The Pleasure's All Mine
Rachel Thorlby Sarah Gillham
14 Feb - 8 Mar 2009
Late Opening Thurs 5 March 6-9pm
left to right: Rachel Thorlby, Liane Lang, Mindy Lee
The title of this exhibition, The Pleasure's All Mine, becomes a pleasingly defiant statement once we witness the show's abject content. Here pleasure is rather perverse. The viewer may delight in the visceral nature of Mindy Lee's paintings or take a scopophilic peer into the recesses of a sculpture by Sarah Gillham. Perhaps there are joys to be found in the implicit sadistic frisson of Liane Lang's photographs and Rachel Thorlby's constructions. But it's a tricky thing, this pain/pleasure nexus, isn't it? And, as we know from experience, sometimes the two can come awfully close. What these artists seem to be exploring is the movement between those two states, or to be more precise, the scary middle ground that encompasses them both.
Although Lee's painting offers many pleasures in its manufacture and materiality, there is no denying the scatological impulse at work. The grandeur of the canvases' ethereal or cavernous spaces give way to the more immediate sense of the frenzied yet obsessively particular application, of paint as shit, snot, blood - ectoplasm, even. The living organism has gone rancid or become dismembered; sutured, suppurating, there is something sickly about its growth. From a healthy distance we can take pleasure in its state of decay; if it is contained we can enjoy its material waywardness. Yet the larger these works become the greater the sense that the medium will escape its confines and might contaminate us, creating an exciting atmosphere of danger.
Lang's sumptuous photograph also reminds us of our precarious mortality. Central to the image is a naked figure obscured from full view. In studying the visible legs and hands (and our sense of propriety) we have to conclude that the body is neither dead nor alive. Indeed this is no blunt Joel-Peter Witkin; the implied narrative is more vital and evocative. The photograph's mise-en-scene has the air of a back room at an unloved community centre, circa 1976. To my mind the image is less the sculptor's studio of the work's title, more a Fred West kind of hangout. But the legs and hands do not subscribe to such a reading, for the body's (re)pose has fashion-shoot style. What is going on? Perhaps we are witnessing a performance? In this instance it appears that the 'victim' is in control.
And the ambivalence continues. Rachel Thorlby suffocates as she revives her subjects. In the process of making her papier-mâché, plaster and polystyrene portraits Thorlby also unmakes them. By masking the head's features from view, the forms become, quite literally, defaced. We are aware that these features may only exist by force of our imaginative projection and so feel pity tinged with horror at the predicament of these pathetic totems. The idea of the mysterious unseen or unformed face smothered by the swathes of plaster as it cascades over the head is as chilling as it is compelling. Further, the convention of the sculpted bust is dismantled - the work demonstrating just how strange this familiar image of decapitation really is.
Gillham's work looks quite refined in this company, yet even here there are hints of the prosthetic, of a body displaced and replaced. The customized second-hand furniture absorbs the images pinned to them. Excised from another context and era these reproductions seem carefully selected to resonate nostalgic feminine luxury; a stone carved head with undulating waves of hair, the exterior staircase of a stately home, a ceramic rose with petals edged in gold. What unites these images is the way they suggest a shift between material states, poised to spring, Pygmalion-like, to life. Using the slightest of means, Gillham debases these elegant, reserved, sexualized images by forcing them into a complex relation with the unloved, everyday, cast-off objects on which they are positioned.
What binds the work in this show together is something quite curious. The work focuses on the tipping point where disgust becomes rapture, where abjection becomes pleasurable, where dead things are revived. What this engenders is a flow between states and this is most obvious in the works' movement between two and three dimensions. All of the work in this show complicates the relationship between image and object. From Gillham's poetically simple juxtapositions, to the strange, detached documentary air of Lang's set-ups, to Thorlby's deliciously awkward transposition between painted and sculpted portraiture, to Lee's paint as living material, 'growing' around the canvases' support, these artists are engaged in a resuscitation process. In this work both material and imagery suggest the corporeal yet this body hovers in a netherworld existence. And, as readers of that classic horror story The Monkey's Paw will know, the results of revivification are often darkly pleasurable.
Rebecca Fortnum, 2008
Rebecca Fortnum is a Reader in Fine Art at University of the Arts London
and author of 'Contemporary British Women Artists, in their own words'.
left to right: Rachel Thorlby, Mindy Lee, Sarah Gillham
See more images from The Pleasure's All Mine
Sarah Gillham completed her MA Painting at the RCA in 2005. She previously exhibited at Transition in 2006 in Baroque my World and is currently making work for a book of adult fairy tales in collaboration with the writer Beverley Mason.
Liane Lang was educated at Goldsmiths and the Royal Academy Schools and has had solo shows including Fondling Germanicus, Kunstverein , Heidelberg, Germany; Verisimilitude, T1+2 Artspace; Offspace, Vienna; and Southfirst Art, New York.
Mindy Lee left the RCA in 2004 and has recently held a solo exhibition at the Blyth Gallery, Imperial College. She is the recipient of an Amlin Arts award and in 2007 had her work published in the Beauty edition of Garageland magazine.
Rachel Thorlby gained an MA in Sculpture the Royal College of Art in 2007 and last year was a prize winner in the Celeste Art Prize. She has exhibited widely including shows in Wales, London and Canada.