For I'm not among the waders: The Story of Zebedee
Lydia Blakeley, Jack Burton, Rae Hicks, Marie Jacotey, Jonathan Kelly, Hannah Murgatroyd, Hamish Pearch
Post_Institute, London | Jul 5 - Jul 26, 2018
von Goetz is pleased to present ‘For I’m not among the waders: The story of Zebedee’ curated by Oliver Morris Jones and Lucy von Goetz at the Post_Institute in Brixton. Continuing with the Institute’s programme of curatorially ambitious group exhibitions, this show aims to unpack and question our understanding of contemporary belief systems, convening seven artists whose practices relate to the iconography, vocabulary, mythology and psychology of worship. Tackling such broad topics as the simulacra, the cult of celebrity, art historical thematics, eroticism, the mediated image, capitalist realism, the worship of self, and the semiotics of pseudo-religions, the exhibition will forward a dialectical discussion on the notion of faith and the devoted subject.
“The illusory paradise that represented a total denial of earthly life is no longer projected into the heavens, it is embedded in earthly life itself. The spectacle is the technological version of the exiling of human powers into a “world beyond”; the culmination of humanity’s internal separation.”
- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
In my own experience, I am no person of God, yet I remain a person of faith. In what sense does my religiosity spring from the eternal hope of almighty affinity? A remnant or fading echo of societies built on Judeo-Christian value systems, whose influence is a zombie presence in contemporary culture? Or does my faith reside elsewhere—do I believe in politics? Can I uphold the values of a capitalist economy? Do I trust my Uber driver to not kidnap me? Do I have faith that Kim K’s physique was the result of steely dedication, early mornings and hardship through a well-considered diet and muscle-specific workout routine? And is this triviality, not simply a detail of but the intrinsic structure to postmodern systems of worship?
We’ve all learned the hard way, that our faith will not be rewarded; that our spectacular society—of accumulated capital, to the point that it becomes images—provides no rest and no sustenance for the faithful. To swim is akin to committing oneself to faith and to wade into the deep water — Kierkegaard writes: ‘I for my part can indeed describe the movements of faith, but I cannot perform them […] (for I’m not among the waders).’ (Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Classics, 1985), 41.) Stripped of the cocoon of the heavens that once shielded us from the bittersweet cold of the cosmos, our solitary flotilla harbours the grounded faith of our enlightenment. More than fifty years since the publication of Debord’s 1967 text The Society of the Spectacle, our devotion to this shared loss is the production line of images. The fetish character of the art object, the celebrity, the television programme, social media personas, the exercise regime and the body beautiful, the ecological crisis, health food stores, the commodity, the consumer and the consumed; the spectacle is the internalising of religious desire.
Art and objecthood comes with its own systems of idolatry, canonisation and worship; one is not allowed to touch the art, for mortal hands are too impure to approach an object that has ascended to the realm of historical time. Our understanding of art is absolutely religious. The artists on view in ‘For I’m not among the waders’ advance a complex and nuanced approach to the concept of worship. In the paintings of Lydia Blakeley, realism is taken at face value. Appropriating the settings of reality television and the breed show Crufts, Blakeley toys with the illusionary nature of the screen and its characters. Images that, adhering to their spectacular function, are vaunted and empty. Rendering these screen stills in paint, not only are the primary strata of contrivances brought to the fore — the staged action, the camera direction — but her paintings establish a secondary, critical gaze that amputates the pictures from their host; orphaned from their medium, the messages become fragile and insecure.
Perception is central to the religious project. To produce the devoted character, one cannot arrest the subject, but must rather attend by his or her own accord — albeit coaxed into doing so. Such channeling of faith is not by accident but by architecture. It is writ large into the edifices of the places of work; it decorates the city in myriad hoardings and billboards; it is through the flow of capital and us the buoyant consumers that we navigate the metropolitan landscape. In the paintings of Rae Hicks, the uniformity and hegemonic character of the cityscape is abutted against the surface of the canvas. Titles such as Fat City (2018) and Clean Living (2018) nudge at a reading of the work that references health food movements, the “good life,” and the body beautiful. They depict the Manhattan-esque dream of all cities, where time is money and space is measured in price per square foot.
Utopias are built on such formal logical values. If in Blakeley’s and Hicks’ paintings we see animality repressed — instead, postulating beings of rational systems — in Hannah Murgatroyd’s practice humanity is relocated closer to nature. At once evoking the images of pilgrims, of gatherers, the idealism of rural life depicted in the 19th Century by painters such as Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), or the hearty, peasant scenes of the 17th Century Dutch painter David Teniers (the younger) (1610-1690) and the Flemish-born Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638), Murgatroyd’s painting combines such art historical notes with a certain eroticism — bordering on burlesque, there is a seriousness that accompanies its good humour. The luscious figures of her male and female characters revel in the physicality of the body. All Atlas-figures and Frank Frazetta heroines, her paintings toy with folkloric history whilst channeling the gym-going, green-juicing types, clashing a ritualistic paganism with a certain spectacle and desire for the raw human form.
The body, its “human nature,” is consistently under fire from the automata of contemporary living. Meditative, tantric practices, yogic routines and asanas — the techniques and vocabularies of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual exercises — play out daily in the city’s gyms, parks and living rooms, appropriated as a form of physical health exercise and bodily/spiritual connection. It seems no little coincidence that the practice of yoga is so highly regarded in Western capitalist society, since it is the performance of absolute control (etymologically speaking, ‘yoga,’ from its Sanskrit origin means ‘to concentrate’ and ‘to harness’) and ‘unity’ — to assimilate wholly and without paradox or contradiction. It is our individual job to control our bodies, to master their imbalances, and perform the gesture given to us. Yoga is the demonstration of Western capitalist subjugation par excellence: the oppression of irrationality and the yielding to higher, logical powers.
How might we read the work of Jonathan Kelly, therefore? The paintings, dealing directly with the yogic human form — sat full lotus in the canvas’ dead centre — play on the twisted symbology of the practice, but also foreground Celtic iconography and pre-historical myth. Interwoven with titles such as Chance Maker, World Faker, Dream Waker, Heart Breaker, Grace Taker (2017), in a work that layers casino chips over Kelly’s iconic forms, they reveal the presence of contemporary deities — perhaps Fortuna, the goddess of luck — bringing into question the validity of the claim that society is secular, and not informed by a religiosity of spirit.
In the work of Jack Burton, photography provides a departure point for individual mythologies and narrative structures. Collaged, over-painted and interjected by text, the images become systematic and topographical. A series of nodes, entry and exit points, context and subject; the vocabulary of the imagery errs on a psychological derivation, a mind-map. The works function through the sustaining of paradox. At once informed by both textual language and painterly mark making, Burton’s aluminium panels entertain a dialectical materiality, applying “A” and “not-A” in the same contextual parameters, they are innately human in their internally contradictory fashion.
For Hamish Pearch, this same materiality provides a methodological framework on which to suspend questions relating to existentialism, dystopia and homo sacer. In works such as Last days with cup (2018) and Breathing (2018), Pearch subjects the human body to an autopsical assessment, dissecting body and mind through the steely harshness of material. Referencing such writers as J.G. Ballard, Cormac McCarthy and Ray Bradbury, the sculptures are imbued with a darkness of spirit. The forms, which can be architectural as well as bodily, constantly entertain a proclivity to death through their sensitivity to materialism and the qualities of surface. It is this phenomenological translation that makes the work so starkly prescriptive in their tonality.
We may consider religious works of art successful in their aim – to imbue the spirit of God, and to depict his divine mission – successful, if such prescriptive feelings are conferred upon us personally, privately, and perhaps even theatrically. The drawings of Marie Jacotey are immensely delicate and fastidiously rendered, the sincerity of the draughtsmanship leaves no little detail assumed, but creates pathways of imaginative, cinematic fiction. The images are markedly intimate, their characters and titles function as a diaristic exposé, creating an authorial voice that directs the action. Here, the lucid, filmic, graphic novel-like quality, paired with their formal artistic insights, produces a religious image by default. They entertain the worship of self in their idolising of the narrative voice(s), but also in the subjective quality of their fiction; no two people experience the imagery the same, and it is this imaginative (and memorial) isolation that casts the self as the deity of our being; our conscious sense of mind becomes the transcendent higher power of the gallery environment.