Ode to the Body
22 May - 7 June, 2021
How can someone depict something so alive, on a bidimensional still surface?
Daniel Benjamin Gallery is pleased to present Ode to the Body, featuring eight international artists at different stages of their careers and lives. From Goldsmith student Nana Wolke to the legendary Miriam Cahn, rather than merely focusing on the physical representation of the body, the exhibition aims to explore the different techniques and motivations behind the artists’ practices, in which in most cases the figuration of the body is purely incidental, a tool to convey a higher meaning.
The exhibition begins with new works by Yulia Iosilzon (Russia, b.1992). While her interest in the animal world is already very much present in earlier works, here it takes centre stage. An underwater world is presented in a series of two paintings that play with scale. The grand Supernatural Beings seems to be chased by the tiny Supernatural Beings Part I, almost ironically subverting the theory of the big fish eating the small one. On the lower ground floor, The Greenhouse brings us to another world, inhabited by characters that are half birds and half putti. There is an inherent expressiveness in the few confident black lines that Iosilzon uses to create a mood in a face. The greenhouse seems to be on fire, but the characters don’t seem to be worried, perched on a comfortable branch, or flying through the whimsical flora.
After a summer working in a studio in New Zealand specialising in movie props, Iosilzon began to work with a mix of oil and silicone on stretched translucent silk. Building up layers of paint, and of meaning, the artist likens her choice of medium to a ‘mosquito net’, offering transparency but also impenetrability. As the artist claims, transparency as a material and transparency as a meaning collide in her works all the time. In developing a symbolic language, partly self-invented, partly plucked from popular culture, folklore and religion, Iosilzon is subverting binaries. Her compositions are simultaneously direct and complex, otherworldly and familiar. In recent works, Iosilzon has begun to create her own colours, further expanding her vivid palette and her command of colour and its application.
The water world seems to be sailed above by the protagonist of A.L.I.F.E. to be continued by Xiuching Tsay (Thailand, 1993).
Rough seas make good sailors.
At once disquieting and soothing, that painting and Selves won’t tell me the right direction are complex explorations of our relationships with ourselves, taking especially into close account the effects of social media in our lives. An attentive eye will notice that the flowers intent in mirroring themselves, are transmuting in snakes, while the character seems to be reaching for its desperately needed compass. The fast moving suns are present in both paintings, symbolizing an abnormal passage of time.
The moon-shaped head character is starting to become recurring in certain works by Xiuching, as she wanted to create this anonymous and emphatic person, without a face that can be anyone and that we can project ourselves into.
The character can be found again on the lower ground floor, in Sonatising the Sonata. When the artist was creating this work, she felt very inspired by an early Mondrian, Evening, Red Tree (circa 1909). It was a moment of chaos and this lonely tree with lots of branches gave a sense of protection and escape from the chaotic society.
There might be a moment where we need an escape from a hectic life, into a silence zone. We always carry the burden of a worried mind, anxiety to sonatising or create the escape place. But this escape created is an illusion. The mind has never rest in the silence zone. In the painting, the landscape has a spiral movement following the spiral pattern in the moon, creating a psychedelic vibe.
The latest works by Tsay are interrogating us, bringing up the question whether peace is about escapism or acknowledge that we cannot run away from the unrest world because our being is part of that.
A moment of motherly tenderness is shown in All Blooms once were a seed, an evocative title that brings to mind the little sprouts of vegetation, so tiny that it’s impossible to recognize what they will become, an allegory of the endless possibilities of life.
The liquidity of the gesture in the abstract figuration of Tsay is always recalling the water because of its both metaphoric and substantial qualities that unfold infinite visions, melting all the possible subject matters into the most ambiguous forms. Water metaphors always play an important role in her paintings, it opens up infinite imaginations; its tumultuous movement such as spiral patterns of whirlpools take over her emotions and introduces her the manifold spiritual sides of an object.
The personas in the world of Louisa Gagliardi (Switzerland, 1989) are genderless avatars. They’re often hanging out in well put together yet somber domestic landscapes, with carpeted rooms and soft bed mattresses. Yet, in 8:30 PM, the room is concealed to the viewer, as much as most of the bodies of the two characters whom are only revealing part of them.
The eyes and the snowy nails are piercing the darkness with their stark brilliance. Dancing between dimensionality and translucence, her characters bridge the divide between the enigmatic and the banal. With a background in graphic design, the artist draws freely from the codes of painting as well as contemporary graphic design and advertising in order to rethink questions of figure and ground, flatness and depth.
Gagliardi’s paintings are made in Photoshop, then the resulting image printed on a banner-like PVC, and finished with an extra layer of physicality, using materials like gel medium or nail polish which are a feast for the most inquisitive eye.
In great contrast with the smooth vinyl surface of Gagliardi’s work, the mosaic As Above, So Below by Alexi Marshall (UK, 1995) is establishing a strong presence in the space. The mosaics are inspired by Marshall’s first trip to Rome in occasion of the exhibition Dancing At the Edge of the World, curated by Marcelle Joseph. The urgency of using this medium came to her after witnessing the mosaic artwork within the Vatican, and she had been mastering this archaic technique for the past year. The woman finally reaches the surface of the water to breath, in perfect harmony with the fish, flowing all around her.
On the lower ground floor, the ecstatic moment before a kiss in Young Love is in dialogue with the strong and beautiful woman appearing from the flames in Rising.
Eclectic artist, Marshall works also in hand printed linocut, fabric, drawing and embroidery to investigate themes of spirituality, sexuality, womanhood and youth, creating unabashed imagery of women in their bold naked bodies, divinity and unconstrained freedom, moved by notions of radical softness. Mythology, different religions and beliefs, traditions from different countries, all come together with a universal aesthetic in her works.
Every artwork is embed with symbolism. In the large pencil drawing Crowley’s Curse, the title refers to the local legend of Aleister Crowley’s alleged curse. The notorious and infamous 20th century occultist died in Hastings in 1947. There are people living locally who believe an aura of evil, his evil, lurks in the locations associated with him. It is still believed that he cursed the town and its inhabitants so they could never free themselves from it: anyone who left would feel compelled to return. Crowley is said to have provided an opt-out. You could escape the curse by always carrying a pebble with a hole in from Hastings beach in your pocket.
Here we see three nude leviathan blue women lounging on a pebbled beach. Small men stare from the sea foam as they wash upon the shore like flat fish. They stare above at the giant girls, who seem all powerful compared to them. In their helplessness the men seem like prey.
The first girls hold a pebble with a hole in one hand and in the other she stares at an eye with an arrow straight through it. This is a reference to King Harold, who famously died by being shot with an arrow through the eye in the battle of Hastings, 1066. The girl lying down waves her hand along the sea, almost ready to pluck on of the fish-men out the water. She has a look of boredom on her face. The last girl, only her legs are visible, she seems to be walking out of the image, her hand shoving something in her strange skin pocket. This refers to breaking the curse, to carry the stone in your pocket and be able to leave the town and adolescence.
Crowley’s Curse’ was inspired by the artists teenage years in Hastings, and the overall experience of female adolescence. Beyond the blue leviathan girls there are memories of boredom in a seaside town, seemingly trapped by an invisible patriarchal presence. Yet the piece alludes the breaking of that curse – the teenage girls unconstrained freedom represents the most fearsome threat to male control, and they can overpower and break the curse that seemingly holds them stagnant on the beach.
Above the girls a ribbon reads a line by the artist - ‘Crowley’s Curse is not the end, I hope to see those ghosts again.’
Ghosts that seem to appear in life in Mit bündeln and Unklar, the works by Miriam Cahn (Switzerland, 1949) on both floors of the gallery.
Nothing better than her own words can give a glimpse into her world:
“I always have the same things from the beginning. It's houses, women and men. People where it's not clear what they are. My work is my thinking and feeling together. And it's not having an idea and doing art and things like this. It's exercising, everyday exercising, like a music instrument where you exercise and that's it.
I am angry, yes. I stay angry because everybody is so slow.
I am very angry because women still don't have the same rights like men. It's not aggression. Anger is also a very good motor to do art. Art should be free. Art should be free from things. From political correctness. Often, my paintings or drawings are hung on eye level, so they look back to the people who look at the painting. This, I think, is not a trick, it's not provocative but it has to do a lot with I am serious with what I am thinking about. So you have to integrate yourself as a viewer. I always did also this sexual stuff and today it's, I don't know why…it's more. It has a lot to do with #MeToo. As a woman and feminist this is the third time there is a real big issue about sex as confrontation of power.
My work has a lot to do with showing the complexity of the whole thing between sex, power, aggression and everything like this. I am 70 now. It's again. Now we have all constitutions in democratic countries where men and women are the same. Why doesn't it work? Women have to be more warriors and have to fight for it. And #MeToo is exactly something like this. I liked it very much because of this. Because women said, it's not possible anymore! And it changes already a little in the atmosphere. It's the only way. You have to fight for it. You can't wait until somebody else fights for it.
You have to fight for it.
You have to be a fighter.
I am a fighter, I hope.”
In Hard to Hold and the petite How to Skin a Snake, the two latest paintings by Nana Wolke (Ljubljana, 1994), we can appreciate a continuation of her interest in restaging images from both personal memory and images from advertisement and cinema, using red hunting light. This sort of lights are used by hunters and explorers to avoid been seen by animals, which have a different perception of colours than humans. It may be unintentional in Hard to Hold, but it’s worth noting that blue jeans stick out to deer and most other animals like a sore thumb, because of their perception of that colour.
On the other hand, the colour red for humans is extremely appealing. A red light smoothens the skin, conceal imperfections, rendering everything more beautiful than the truth.
The artist is interested in the blur of reality and pretension, the feeling of not remembering if something was truly experienced or watched on a movie and tv series the evening before.
In this new works, Wolke took a more staged approach, whereas she set the space, music, clothing, and leaving the subject to act authentically and spontaneously. The resulting depictions show what happens when nobody should be watching.
A lot of focus is often placed on the material and it merges into the subject, rather than the body itself, having the artist spent quite a few years mainly working on sculptures. This is very visible in the sculptural composition of the two people wrestling and holding each other, their elbows bent, the jeans wrinkling.
The artist feels the urgency to capture a moment where something is about to happen or it’s a result of something that occurred just brief moments before.
The technique used by Wolke is laboriously slow, a result of multiple layering of almost complementary colours, to let the shadows emerge with blues and greens, and painting over that again and again with red. Wherever the light is, the artist never uses any white. Brightness is the result of very thin layers of oil paint, giving the ephemeral glow that is so essential to the painting.
As curator Maria Valeria Biondo recently remarked: “Many questions arise from Wolke’s peculiar settings and subjects. What are we looking at? Is this a sensual promise, or a trap? Who is really the prey here?”
Hands are a recurring motive in the exhibition, especially highlighted from the dialogue in between How to Skin a Snake by Wolke and Skins by Lydia Blakeley (UK, 1980). A painter of the reality of our time, Blakeley's subject matter is the world around her, or rather the world translated through the screen of her phone or her laptop. She constantly records or screenshots what interests her in the infinite flux of visual imagery that she is surrounded by and then uses that source material to make paintings that have a viewpoint embedded in a very particular sense of British, or perhaps even English, cultural identity.
In Skins she seems to be steering away from all that, from the chaos of the outside, focusing her brushstrokes on the representation of a delicate touch in between two hands, their skins slightly caressing each other in a moment of intimacy and amorous human contact. The ivory female hand is reaching the other one, the moment before an interlocking hug of fingers and emotions.
In a polarizing contrast with the hairless and tranquil hands in Skins, concludes the exhibition New Fur, a complex and intricate painting by Pola Dwurnik (Poland, 1979).
Her body, often of autobiographical features, is completely hidden by a myriad of animals, a vortex of furs, legs, eyes, tails, where the details are enhanced by the absence of colour. The combination of the traumatic tension with an animal theme introduces a certain dose of humour to the picture. The spiralling movement of the animals is unstoppable and is drawing all of us in, until we find the face of the artist, whom had been watching us the all time.
In painting, Dwurnik tries to rediscover a new strength of expression in the confines of a figural representation, in which she examines identity caught in the conflict between the inner emotional and the external image. Through those, she is able to reflect on contemporary reality and both its social and private spheres.
Dwurnik thinks a lot about each painting, she takes lots of notes, makes detailed research, collects photos and makes sketches. It often takes her a few years to plan a single painting, due to the complexity of the compositions she wants to achieve.
“To me, painting is celebration of life. Paintings come to me; they are displayed in my head. They come from the inside, from my mind, from memories mixed with dreams; from a desire or some kind of powerlessness, often helplessness. They stem from my problems, sadness and sorrows. In my art, I try to stay very close to myself, and art is often a form of therapy in my life.”