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I love Dick

Lucy Stein on the group show 'Unstable Monuments'


On entering the dingy Old Bakery in Truro where Unstable Monuments was taking place, we were greeted with sleazy, soporific music that reminded me of that band in 'Fire Walk With Me' the not-very-good-but-kind-of-brilliant feature film born out of the not-very-good-but-fucking-amazing TV series 'Twin Peaks'. I think it set the tone pretty well for what was to come.

This was an epic show born of an ongoing curatorial partnership between Jesse Leroy Smith, Matthew Benington and Sam Bassett. Jesse had a lot of paintings in this room where the band were playing. Most of the smaller ones were of witchy-looking women, mainly their visages. I liked the way the larger more expressive figure-in-grounds paintings were presented on breeze blocks, and I really liked the low lighting, which, alongside the sleazy music and his use of flame oranges, mauves and septic greens, made the women in his paintings look truly demonic. I wasn’t really sure about the ones that had frames. Why do paintings of smoking crosses emerging from witches heads need frames I wondered, it detracts from the expansiveness of the imagery and is obviously kitsch? But the cut-up collaged texts that made up some of their faces were good, with their skin texture made up of stained bits of paper with gothic stanzas like:

“She fainted when she heard him say,
That he must go abroad; and then,
Reviving, said, “You’re back again!
My love, you’ve been so long away.”

Thank god for Kathryn Ferguson (left) as the show really needed her eternal feminine to counter the monumental masculine, and the curators were right to put her first video 'Mathair' near the entrance to the show. 'Mathair' (meaning Mother in Irish) was as epic and romantic as Jesse’s gothic text. Unfortunately, at the opening, the Twin Peaks music that I liked so much was drowning out the music from this video and you needed the soundtrack in order to give way to the sensual pleasure- trip that the work takes you on. I now know this from watching it on the artist’s website.

So, it seemed a little random and gratuitously religious at first, feasting on velvety imagery without the more ascetic dance music, but when I realised it was to be read like a pop video or fashion-shoot video, it got really exciting. Especially as it reminded me a lot of a film by Sophie Muller that I saw last week during a heavenly 9 hours of 80’s videos put together by Will Fowler from the BFI for Lux at Porthmeor Studios. I like the idea that the RCA is fostering a line of religious 'Like a Prayer'-ish fervour in video making. A ley-line that connects County Kerry and St Michael’s Mount must be on diversion under Battersea. I was less keen on the Showstudio cheerleader video as it seemed a bit unfair to me to gain so much visual pleasure from women’s athletic and energetic bodies, only for them to be obliged to send themselves up by wearing pants with the words “sex sells” on them...Is it sex that is selling them to me, or their incredible vitality? It seemed a bit of a low blow to me ('scuse the pun). The nod to riot grrl (ironic rage) was good though, and another of the references that located this show in the 1990’s.

There were a lot of artists in this exhibition, and the overall feeling was of a running the gamut of the 'sincere' human emotions. This territory was staked out clearly by the first part of Marianne Keating’s work 'Tell me' which involved the artist leaving postcards around Truro asking people to tell their deepest desires and regrets. The initial framed postcard works with the original scribblings (right)were deeply moving, not least because of the mistakes in spelling and grammar, that made them seem human all too human. Perhaps wanting to afford them the dignity that comes with advertising, Keating decided not to include the mistakes in the final piece where they are writ large and projected, but the effect is strangely banal and reminiscent of watching tragic events unfold live on BBC news 24 subtitles at the airport, without the dose of humour that comes from computerised misunderstanding.

Steven Smith’s paintings (below) activated something interesting for me, in relation to the space in which they were presented. They made me think about painters like David Ostrowski in particular, or Sergej Jenson, artists of critical repute and high market value who have chosen a post industrial wastleland aesthetic but you will rarely see them showing in such a space. Rather than diminishing the impact of the paintings and graphite drawings by showing them against run down damp infested walls, the subtleties of touch, mark and texture were foregrounded. I particularly liked the one with the black blobs on bright yellow, to the left when you walked into the room, the delicate touch of Patrick Heron appreciated in this grungey mileu.

One of my favourite pockets of this theme park of an exhibition was Sam Bassett’s all encompassing installation in black and gold (called 'Gold room' on the show guide) which was adorned with the words 'have we learnt fuck all' in the artist’s signature drippy angsty lettering, in black and gold. This was strangely arresting: part graffiti, part school notebook scribble, and full of character. The angst was amped up by his treatment of the walls above the writing, which were left with scrubs of black paint that looked like angry moth balls. In the centre was a sort of hanging punch bag adorned with nuggets of gold, presumably fashioned from that toxic squirty foam that burnt down Glasgow School of Art last year and whose smell and texture immediately makes me think of degree shows. There was no ventilation and no way out of Bassett’s psychic space. The all pervading toxic whoosh that swept you up when you crossed his threshold added to the slightly grim and unnerving feeling of being trapped in some creepy mind, and a squelchy stickiness underfoot that made you feel as though you had entered a cum soaked sex dungeon.

Bassett’s array of naked Virgin Mary-ish women and transgender men, or men holding their penises between their legs, with a back drop of fishing boats, decorated the low hanging punch bag at strange angles, and with a misty half-depth that added to the effect of nightmare imagery. How Bassett effects his dead skin-like painting/drawing surface I am not sure, but it works. Some of his blobby nuggets around the images, were like little acorn-in-the-nest cherub’s penises, whilst others were brutally castrated. Butchered nuggets... Added to the moths, the dungeon, the milky skein surfaces and the penis-between-the-legs poses another 1990’s horror film came to mind: The Silence of the Lambs. To give Basset his due, this installation is genuinely creepy.

I enjoyed the 90’s feeling throughout the show, and in my head applauded the Cornish scene for being so on point with the current international zeitgeist. There was a consistent buzzing sound-clash between Jesse’s cousin’s 'Fire Walk With Me' band, DJ’s playing Wu Tang clan, wispy Enya-like Celtic mist-music from 'Mathair', and the breakbeat that makes up the soundtrack to 'Rave and Breaks', my favourite piece in the show. Dick’s jewel of a film was made in 1992 at the epicentre of ravedom, somewhere in the home counties, made in real time using a super 8 camera, edited in camera and re-dubbed with breakbeats simply 'cos he 'fucking ‘ates techno'. Having come of age at that time and attended raves, free parties and festivals throughout the nineties, the double dose of nostalgia with the fashion, dancing, tent aesthetic seen through the prism of the already-nostalgic-by-the- 1990’s medium of super 8 film, was spine-tinglingly exciting.

As with all Jewell’s club films, he manages to simultaneously occupy the positions of fly-on-the-wall documentary and embodied visceral experience. This is a deeply romantic film. The super 8 picks up the lasers as though they are fairies dancing across the screen, mystical orbs occasionally punctuated by grey hoodies and young gurning faces. Rave n breaks is painterly, lyrical and free, perhaps because Jewell was off his tits all the time he was making it.


This is a link to a 10 minute documentary on Dick Jewell https://vimeo.com/79874107. See 'exhibitions' for 'Unstable Monuments' installation shots, and 'webprojects' for Kathryn Ferguson's 'Mathair'.