LondonPippy Houldsworth Gallery
October 25 – November 23, 2019
In Barry Schwabsky’s Dark Laughter, Genesis Belanger’s witty sculpture The Options Are Slim, 2019, a facsimile of a plug socket with a kitchen knife jabbed into it, elicits a sardonic laugh no matter how close or far away you stand from it. However, by reducing this and other works by Belanger, Emily Mae Smith, Ellen Berkenblit and June Leaf through an all-too-familiar press release about each artist’s idiosyncratic tact in a world gone haywire—in which their dark sense of humor quietly rebels against a status quo—the individual prowess of each practice is short-changed.
A case in point is Genesis Belanger’s other sculptures, A Woman Is Always Prepared (2019), in which a milkshake protrudes from a handbag and As You Please (2019), in which the big toe of a vertical-standing foot is crowned with a dollop of whipped cream and a cherry. Both exude a cerebral humour towards feminine clichés that tickles rather than provokes, with As You Please also introducing an added layer of tongue-in-cheek fetishist intrigue. It is striking what archetypal symbols from American life suggest about America as a brand to a non-American audience. The milkshake and whipped cream, more likely to be synonymous with their portrayals in television and cinema, feel as if they are being deployed cynically as shtick. They read as caricatures of objects that have already become caricatures, as if subscribing to a view that America has devolved into a pantomime-like parody of itself within popular culture, and that there is now little distinction between pantomime and reality.
In June Leaf’s sculpture Movie Camera (2003), there is a particular affinity with Belanger’s A Woman Is Always Prepared and As You Please, whereby there is a distinct American identity tied to the object. Its early camera-like shape and handmade quality at first evokes the rise of cinema as captured in Hopper’s New York Movie (1939) and Thomas Hart Benton’s Hollywood (1937-1938). But the longer one studies it, the more it becomes apparent that it is acting as a counter to The Options Are Slim, entrenched in a seriousness, loss, and nostalgia, as if the associated history were a figment of her imagination that was shared all too briefly until it was lost forever.
The feeling that there is now little distinction between pantomime and reality also feeds into Emily Mae Smith’s nimble, abstract painting, Cheque from Mouth Cashed by Ass (2019), which is described as “using framing devices of cartoonish hair, mouth, and buttocks to create satirical portraits of contemporary political figures and the buffoonery of their rhetoric.” Although Donald Trump is not mentioned by name, he is undoubtedly a target of the painting’s jab. What leaves a lasting impression, however, is the friction Emily Mae Smith commands between the technique used to depict hair—a stylized version of photorealism—and the Trompe-l'il used for a gas cloud with pointed stem on top of it. The latter visually undermines the former, appearing gimmicky and out of place, suggesting itself as a subtler metaphor for Trump’s current role as president.
Nearby is Ellen Berkenblit’s painting Circus of Books (2019), where, on top of a black background, a cartoon hand applies bold red lipstick onto a pair of lips, but what comes out of the tube is blueish-purple. There is a forlorn sense of alienation but humor is less forthcoming. So too is this the case in Tiger Fur Umbrella (2019) and Striped Cloud (2019), whereby recognizable forms—a cloud, a hand, umbrellas, a stiletto—also float on black backgrounds with rudimentary shapes surrounding them, filled with skirmishes and streaks of garish color and pattern.
There is a rootlessness at the core of these works that is difficult to gain a foothold in. Speculation can only engage on a superficial level. But there is an interesting correlation when viewed in the context of June Leaf, who uses her imagination to fuel a lot of her imagery. In her work The Painters (c. 1975-1980), two tiny figures ride animals with elongated legs, as if on stilts, jousting with impossibly long paint brushes. The protagonists appear like apparitions in a nondescript space formed by a repellent mix of ugly browns and impotent blues and greens. The composition is labored and scrappy, as if excavated from, rather than defined, through paint. This is made even more clear in the absurd watercolor and drawing Studies (Jet Spray) (Study for Woman Monument) (1975), and the pen, ink, and watercolor Endless (1976), where her brushwork and mark-making feels urgent and heavy handed, as if the image in her mind might perish without warning. This is all in opposition to Ellen Berkenblit’s paintings, which appear considered and developed in comparison. These engaging nuances between artists and individual and the enigmatic presence in each work amounts to a shared quality that is far beyond darkly comic.