They Catch Feelings, I Catch Bodies06 June - 06 July 2019
Private View, 6th of June 6-8pm
This group exhibition explores how artists depict the body and how it performs in an age where we not only want, but expect, intimacy and access on a daily basis. From daily rituals to sell out performances, this group show asks the question ‘how does art portray the body now?’.
An all female show, the exhibition features artworks by Jenna Gribbon (b. 1978, US), Aneta Kajzer (b. 1989, Germay), Kemi Onabule (b. 1995, UK) and Anne Ryan (b. 1964, Ireland).
Combining original paintings that uncover the body; it’s capabilities, it’s feelings and fancies, this exhibition considers where we draw the line between function and fiction.
The selection of paintings and sculpture pursue a comprehensive and complex portrayal of the body and performance. From the explicit to the self conscious, some bodies are brazen in their accuracy and others, reveal themselves more slowly through layers of apparent abstraction. Enduring dialogues abound; gestural negotiations, intricate details and intimate moments play out under the heavy observation of the artist or the voyeuristic gaze of the onlooker. Together, these artists open windows into new worlds whilst reflecting accurately on our own in an inquisitive yet knowing portrayal of the body and its performance.
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
* Theresa May, Speech at the Conservative Party Conference, 2016
** Siri Hustvedt, ‘A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women’, 2016
*** Solange, ‘Weary‘, 2016
What Kind Of Spirit Is This?02 May - 01 June 2019
The inaugural show at the gallery, this exhibition casts a celebratory and inquisitive eye over painting today. Combining original work by eight artists concerned with employing paint to express their own particular narratives, this exhibition centers on the power of painting in the digitally connected 21st Century.
Curated by one of the artists on Smith’s roster, David Surman, the exhibition asks the question “Why paint? Who needs painting?” in a world that seems to have evolved so far beyond the medium in terms of artistic possibilities.
The exhibition features artworks from Matija Bobičić (b. 1987, Slovenia), Tim Garwood (b. 1984, UK), Kate Groobey (b. 1979, UK), Aly Helyer (b. 1965, UK), Doppel Kim (b. 1985, Korea), Sandra Lane (b. 1954, UK), Jonathan McCree (b. 1963, UK), Daisy Parris (b. 1993, UK), Maïa Régis (b.1995, France).
Featuring paintings and painted ceramics, the works pursue an array of ideas from the historical and architectural to human existence and identity. The challenges and interplays of paint are seen through visceral brushstrokes in a preoccupation with surface in some works and with subject in others. Some subjects are crudely drawn and almost childlike whilst others dissolve and disappear under layers of texture. Gestural figuration to total abstraction, the paint transforms, delights and teaches us about this new energy in a snapshot of the quality of the painting landscape today.
“I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms.” Ovid, The Metamorphoses
At thirteen minutes “Misty” is the longest track on the tenth studio album “50 Words For Snow” by English singer-songwriter Kate Bush. In an interview with Mike Ragogna about the song she explains, “The subject matter is sort of just about a girl who builds a snowman, and later the snowman comes to visit her in her bedroom.” This fantasy raises a question, what are snowmen? A kind of votive folk sculpture to a household demi-god? An act of figurative making, performed in order to properly receive the sky’s gift of heavy snow.
In the Roman poet Ovid’s epic “The Metamorphoses”, the God Jupiter transforms himself into all manner of protean forms in order to stalk, seduce and abduct the adored being. The imagery of “Misty” recalls Jupiter appearing as a fog around the mortal Io, or as a shower of gold to Danae (“My bedroom fills with falling snow / Should be a dream but I’m not sleepy.”) Ovid’s Jupiter is an all-powerful aggressor, who encompasses and possesses fully those he desires. The Gods stare down from heaven at the mortal world without being seen. Jupiter gazes at his quarries with anonymity and absolute authority, instilling fear at the moment his godly presence is revealed.
In “Misty” Bush changes the power dynamic in this supernatural encounter; the snowman is presented as somewhat impotent, an unstable presence in retreat (“I can feel him melting in my hand.”) The heat of human blood both makes and undoes him. Melting snow takes on the mythical idea of metamorphosis, the familiar becomes transcendent. She receives the visitation of the snowman having created him in the usual manner, but observes and embraces him without fear, describing closely his melting form, lending an urgency to the encounter. In the middle of the track, Bush poses a plaintive question rich in irony, “What kind of spirit is this?” Does the girl wonder about the supernatural power that gives vitality to her snowman? Or does she wonder about the fleeting love that might be a dream? The ontological question gives way to further mysteries; he disappears (perhaps melting completely) leaving only residues, leaves, “...bits of twisted branches and frozen lawn.”
Ovid himself understood the persistence of his poetic work, the final line of “The Metamorphoses” reads, “Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam- I shall live.” There is a connection, perhaps, between the mythic life represented in art and its continued importance in our lives, tales of spontaneous change and liveliness, holy moments and material chemistry.
It is no coincidence that so many cutting-edge life science and biogenetics companies take their names from the Greco-Roman pantheon. We no longer stand atop the accumulated certainties of science and philosophy, but instead slide continuously, in process, with the rapidly changing propositions of every field of knowledge. Painting, that played such a central role in the imagining of the human, now receives and transmits images to better communicate the post-human; the networked, the cloned, the augmented, the virtualised. How can painting express the subjectivity of those who thrive in the greater space of online culture, capture the abstraction of precarious life and work, bring together the contradictory beauty of humanity’s waste products?
These endeavours bring us full circle back to the protean uncertainties of Ovid’s world. What kind of spirit is this?The old categories no longer hold sway in the way they once did; can we speak of figuration and abstraction as meaningfully opposing poles in a world of genetic sequencing and quantum physics? The truth is in retreat, and revealed to be an historical contingency. In their place new urgencies grow, laying roots that tear at the fixed borders of established thought. As we learn more and more about our precarious shared existence on the planet, the dominance of the human must necessarily be called into question. We find ourselves in a moment of intercession, searching for shapes to receive our spirit, to show our liveliness within a troubled world.
Painting carries on, in spite of everything, a post-everything endeavour. As Isabelle Graw has argued, paintings are an indexical expression of the liveliness of the painter, they capture vitality in their structure, taking on a kind of subjectivity beyond “aura”, beyond simple objecthood. In the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the charisma of painting, objects that thrum with living energy, gain a renewed relevance. Each spirited gesture recorded on the canvas support adds up to a gestalt phenomena felt in the mind, a living spirit, that reminds us of Ovid’s Pygmalion, whose sculpture sprang to life.
In each of these exhibited works I have hoped to bring together some aspect of this spirit.
David Surman, April 2019