want to construct a similar emotional escape. True Romance portrayed a really hard reality, but also an amazing escape. The characters are so in love, riding around carefree, only concerned about each other. It's almost a modern-day fairytale. I look back at the movie and its script, and it acts as a benchmark for my own work. [My goal is to] try to make something as good and effective as that. Maybe one day I can make a movie like that.
What elements of the film do you love so much?
When making a movie you're demanding people's time. I liked the directness of True Romance—from the first five minutes the audience is already involved. At the beginning, Tarantino resists giving away too much information. The audience just sees these two characters, Alabama and Clarence, finally meeting, and hears Alabama talking about a love she "didn't even think was possible." The audience is totally invested, wondering when and how this love is ever going to emerge.
Does your work always take such literal starting points?
[My work] is often triggered by memories. Making work is a way of archiving these moments and ensuring I don't forget them. It's not that the ideas are based on something literal; rather they spring from something which derives from my consciousness.
Tell me about your choice of found objects in the show.
Most of the found objects are replacing items which were thrown out or lost during my childhood. Or something a friend would have in their room when we were kids. Everyone has owned an object they particularly cared about while growing up. It's a universal experience. They might be objects that provided solace during the turbulent transition into adulthood. Such items can contain countless associations with different people, places, times; incorporating these objects and materials in my work allows people to recall them. For instance, movie directors often use objects as a stimulus to evoke the viewer's memories or associations with a particular place or time.
Do you worry people will only view these works through the lens of the film?
People can look at the work through whatever lens feels best for them. I just want to provide a momentary visual escape. I am happy for people to view the works in terms of the film. However, many people may not have seen it, which is great, too. In that case, people may think about the show in terms of the idea of "true romance," as a goal, a magical thing, or something which brings people together. I think there is scope for multiple interpretations.
[The narrow starting point] isn't always a bad thing to me. Sometimes it's necessary and it has a purpose to serve. For instance, when you cut metal, you need a narrow, high-pressure stream of water. There is always a time and a place. Narrowness can also enable you to stay focused. In fact, I liked having some boundaries in school. I always responded well to structure.
Tell me more about your interest in childhood nostalgia and memory.
I just like to hold onto the good parts, regardless of the ratio of bad to good. That's true for me with almost everything. People often ask me what I'll do when I run out of old material from my childhood—I'm not so worried about these physical elements. I work with ideas in my head.
Do you fetishize youth and beauty? Does everyone? Should art?
No. I am grateful to be growing up. Childhood is a battlefield.
In the past you've said you "juxtapose ingenuous form with complex discourse." What does that mean?
I often think about energy, efficiency, and clarity. If I can make something using one shape, one color, one movement, that still retains the feeling I want to create, then I will. It feels more pure this way.
So let's end just as Alabama Whitman did. "Amid the chaos of that day, when all I could hear was the thunder of gunshots, and all I could smell was the violence in the air, I look back and am amazed that my thoughts were so clear and true, that three words went through my mind endlessly, repeating themselves like a broken record: You're so cool, you're so cool, you're so cool."