A Review of Skinscapes at Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop, London
There was an Italian actress, Anna Magnani, who famously said “leave me my wrinkles, it has taken me a lifetime to make them.” These simple, powerful words in one swoop dismiss our contemporary obsession with obscuring the supposed imperfections that are quite literally the signs of a lifetime gone by. The sleepless nights, uncontrollable smiles, disapproving frowns and sticks and stones that scar us along the way. Whether it is glamorous Italian actresses spewing pearls of wisdom or Kendrick Lamar rapping about how he’d rather have “something natural like ass with some stretch marks,” I feel the time has come to wake up to the true beauty of our skin that lies in its resilience, its sheer strength and ability to withhold all the pain and pleasure that life entails. Skinscapes, curated by Tatiana de Cheneviere and Giulia Vandelli is a group exhibition that, as the title suggests, presents nine artists wildly contrasting, deeply personal interpretations of the Skin.
As I entered the space at Unit 1 Gallery I was immediately drawn to a large canvas that hung slightly away from the wall, inviting the viewer to circle it. At first glance it has domestic connotations: grey recycled linen has been messily woven with cotton thread in nude, red, pink and brown hues. Another piece from the same series by Camilla Emson sits opposite it, and I found myself standing between the two, somewhat mesmerized. Emson subverts the traditional associations of knitting, and her woven canvases possess a tangible intensity, perhaps due to the fact that her process is laid bare for all to see, with straggled loops of textile exposed at the back. Her abstract shapes sit on top of one another, some wormlike, others like bulbous warts that are loosely but thickly sewn into the linen. The centre is a frenzied nucleus of material, and random splashes of bleach trail across from top to bottom. The smaller, sister canvas Scar Map: Bolt is more contained, and displays a single white smudge of bleach whose edges are sealed with a woven outline. The effect is powerfully childlike in its simplicity, Emson has given us an overt symbol of a scar, universally recognizable, and yet the choice of materials grace it with a nostalgic, gentle touch as though the artist is aware such memories need be handled with care.
Romana Londi took a visually softer approach and created a series of small rectangular canvases that initially appear to be not much more than a thin wash of blue, pink or lilac paint, but are a playful representation of our bashful human faces. Their monochrome glossy, sticky, surfaces are not what meets the eye, and are made using UV reactive paint. The viewer is invited to pick up the accompanying handheld lamp to shine upon the paintings that mimic our bodies’ flushed reaction when emotions creep up on us unexpectedly. Londi says that for her “Art is about feeling”, and her animated works reveal this romanticized approach to the topic of the skin, while pointing to how it is rarely our best ally in our continuous endeavor to appear flawless. Zoe Hoare continues the theme of illusion and her large hanging Perspex box contains paper sculptures that press up against a translucent casing. Her arrangement creates a tension between the materials and their duality; although seemingly weightless, the static, strictly confined paper fragments incite a desire to get beneath the surface of her composition.
A video piece is tucked behind a corner by University of California educated Jessica Lynn Schlobohm that presents a tantalizing, slow motion unpeeling of a large, flat mushroom. The anonymous pair of hands emerges from a dark background, and gently removes the mushroom’s thin outer layer with so much care that the poor vegetable is successfully personified, and I found myself watching with empathetic anticipation. It is unclear whether we are in a kitchen pantry, or still in the forest and the prey has been freshly plucked from the warmth of an earthy bed. The gloomy, brown background is barely lit by a mysterious source, which emphasizes the viewer’s sense of compassion for the mushroom, as the entire video functions on the power dynamic between peeler and prey.
I finished my tour by contemplating Gui Pondé’s series of 7 photographic self-portraits that each depict the artist donning a range of props and costumes to express Pondé’s fluctuating vision of himself. Part performance piece, part photograph, his images are engaging and playful, and suggest that we all shed skins on a daily basis depending on our current mental disposition. One print shows his body covered in cupcakes and sealed in cling film, in another he is concealed by giant rubber gloves, and another yet shows his body shielded by a complex tubing system that connects mouth to genitals. These elaborate guises express a concern for self-containment, and Pondé’s creations bring to mind the idea of the skin as a physical embodiment of the need to constantly self-protect, both through our minds and our bodies.
Ultimately, it is clear that the strongest pieces were those that showed an awareness of the relationship between our mental, emotional state, and the casing within which our bodies are held. Interestingly, since my viewing the exhibition, Camilla Emson spoke of her volunteer work with domestic abuse victims. The heightened consciousness and sensitivity that would be required of such work is potently felt in her art. I found both her and Gui Pondé’s work to be the most honest expression of the theme at hand. Their visual language was both dynamic and nuanced, and honed in on the fragility of the casing that holds within the minds and souls of all living creatures, be they human or vegetable.
Written by Hedy Mowinckel, a Contributor to Arteviste.