Featuing: JENNA GRIBBON, ANETA KAJZER, KEMI ONABULE, ANNE RYAN.
They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies and You Watch
Who are you? English language only knows one you. It's written in lower case and it's short form is the letter U. It can be you or the person that reads this right after you, and it can also mean you both. English you doesn't differ between singular and plural. I admire you. It can be directed to a single person as well as to a whole population. If you believe, you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.* English you doesn't differ between strangers and friends. It disguises social relationships and is the only language in the world that does so. But it was not until the late 17th century that this pronoun sneaked its way into the double role in which we use currently use it. As with many other European languages, English used to distinguish between formal and casual forms of address. While the pronoun thou was used to express familiarity and intimacy, you indicated distance and respect. However, the individual use of these words, was not only an indication of the interpersonal relationship, but also of class affiliation. So, what does it mean if our language shifts and there's only one you left now? Do we share the same respect for everybody? Have we overcome our differences? Are we all equal? If language were a real indicator of social and cultural change, all our answers would have to be yes - wouldn't they?
In the title of the group exhibition 'They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies' at Sim Smith it is precisely this you that is missing. Instead the title creates a duality between a narrator and its opponents, between emotions on the one hand and physicality on the other. It's a division which places the subject in opposition to its environment and is also the modus operandi of the invited artists. Despite their different visual languages, all artists share a common interest in the exposition of the body and its perception in an ever-changing world. This discourse has a great tradition in the arts - from Leonardo da Vinci's precise examination of the body in the Vitruvian Man(1490) to the Body Art movement of the 1960s with female artists like Valie Export or Marina Abramovic - and has always evolved along accompanying and changing media and technologies. The exhibition 'They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies' challenges this history by looking at the body through the eyes of four female painters who reflect shifting perceptions and presentations in an era of permanent performance. While the title of the exhibition anticipates the dichotomy between the artists and their environment, the perspective of the viewer is missing. Your perspective. They catch feelings, I catch bodies and you watch.
Similar to the reader-response criticism in literary theory which recognises the reader as an active agent who possibly completes the work through interpretation, I would argue that the viewer also carries out the same role in this exhibition. Not only do they physically relate to the works, they also assume the position of the voyeur. That this role is crucial is particularly evident in the works of Jenna Gribbon. In her paintings she often shows women topless, reminiscent of the well-known self-portrait of surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning. In contrast to the male gaze of the female body which tends to objectify it, both Gribbon and Tanning portray a female consciousness of full autonomy. While Siri Hustvedt's essay 'A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women'** examines the perceptual and gender distortions that influence our judgement of art and generates a corresponding meta-gaze loop in the title, Gribbon creates a similar loop in her paintings. She enjoys shifting the perspective and letting the viewer see from her point of view. In other paintings, she uses figures from the back and reflects their role as projection surface for the viewer that is linked to the symbolism of desire and longing.
Anne Ryan also appreciates changing the perspective of the viewer, thus even spatially including them in her works. Her paintings break free from the canvas and find their way onto the surfaces of steel or cardboard. In this state they also detach themselves from the wall and pose as free objects in space, thereby exploring the interface between sculpture and painting. This formal liberation is also mirrored in Ryan's subject. Her cut-outs feature bodies caught in motion that melt together. The individual seems to dissolve in the collective. But what first implies intimacy soon fades when one looks more closely at the composition. The multi-perspectival character of the cut-outs allows her to create additional images on the backside in order to construct a varied narration. This playfulness invites the viewer to engage with the works, move around them and discover the unknown.
Aneta Kajzer proves that painting can not only deal with the body as a subject, but also involves the physical labour of the artists themselves. She begins to fill the canvas with rapid applications of colour in an intuitive process, feeling her way gradually towards the motifs through these initial movements in which each brushstroke is triggered by the one preceding. She blurs the traditional categorisation of abstract and figurative painting and same can also be said of her motifs, which never claim one single interpretation alone but are characterised by the interplay of opposites. She paints figures with deformed limbs or without a clear gender attribution. Kajzer's works elude normative conceptions, raise questions about the society in which we find ourselves, and present us with its abysses and absurdities.
The question of representation is also central to the work of Kemi Onabule. As a British artist of Nigerian and Greek heritage, her visual language draws on several influences but still has its very unique style. In her colourful paintings, not only do different bodies meet, but they also interact with their surroundings which feature palms, monstera plants and grasses. Contrary to the idea that nature protects us from the alien gaze and was used in Ancient Greece to cover the genitals, Onabule uses it primarily as an exciting setting to fully expose her figures. While she often paints black bodies with concrete hairstyles and identification features, many of the painted bodies are kept in bright colours such as red or green, have no special individual characteristics and no clear gender. Onabule's paintings defeat the lack of representation of different bodies by painting bodies that could be of anyone. I'm gonna look for my body. I'll be back real soon.*** Similar to the lyrics of Solange's song 'Weary', these paintings ask us to question social hierarchies based on race, gender and sexuality.
- Carina Bukuts, May 2019
Carina Bukuts is a curator and writer. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of PASSE-AVANT and lives in Berlin, where she works as assistant editor at frieze magazine.
* Theresa May, Speech at the Conservative Party Conference, 2016
** Siri Hustvedt, 'A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women', 2016
*** Solange, 'Weary', 2016