Having previously shown promise in the worlds of dance, makeup artistry, modeling, fashion design, and creative direction, North West, the five-year-old daughter of American cultural icons Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, made her surprising yet powerful debut in the world of conceptual art with an untitled piece previewed to her mother’s 122 million followers through Instagram stories.
While unaccompanied by a traditional artist statement, the creator’s mother shared notes on the backstory of its creation. “Saint touched his Elf on a Shelf so North just brought this in,” wrote Kardashian West accompanied with an emoji conveying joyful tears repeated in triplicate. For those unfamiliar with the recent Christmas tradition, an Elf on a Shelf is a stuffed doll placed high on a shelf with young children led to believe he’s watching their every move and reporting directly back to Santa Claus himself. The only rule is that a single touch runs the risk of leading to the elf’s loss of magic.
Many have taken the installation as nothing more than a prank on a younger sibling, but look closer and you’ll notice not only surprisingly sophisticated technique for such a young artist but perhaps potent meaning as well.
West’s use of found objects with her own marker strokes (not to mention the imbued specter of death) seems to suggest an influence of Robert Rauschenberg‘s early combine paintings, while the rich texture in which she’s rendered the grass mixed with the brightly colored pops of the glittery star stickers seem to channel the famed Flowers series from Andy Warhol. While many of West’s peers in some of Calabasas’s most promising kindergarten arts and crafts classes are unable to conceive of a traditional white paper as anything other than a 2D plane, West challenges the perceptions of the canvas by inserting it into a 3D assemblage.
West has also adorned the elf’s tombstone with an abstract figure. Is it angel? Is it devil? Perhaps West gestures toward notions that they may be one and the same.
Perhaps most striking though is West’s use of iconography and imagery. While Norman Rockwell often commemorated the holidays earnestly in his work, no major postwar artist of conceptual leanings has delved into the rich symbolism offered by the season (well, unless one were to count the films of Tim Burton). Not even Warhol, with all his interest in pop-culture signifiers, broached the topic of Christmas in his serious works. In that sense, West’s investigation of Christmas in a gallery setting is fearless and original. Ditto for her use of graveyard motifs, another setting somewhat shockingly underutilized in modern art. While West may not have done what Tracy Emin did for the artistic possibilities of a mattress or Judy Chicago did for a dinner table yet, it’s still quite an auspicious start.
Of course, that leaves the matter of West’s intentions for the piece. Is it a meditation on the futility of tradition or perhaps a protest against the surveillance state that many fear Elf on the Shelf represents?
Given West’s upbringing and family life, it’s tempting to view the elf as an avatar for celebrity. What else is celebrity besides a figure placed far above the rest of us, out of touch, with whom we’ve imbued almost a magical sense of power, but what happens when you get to touch the celebrity? What happens when you either burst the bubble, or, indeed, get to live inside it with them? Do the powers of fame fade? Are you not reminded that they too are mere mortals? As the daughter of two celebrities, perhaps West knows better than us.