Looking Like Fire: Anna Calleja, Sarah Faux, Jenna Gribbon, Kate Groobey, Norman Hyams, Lisa Ivory, Karyn Lyons, Juanita McNeely, Kemi Onabulé, Florence Peake, Lydia Pettit, Corri-Lynn Tetz

20 September - 14 October 2023

Sim Smith is proud to present Looking Like Fire, the inaugural exhibition at the gallery’s newly expanded space. This exciting group exhibition includes some artists represented by the gallery, some who have contributed to the exhibition programme previously and others that the gallery is pleased to be working with for the first time. This exhibition continues the gallery’s interest in intergenerational exhibitions with those at different stages in their careers. Looking Like Fire will include works by Anna Calleja, Sarah Faux, Jenna Gribbon, Kate Groobey, Norman Hyams, Lisa Ivory, Karyn Lyons, Juanita McNeely, Kemi Onabulé, Florence Peake, Lydia Pettit, Corri-Lynn Tetz. The exhibition will host its finissage over Frieze London.


The exhibition aims to unlock a space that we are rarely allowed to enter. It relies on the vulnerability of the subject within the paintings to expose a moment, a connection to the artist who paints them. It is a place where intimate, quotidian moments and life events display powerful emotions behind a veil of freedom or privacy. The show encapsulates experience and atmosphere through observed, imagined and psychological scenes. The exhibition not only invites us to look but to shape our act of looking, with a promise of entering another realm, that of indulgence, pleasure, fear, power and fascination. 

The title is taken from the slang use of the word ‘fire’ to mean awesome or excellent. Looking like Fire refers to looking attractive but also denotes the idea of fire approaching, a feeling of impending threat or vulnerability. This exhibition bestrides these polarities and their quick unravelling, looking good, attraction, sensation, vulnerability, danger of the unknown, touch, fire on your skin, burning, open, uncontrollable.


In this exhibition we are requested to look, sometimes in awe, sometimes flinchingly, inside the practice of artists who deal with such themes within their work. Through the delicate oil paintings of fervent flesh by Anna Calleja and Jenna Gribbon we see legs laid bare sitting in a bath, hands grasping at a naked torso and a lover looking out at her subject, hair tumbling over her shoulders. Corri-Lynn Tetz continues the reappropriation of the female gaze exploring eroticism from a female perspective, combining seemingly beautiful figures in elusive settings that allude to a darker narrative. As a recollection of a moment lived in real time, Karyn Lyons summons us to our youth, questioning self-perception and self-esteem which unravel before our eyes.


More cinematic scenes await when observing Norman Hyams’ paintings of boxers’ flesh succumbing to the weight of a heavy glove. They are highly personal scenes, childhood memories, magic excavated from the mundane. There is unease here but also a murky beauty, as with Lisa Ivory’s fantastical creatures who are often found erotically entwined with women. Ivory invites us on a journey, through the narratives of fairy tale and folklore we know, whilst highlighting our fear and fascination of that which is ‘other’ and insisting on our animalistic qualities as humans. Part myth, part daydream, Kemi Onabulé serves up an almost hallucinatory vision, a lone figure on a scorched land with black mountains and a moon which rises high. A snake held in a hand, draped and so heavy we can feel its weight.


The exhibition also turns towards subjects concerning the erotic and the taboo, disorientating, and interrogating what we think we are looking at. Seemingly playful forms disguise deeper meaning in Kate Groobey’s paintings. The painting in this exhibition OUR HEARTS comes from a line in her wife’s debut novel. German born-Iranian writer Jina Khayyer writes that in Farsi there is no word for lesbian, because it’s forbidden in Iran (and punishable by death), so instead they say ‘our hearts are one’. Groobey’s painting OUR HEARTS portrays her own avatar, the female stallion, with Khayyer, both reaching up in solidarity to clasp a single heart, a gesture with which they claim their freedom to love. Sarah Faux’s work focuses our attention on the sensual, on autonomy and pleasure. Entangled bodies viewed from above, from the side, become one. A nipple being prodded by a finger, a hand on a thigh, we feel it, we know it. 


Limbs twist and contort further in Juanita McNeely’s work in an autobiographical depiction of the life of a woman whose body betrayed her. The body appears split open, almost to the point of cracking, toes curled, back arched, there are straps and skies and an onlooker overseeing the chaos. In a juxtaposing scene between exposure and endurance we see strength. Lydia Pettit investigates this idea of the body as a battleground further in an exposing, compassionate and honest portrayal of physical and psychological trauma. The feeling of cold keys tightly gripped by white knuckles, a close up of an open mouth, saliva strung from tooth to lip, Pettit is fearless in her portrayal. Chaos abounds in Florence Peake’s work with painting and performance being a direct extension of the body. Their painting is composed like a performance, recording feelings and personal experiences through physical gestures. The works are mauled, scratched, splatted, seemingly danced upon with an energy imbued with corporeal force. There will be a performance by Florence Peake on the opening night. Peake will perform a spoken word piece alongside movement and costume directed by the artist. The piece continues Peake’s extensive visual art practice and history of outlandish performance.