The Warning Project
The Crescent Arts Centre Belfast
May 25 - June 15, 2012
The collective artworks by the 26 artists in the Warning exhibition have been selected to engage with the essential nature of the human condition. The curator, Brendan Jamison states that the intent behind this collection is to ‘...explore concepts that operate at the heart of society and in the darkest recesses of the mind... frightening and joyful, shallow and deep, beautiful and ugly, erotic and sexless, truthful and dishonest, spiritual and godless, the paradoxes and contradictions of contemporary life.’
With one of the strongest pieces in the exhibition, Miguel Martin successfully and dramatically addresses the association between religion and sexuality in an ink drawing entitled Nun of Thee Above. The Christian idea of the devil is based on the Greek pagan god, Pan; his half-human, half-goat appearance represented fertility and sexuality. Here Martin’s characters, (presumably) representations of the holy trinity and the Virgin Mary, are portrayed as licentious miscreants actively flaunting their debauchery in sacrilegious ecstasy. Religious iconography and ephemera are represented as objects of defilement in this salacious parody. The drawing’s content entices comparisons to the libertines’ exploits at the Chateau de Silling, the fictional location featured in Marquis de Sade’s explicit novel 120 Days of Sodom.
Alternatively a sense of innocence placed within the context of sexual awakening features in the works by Gail Ritchie, Miranda Whall, Lulu Lolo and Lydia Holmes. Of the four artists, Ritchie, Lolo and Whall employ objects and imagery synonymous with purity as they respond to a state of liminality. The compromising situations in which the artists choose to place their subjects contribute to each works’ disquieting presence. In the paintings entitled Nearing, Ritchie positions toy figures in a suggestive sexual manner and Whall’s exquisite drawings reveal cute birds perched on her hand as she masturbates with a dildo. Holmes presents a large format drawing entitled The Sperm Harvesters. At first the image reads like a comedic satire with its futuristic landscape dominated by gigantic erect penises. The appendages are farmed and guarded by a group of tiny female figures, but there is a bizarre and sinister element to this piece: according to Holmes the demand for male sperm in the Zimbabwean cosmetic industry has increased its value and become a lucrative commodity which has laid to sexual attacks on men by women.
The minimalistic and childlike drawings by Tracey Emin See How They Grow depicts a small garden of penises being sprinkled with water by a horny buck rabbit. In direct response Brendan Jamison’s sculptural piece has united two empty plastic water containers in a quasi-sexual embrace. The thousands of pins that outline diagrammatic representations of the male and female reproductive organs have pierced the objects’ sides thereby rendering them functionally obsolete.
Male sexual aggression is menacingly explored in the dark bitumen paintings by Andre Stitt whilst masculine fallibility is alluded to in Patrick Coulhoun’s foreboding, ceramic sculptural installation entitled Reckoning. Coulhoun presents 18 fragmented heads some are complete whilst others are devoid of a cranium. Their presence manifests a sense of mortality as the empty shells descend into the white plinths that they rest upon. This theme of corporality in relation to the male figure is also evident in works by the artists, Peter Richards, Ciaran Magill and William Artt. In an impressively opulent, large-scale photograph, Richards has chosen to recreate the climatic scene from Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. And in a circular reference to the exhibition itself the central characters are played by three of the exhibiting artists plus the curator Jamison and collector, Brian Nixon. The cyclical nature of life and death is highlighted in Artt’s video entitled Requiem For The Age of Innocence [from Sex and Death series]. The artist poignantly dedicates this work to ‘the homosexual artists who have died of AIDs... sex can both create life but can also destroy it’.
The male gaze directed at the female body as fetishist scopophilia is apparent in the works by Stuart Roberts and Royce Harper. One piece in particular, Red Gladioli by Roberts is a mesmerizing collage and painting that seduces and lures the viewer in closer. Its rich red luxurious tones and repetition of layered cut female ligaments metaphorically flesh out the image. Harper also transfixes the viewer with his stop motion stilled photograph of a performance by the artist Leonie McDonagh. The image of her semi-clad body vibrates on the retina as she is caught between the intimate act of dressing or undressing.
Returning back to the curator’s intentions, Jamison states that ‘..as a direct reaction to the conservatively-safe nature of the artworks selling in the Northern Ireland art market, The Warning Art Gallery presents challenging and provocative art of high conceptual and aesthetic merit....’ Most of the works contained within this exhibition are explicit and I would agree that it is inconceivable that they would be displayed in a majority of the more conventional venues. However, outside of this provincial attitude of regional galleries, we are more generally exposed to images of naked and sexualised bodies as used extensively in ad campaigns, bill boards, magazines, and films; a wider context within which most of the works presented here can easily be accommodated. Personally, one artwork in particular extended beyond existing cultural boundaries. In Miranda Whall’s On the 11th Day, the artist is filmed sitting on the counter of a hardware store. She removes her trousers and underwear before commencing a cervical examination to ascertain her state of fertility based on the texture and the amount of mucus that is present. To the right of this gynaecological inspection a man waits to be served seemingly oblivious. I found the public nature of this private act disconcerting and I was left with a sense of shock at the social dissonance of the piece. By placing herself in such a vulnerable position the artist generated a visceral reaction in me which led to questions on the nature of what is permissive and the sexualisation of the body. The success of this piece reveals Jamison’s ability to locate and display artworks that extend beyond gratuitous sensationalism.