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A Dionysian ride or the joy of practice

Earthly Delites exhibition, by Anne Ryan
© Anne Ryan – Photo: Lucia Pajon

One of the venues I had the fortune to visit just before this global house arrest measure was imposed on us was Hastings Contemporary. A luminous building, which looks outwards to the sea, and inwards to the work of artists who deserve our attentive gaze.

Anne Ryan’s Earthly Delites is a show that draws us in with a party of colour and organic shapes, mostly human, but there are animals and other objects too. The usual way of rendering these painted figures would be a one-sided rectangular or square canvas, but the Irish artist wants to break from the academic canon.

The process of breaking the frame started out of the need to be resourceful every time she got right to the end of each one of her sketchbooks. The obvious next step was to recycle the cardboard back to continue making marks with her ideas.

Her explorations are always guided by her freedom on what approach to take, and it is obvious that she seeks to enjoy the process of making. So glueing two cardboard backs together, making cutouts, and applying acrylic paint to both sides is a very immersive – if laborious way to, in Ryan’s words, ’cause chaos, cause mess and get out of there’.

Instead of hanging her constructions, a series of wooden tables of different sizes act as ‘pedestals’ for these three-dimensional paintings. But any traces of monumentality are quickly rejected, and they invite us instead to walk and gather around the pieces. For those of us who want go beyond the shallows, this is not a collection of frozen-in-time poses, but more of a irresistible ‘come and play’ whisper in the ear. As soon as we dive in, the riot starts and every single shape fills us in with their presence: a leg, an arching spine, a planet, a buttock –or more than one; a guitar player and the frenzy of the mosh pit where you can let go and make your own rituals, more real and expressive than the current artificiality of the outside world we are drowned in.

The artist’s openness to whatever comes her way is evident in the sources she references in her work, from contemporary visual culture to classical painting to sculpture. And the titles she chooses provide further evidence of her playfulness: Disco Legs, Bend Over, Mosh Pit, Rockers and Planets, Crab and Handstand, Dice, Trapeze Artist, Wrestling Men and Four Women Touching Their Toes, and so on.

The title of the show acknowledges a specific work that inspired these pieces: The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, created between 1490 and 1500 is a meditation on the fate of humanity. The triptych shows Eden, Paradise and Hell as the unavoidable stages that the naked bodies will go through. It is a show of decadent revelry. But Ryan also takes in the notion of the pleasure garden, visually charged with colour and sensuality; ripe with forms waiting to be discovered in every corner.

A number of artists have taken on the pleasure theme throughout the centuries, and one of them, Andre Derain, the cofounder of Fauvism chose to represent the ultimate party god, Dyonisus – or Bacchus as known by the Romans – at his most dynamic and colourful. His Bacchus Dance (1906), brought the modernist approach into play, and being a watercolour, instead of cutouts, the female figures were partially left untouched, letting the whiteness of the paper shine through the two very Western female bodies.

We had to mention Derain’s watercolour because Ryan’s pieces echo and amplify that joy. That combination of theatre, intoxication and madness that is just part of the human condition. That being present in the moment throughout the whole process of making and transferring life onto a surface, without any traces of nostalgia. Rock on.

On control, gender, sex and broccoli.

I don’t like broccoli (but I’ll try anything once). A performance by Elizabeth Prentis.

This specific performance by young artist Elizabeth Prentis took place at Lungley Gallery, a happily unassuming and very versatile venue designed in the basement of The Haggerston pub in London.

In this occasion the gallery becomes a multi-coloured dungeon; in essence an installation with a performance in-waiting. It contains a mixture of readymades (an industrial hoist, a keyboard, a yellow soft bucket, a pink stereo, a microphone, a blue carpet); designed props (a strangely attractive alien plant, some broccoli-themed hats and most significantly, a painting on a wall which faces the ‘stage’.

I don't like broccoli by Elizabeth Prentis

This painting comes before anything else. An abstraction of a female body immersed in a sea of green, broccoli heads and red nails, is then translated and extrapolated into a three-dimensional pop-tinted, hilarious and very eloquent critique on the expectations and perceptions of gender. And of course not less vocal about the added issues of control and sexual practice.

The canvas acts as a prescriptive tool, or better yet, as a score to be read and amplified by the performance. It’s important to notice the painting is made by the artist in a vertical position, that is, she is in control. During the performance however, Prentis is in a horizontal position as she is hoisted and singing a Westlife song. This apparent lack of control is really illusory as Prentis has authored the whole process.

With plenty of humour and uninhibited gestures we are invited to think about the vulnerability and inadequacy of both genders, which comes from the unrealistic expectations of what is a heterosexual social construct. This fantasy is amplified on the web, which is the thread that connects and isolates people around the clock.

Dating sites are just another tool to make people bump into one another, if the ‘looking for fun’ fails. Self-assured, aggressive, ‘funny’ males with killer bodies abound in these realms but the physical encounters that follow are hardly dreamlike – crude is a more apt word for a hurried affair.

Prentis’ responds to these microphone in hand, delivering ‘You raise me up’ off-key while she is lifted by a hyperbolic-bodied male which cranks up the hoist on cue. His body, excessive for the task in hand: like trying to light a cigarette with a flame-thrower. At the back, two ordinary young men in broccoli hats and green pants play the violin and the keyboard in tune with her vocals. The minstrels never fail: ‘Give me a C’, one of them requests before the show starts.

The room is small, sweaty and smelly. Prentis’ legs are up in the air, and the soft bucket bubbles up in a continuos loop of Nesquick infused liquid without ever going over: an exercise in edging bordering on abjection. What could have been but never was. Four minutes of sexually-charged symbolism and fun. A surreal event which is streamed live and online for the enjoyment of the punters-spectators-voyeurs, which are kept at bay upstairs. The boundaries are clear.

In four minutes, the sound and motion cease and the canvas absorbs all that energy like that silent alien plant. It’s all part of the ritual that Prentis presents. With humour and plenty of broccoli. Watch her.

Brian Dawn Chalkley’s non-binary snapshots

Untitled / Missing

Brian Dawn’s ‘Untitled/Missing’ series of watercolours are beautifully controlled marks with the freedom of a stain. The fluidity of the tints, from sanguine lips, to underwater greens, to the black of an eye shadow or a state of anxiety. The figures that flow from Dawn Brian’s hand, are torsos and heads that embrace the complexity and vulnerability of the self. Some are like smudged make-up on those days when one is in a state of flux, and ‘I know what it looks like’ and I don’t really care, so a well-directed insult is in order. Others are more translucent, you can see to a certain extent, but you don’t know the real story – hence the Untitled / Missing titles. So get closer.

When I look at these portraits of very urban characters something I immediately notice is their eyes and mouths. They are all undeniably present. They are all looking at us through us; sensual and sometimes accusatory. They are desirable and bleak. Faces swept by the world, rained on and intense. Some ordinary, some full of grace and poise.

These fleeting faces, made by the tidal marks of the watercolours belong to people of the urban landscape. Their faces, and their alter-egos. No rigid outlines and no volume, because the three-dimensional comes later – when we are made aware of their stories. Some of the figures are surrounded by serpentine lines of text which tell us of their insecurities, their wants, their desires, their anger. That is, our wants, desires and needs to be loved, to belong, to embrace our own fluidity, to ‘feel disgusted at the process of waking up’ – which inevitably happens once we know we are inside the whale (Orwell got it right a long while ago).

Those quivering lines just haunt me, because they transmit a vulnerability I endorse. They show the artist’s love of people with all its consequences. There is a transcending tenderness in these pieces, where gender constructs do not apply – the binary is insufferably constraining and aggressive. It’s this empathy we need more than ever in an ever commodified world run by bombastic blond bigots.

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