Thursday, 21 November 2013

Lisa Watts and Lucy May's Skitter at the Spacex Gallery

Lisa Watts’ and Lucy May’s exhibition Skittish at the Spacex Gallery is just coming to an end, culminating with Watts’ performance of her piece Snowgum on Saturday (the 23rd November). This will involve the use of chewing gum, using its elastic and adhesive qualities to connect the internal body with the outside world. It sounds like it will have its gleefully childlike aspects, too, taking us back to the days when we would stretch a bit of well-masticated juicy fruit to its maximum extent or splodge it onto a convenient surface with the press of a grubby thumb.

This has been a responsive exhibition, with something of a collaborative chain of influence and inspiration. Lisa Watts invited the curator of the Spacex to choose a sculptor whose work connected with hers in some way. She could then contemplate and respond to this work and use it to build up a series of performances moulded around it. Moulded is a good word, in fact, given the malleable, viscid materials they both work with. Most of Lucy May’s sculptures are made from twisted and intertwined strands and nodules of wax which she has mixed together herself to gain just the right colour and consistency. There’s definitely something of the charnel house about the Spacex with these sculptural tangles hanging from the walls. They look like viscera, freshly disembowelled guts, kidneys and muscle, and appearance enhanced by the glistening quality of the wax and the colours used. Other, smaller works have the same tangled form, but are cast in bronze and laid on marble blocks, making for a pleasing contrast of materials whilst retaining the glistening, reflective surfaces they share with the waxworks. As Instant Steve points out on his blog, there’s an element of the baroque to all of this in the intricacy and ornamental joi de vivre with which the wax is wrapped around itself into a riot of scrolled, balled and spiked detail. If these do bring guts and gore to mind, then they are nevertheless beautiful, celebrating inner beauty in a literal sense, rather as David Cronenberg did in some of his early films.

One sculpture mixes materials around its wax core, entwining it with coiled creepers of coloured foam and draping it with streamers of cheap and cheerful artificial flower decorations. I seem to have come across a number of works which incorporate gaudily colourful toys and gewgaws over recent years, including Hew Locke’s Jungle Queen II, currently on display at the Artists Make Faces exhibition in Plymouth. The whole erupts like a bizarre fountain from a plaster base studded with shells, which gives it the look of an oversized piece of surreal seaside memorabilia.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of Lisa Watts’ accompanying performances. She has left traces behind, however, which give intriguing hints as to what she might have been getting up to. Wine gums and cubes of jelly are stuck to whitewashed walls and ceiling like tiny fragments of coloured mosaic. Pieces of foil moulded to the shapes of arms, legs, feet and a torso and face are strewn about, looking like the dismembered remains of a cyborg or the discarded cuirass, greaves and helm of a medieval suit of armour. The artist was clearing away whilst I was there today, and these were rolled up into one big ball of foil, the fragility of the material made instantly plain. The debris of the weeks’ performances and experiments was making way for Saturday’s Snowgum climax.

Watts’ also has a film showing in the hived off upper room of the gallery. Made in collaboration with Alice Maude-Roxby and Ron Wright, Bad Luck (2006) unfolds in an ordinary bedroom with an ordinary self-assembled pine bed and dressing table. Within this everyday space, a formless figure completely tented in black rises and spews out coloured umbrellas from a pouch over its stomach. They spin round in a spectral blur before being unceremoniously cast aside, where they pile up on the floor. There’s something defiant about this momentary flourish of primary colour against the enveloping black cloak, which erases any trace of personality. I had thought that this might be an oblique evocation of the controversies around the wearing of the burqa, and a wider comment on the continuing oppression of women around the world, the expectation that they should be confined to the domestic sphere. Lisa Watts told me that this wasn’t the case, but that I wasn’t the first person to make this connection. In fact, she said, there was no direct narrative intention behind the film. The umbrellas being pushed out of the stomach panel before expanding into their chromatic segments does make a connection with Lucy May’s visceral sculptures, however.

A second section features a nearly naked female figure, who we might assume has emerged from the erasing shroud of black material. She makes awkward stepping gestures, as if moving to a disjointed music, and is encumbered by two other sets of cloth limbs attached by a brace to either side of her own legs. Both parts of the film have the feel of a sinister variety show, routines played out in a private arena and serving as some kind of therapeutic personal psychodrama played out in the privacy of the bedroom. The soundtrack, electronic drones which swell to an ominous pitch before suddenly lapsing into silence, adds to the atmosphere of intensely focussed interiority, and of something of great personal import being worked through in a soberly ritualistic fashion. Whatever interpretation you choose to put on it (or not), it’s an intriguing and absorbing film which creates a strangely compelling mood of domestic strangeness. The electronic drones leak out into the rest of the gallery, too, and thus serve as a good soundtrack for the show as a whole.

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