This pandemic has accelerated and amplified huge shifts in the presentation of art. The digital presentation of painting, in particular, has increasingly become even more accessible and accepted, keeping viewers closer to their screens and further from galleries. This is perhaps a primary reason I felt a timely sense of familiarity and comfort when entering Pippy Houldsworth Gallery’s warm and inviting space to view its current group show, Dancing in Dark Times, running until August 6th. The show allows a glimpse into the practices of a group of international artists – many of whom are showing in the UK for the first time – and seeks to “explore the evolving exchange between the bodies we occupy, the world we inhabit and the images we create.” It is an exhibition no doubt inspired by the strange twists and turns all our lives have taken in the past year and a half, and one that largely achieves its statement of intent, thanks in part to standout works from Jessie Makinson, Constanza Schaffner, Ilana Savdie, and Tonia Nneji.
Jessie Makinson’s Oh, I’d Hate to Have a Knife Stuck in my Back (2021) is a surreal depiction of four female figures tangling and curving through and over each other in a dreamlike dystopia. The painting is typical of Makinson’s work, but also of the entwining of life and art; this piece captures perfectly the tightrope her works often walk between fantasy and reality, at once of our time and so thoroughly distant. Makinson’s inspirations often come from classical Dutch/Flemish painting, particularly images of brothels or inns – these sources are certainly present, resonating, and flowing through this vibrant, detailed, and complex work.
Likewise, Constanza Schaffner’s contribution of two self-portraits – De Allí No Se Vuelve (2021) and La Zona (2020) – proves harrowing in its own right. Schaffner, an Argentine artist currently based in New York, whose practice spans painting, drawing, and collage, often works to explore “the limits of philosophy for the comprehension of reality,” a task certainly at hand here – both paintings only loosely tether themselves to our world. Depictions of feathers, infusing and obscuring the subject's panicked gaze in La Zona, beg the question of whether there are brighter, more gentle times on the horizon. Regardless, if one does not feel up to the task of such speculation, they most certainly will have their hands full with Schaffner’s finesse and eye for detail.
llana Savdie’s works are influenced by the social interactions interspersing her life as an artist. Her works are as ambiguous as they are vibrant; representations of limbs are fragmented, abstracted, and reduced to their most basic forms. It is unclear what place these forms inhabit – potentially mythical, celestial even? Or maybe a paradoxical world shadowing ours? However, there is a rhythm, flow, and structure to these forms that is unmistakably human. In Defense of a Pre-Ordained Fertility Clown (2021) is a fine example of her practice and an image to be lingered upon and considered.
Like Jessie Makinson’s Oh, I’d hate to have a knife stuck in my back, Nigerian artist Tonia Nneji’s Seeking Salvation in the Catechist’s Office (2021) also depicts four female forms. This time though, the setting feels far less like that of a dream state but one more solidly rooted in life’s realities. There is raw anguish in the work – an emotion the artist often seeks to address. Partially evident in the subjects’ shadowed faces, one figure retreats behind the other, perhaps not fully wanting to share with the viewer the pain and suffering she is feeling. These emotions are juxtaposed with the richly coloured, intricate, and flowing patterns portrayed in the fabrics these women wear. They are in fact a nod to the harsh realities of the artist's upbringing and a constant reminder of the fabrics her mother sold in order to cover the artist’s medical bills whilst suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome.
Viewing the exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery as a whole, Dancing in Dark Times presents an energetic and spirited response to contemporary figuration and an opportunity to question and reflect on the nature of human defiance in painting within an ever-changing world. In one of the stranger, more variable summers in recent memory, Pippy Houldsworth has exhibited their usual fine form.