Camden Arts Centre 'File Note' - April 2019
The new works in Jonathan Baldock’s exhibition, Facecrime, try to imagine a handful of historical time periods which coexist, overlap and collide. These different era are drawn from the remote past as much as the present, whilst trying to imagine a distant future whose inscrutability gestures toward the ultimate and foregone illegibility of our current moment. It is a strange, fascinating and telling transaction, which reflects on the evolution of communication while speaking to some basic human truths.
The exhibition consists of two parts, a series of masks or faces, and a collection of monumental columns. Both groups of works are predominantly fashioned out of glazed ceramic and bear the marks of their making and the artists hand. Approximately the width of a human, the columns tower over the visitor. Teeming with bright colors and playful variation, both the masks, and the columns, might seem to be a relatively ludic affair, but spend a moment with them and you will see that something much weirder is taking place here. The work is ultimately as unsettling as it is full of contradiction.
The first apparent contradiction is Baldock’s use and inclusion of emoji’s in the sculptures. Figures and inventions of the virtual and digital realm, emoji’s do not have a material life. They are, by their very nature, immaterial. Contravening their virtual, insubstantial nature, Baldock has materialized them here, multiplied them, and inserted and festooned his sculptures with them with a kind of reckless abandon. In doing so, he conflates two different modes of production, the hand-made (i.e., timeless) with the digital (the now, as it were). But they also allude to a more fundamental relationship of the emoji to our own sense of self. I don’t know about my reader, but I can remember a life before the internet, and when I was initially faced with the advent of emojis I was immediately offended by such an egregious simplification of my inner life and emotional intelligence. They struck me as nothing less than idiotic, or worse, productive of idiocy: idiot making. I swore that I would never use them in my communication and secretly and smugly condemned anyone who did (something of a luddite, I also said exactly the same about cellphones circa 1996). And yet, as time has gone by, I have found myself shamelessly availing myself of their iconographic shorthand to describe how I and others might be feeling. Never mind that I initially did so ironically – as if the specious sophistication of irony would insulate me from my own simplicity – what is interesting about them in the inclusion of Baldock’s sculpture is precisely their essentialism and the extent to which they are revelatory of an essential tendency in humans. For although Baldock is juxtaposing these standardised, endlessly reproducible faces with his own hand-crafted visages, they both speak to the same fundamental and timeless necessity to reproduce the human figure, or more specifically, the face. It could be that this necessity – to depict the human face – actually testifies to a universal human quality. I will never abandon my belief in the irreducible specificity of each individual human experience, but maybe emojis are much closer to certain truths of the human animal than we might have first allowed?
Another point of Baldock’s interest in the emoji here is its questionable future legibility. Having conceived this exhibition as a kind of ruin, full of partial columns and highly interpretable faces, one wonders if emojis themselves will one day be perceived the way we perceive ancient cuneiform text? Were they a language? Or perhaps some form of currency?
That said, the distortion of the human figure is not limited to faces (or emojis) here. Rife with ears, fingers, hands, all of which are presented in the most anatomically unsound fashion, these sculptures become further, if grotesque, parodies of the tendency to reproduce the human figure. And for all their ideas and reflections on the past, present and future, these are not mere allegories or representations, but actual objects with a complex material life that is all their own. They, in particular the masks, have as much to do with painting as they do with sculpture. Borrowing the two-dimensional picture plane typically associated with painting, they explore colour and composition as much as space and three-dimensional form. Indeed, it is precisely this preoccupation with formal invention, not to mention craft, that ensures that Baldock’s work is much more complex than any one idea that might underpin it. As such, it is not difficult to imagine a distant, hypothetical future in which the emoji has become obsolete or forgotten and these works are marveled at as inscrutable artifacts whose beauty and careful sense of construction alone ensure their veneration.
Chris Sharp is a writer and curator based in Mexico City, where he co-runs the project space Lulu.
Susan Sontag was right: we need an erotics of art. To privilege context and reference ahead of the vitality of the encounter with Jonathan Baldock’s art is to tame it. Let its carnality leap out at you.
Baldock’s sculptures make me think of skin, and how hard those cells work to contain, to give shape, to hold things in. The artist’s most recent body of work comprises gruesome amalgamations of woven fibres, latex and ceramics. In April 2019, ahead of his forthcoming solo exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, Baldock produced a maquette study, which functions here as something of a prelude. The work is a totemic sculpture of six hollow ceramic cylinders, one atop the other. The tower threatens to topple at any moment. Wretched souls emerge from its bone-like surface in ripples of anguished figuration. A hand reaches out, searchingly. Tongues stick out in impunity. Hand-spun yarn spills from the cracks and crevices like entrails. Lips, ears and mouths protrude. Crass emojis pockmark the surface, in turns winking, guffawing and gritting their teeth. Like body language, emojis are non-verbal revelations – an emotive shorthand Baldock uses to monumentalise what the British ‘stiff upper lip’ does its best to suppress – our true nature. The unconscious gesture of Baldock’s sculptures betrays them. They are at the point of utterance, of giving themselves away – a dam about to burst. The thing is, you often feel better after letting it all out.
Baldock’s new series of ceramic masks likewise speak to the potentially thin veneer of our psychic realm. Simple rectangular tiles hover at the edge of figuration – sumptuous ripples and folds combine with violent insertions of other objects into the ceramic surface, hinting at faciality. Baldock asks – what happens when the mask slips? How far are any of us from this point? ‘Mirror mirror on the wall’ – they reflect back to us.
Baldock is also drawn to the knottiness of textile – weaving in particular. In his exhibition THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME at CGP London, 2017, a hybrid cast of monstrous characters face one another across a circle, as though in a group therapy session. The tongue-in-cheek conceit effaces something deeper – each seems on the verge of a confession. How exhausting it can be sometimes, holding it together. One character, an anthropomorphised pot, literally spills the beans. Another recoils, turning away from the group in camp outrage. Stitches and seams dominate as a motif. Baldock’s forms are overstuffed, and the fabric is stretched to bursting. The skin they live in threatens not to hold. There are orifices everywhere, which bespeak desire, vulgar sexuality, shame, and pleasure. They are portals into hidden depths of the psyche – places we aren’t meant to see. Yet the warm undercurrent of bawdiness drags these figures out of abjection, and into a poetics of reparation.
Baldock revels in the parts that we try to keep hidden – from others, and from ourselves. Cutting, stitching, mending, making-do – his is a sculptural metaphor of repair. To an extent we constantly remake ourselves. Baldock shows us the cathartic power of art and making.
It’s a resolutely anti-monumental approach that has hitherto seen Baldock mix up the friable stuff of 21st century life — domestic goings-on, fallible bodies, libidinal currents, rude jokes and cute asides — with references to modernist art and ancient cultures and their notions of pure forms or lasting values. He’s previously employed a wide range of crafts including knitting, felting and glassblowing to do so. This though, is his most extensive experiment with clay, one of the oldest and most primal art mediums. Its qualities are uniquely physical: literally earthy, worked by hand and with overtones of dough or shit.
All of which makes it a far from obvious and partly ironic choice for a salient feature of these latest works: rendering the insubstantial pictorial language of the digital realm, emojis, in solid form. That ceramics are made the old-fashioned way is a point stressed by a cast of the artist’s open hand. It extends from a column, as if trying to make contact, but the emojis underline that in the 21st century this is less likely to be physical than via a quick message on a touchscreen phone.
Pictograms scratched out in clay however, are also one of the earliest surviving forms of written language. Indeed, Baldock’s research process during his residency has included studying the British Museum’s collection of Mesopotamian clay tablets, which trace the evolution from pictograms into cuneiform script’s semi-abstract marks, and the earliest of which date back 5000 years. Written in extinct Assyrian, they run the gamut of cultural life across millennia, from literature like The Epic of Gilgamesh, to spells, recipes, bills and love letters. The comparison is a tragi-comic one, raising questions about what traces we will and won’t leave to future generations with a cartoon cast of pictograms that depend on the continuation of digital technology for existence.
For all their limitations however, emojis do say something quite specific about our interactions in the 21st century. In the soundless, disembodied realm of SMS, they have emerged as a necessary shorthand for emotional emphasis. When texting, words alone seldom seem adequate when it comes to expressing ‘tears of joy’, ‘grimacing’, or ‘thumbs up’ (to name a few of the feelings the artist quotes from the SMS lexicon). The emoji is perfectly suited to brief messages and, as we might think, considering these clay shafts’ suggestive gauged holes, the anonymous hook-up.
Though this group of columns ape the mute supports of the ancient world, they are not in fact, without sound. Lean close and you become privy to an audible internal world: a mixture of songs hummed and the kind of random thoughts one has when walking the streets; even stomach grumbles.
This gap between appearances and what goes on underneath is further emphasised by the ceramic masks Baldock has been creating using huge rectangular tiles of clay. Decorated in attention-grabbing glazes that veer from deep purple to tangerine, fleshy pink to shimmering granite grey, they are as exhibitionistic as the columns are retiring. Their features are little more than lines and holes sliced or punched into the clay, recalling Picasso’s masks and, again, Fontana. There is more than a hint of the animal forces, the sex and ferocity, those modernist titans channelled. Yet it’s mixed with a charming goofiness. Here a hapless grin is filled with pom-poms, the lips stitched together. There, more disturbingly, both the eyes and mouth of a mask are stuffed with fat discs bearing emojis, resembling supersized pills. Made with a cookie-cutter, Baldock’s smiley faces inevitably recall retro slang for ecstasy: disco biscuits.
The melt between inner life and its outward expression that the ‘love drug’ is famed for, makes a telling counterpoint for work concerned with stunted expression. For these awkward ceramics with their rough seams, saggy holes and imperfect lines, the bridge between the internal and external world isn’t easily navigated.
FRIEZE Magazine, March 2018
Jonathan Baldock and Emma Hart have been on tour, or at least their three-act ‘Love Life’ exhibition has. Starting as a small but busy show at PEER in London at the end of last year, an expanded ‘Act II’ was at Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery over the summer, and the final leg finds them on the UK’s South East coast. The locations are significant: ‘Love Life’ takes its cue from the puppet show, Punch and Judy, which can trace its roots in the UK to 17th-century London. In the 20th century, the show’s red-and-white-striped booths became a seaside holiday staple, Punch’s frequently violent relationship with Judy becoming a benchmark of summertime family entertainment. But while ‘Love Life’ references the tropes of the show – De La Warr Pavilion’s back wall is painted in vertical red and white stripes, the artists wear Punch-style large noses in a short film – it is contemporary domestic tensions that are being explored here rather than the puppet show itself.
The scene is set with a decorative hessian hanging depicting a twee-looking house with crosshatched windows (Baldock, Wait Until I Get You Home, 2016). At PEER, this faced the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling front window; in Bexhill-on-Sea, where the first-floor exhibition space is open on one side, it faces onto the interior landing of this seafront pavilion. Peeking out from under the hanging is a garish pink carpet; to the left there’s one of four booth-like interiors that resemble sparsely furnished stage sets. Dyed-red clothes tumble out of a washing machine made from pink metal tubing (Baldock, Out Damn’d Spot!) and works in ceramic and fabric are positioned on the floor, the walls, a dining table. A giant figure in a baby walker – Baldock’s A Guiding Hand – acts as a slightly sinister overseer, its large pink fabric head featuring a film of a single blinking eye. Behind it on the wall, Hart’s ceramic Boohoo Boob Tube features two squeezed paint tubes morphing into red-raw breasts. Spelt out in alphabet spaghetti in a ceramic saucepan are the words: ‘I feel like I’m drowning’ (Baldock, It’s Not Burnt It’s Caramelised). This is no ‘Home Sweet Home’, then; cartoonish and tense, it’s a place to escape from, rather than to.
The tension is ramped up further in the film, Love Life (2017), one of two pieces in the exhibition produced collaboratively, the other being Jon and Emma, a sound installation based on a 1951 Stan Freberg comedy skit. Viewed from a red velvet sofa and presented on a large wall-mounted television, Love Life’s portrayal of domestic drudgery and disquiet provides a narrative that links the exhibition’s disparate elements. In a series of simmering conflicts that border on the slapstick, the domestic life of a couple with a young baby plays out, at turns funny, farcical, and displaying a pettiness that anyone who has ever had an argument with their partner will surely recognize. Feet are intentionally trodden on as they pass on the stairs; doors rhythmically slam; a crammed washing machine whirrs naggingly. The pair don’t talk and barely look at each other, their only communication being via occasional messages written on cardboard: ‘You ****ing loser’ says one; ‘A*?*hole’ another.
‘Love Life’ offers an uncompromising portrayal of a couple living together, exploring both the internal pressures exerted on a relationship and the external expectations that come with family life. Yet while it captures the monotony and frustration of the everyday, it is sustained by both its humour and an almost self-deprecating shrugging of the shoulders. As it examines the stresses and problems of the domestic sphere, it also acts as a reminder that, despite all it can throw at us, equipped with an ‘if you don’t laugh you’ll cry’ stoicism, it is still possible to – yes – ‘love life’.
In sleep our bodies restore and repair themselves but in dreams the body can be reassembled and extended easily with little concern for scale or function. Jonathan Baldock’s My biggest fear is that someone will crawl into it invites us into this more fantastical corporeal encounter with ourselves, a pillow upon which to imagine new material possibilities. For André Breton and fellow Surrealists, this was one of the main appeals of the dream; unlike Freud they were not interested in translating dreams into logical narratives but rather they relished the illogical creative potential of the sleeping mind. Breton argued that it freed the body from proper behaviour and allowed a revolt of the unconscious and a revaluation of fleshy connections. The appeal to the dreaming imagination in Baldock’s work picks up on this surreal promise and the visitor is invited to reimagine their own embodiment. A dream of the body in new combinations can easily switch to nightmare however and horror lurches at us when this creative dismembering becomes abject, when the body parts become too detached and gain a sentience of their own. The fairground and the fairy story both have thrills of this kind; a reminder that the body can revolt and challenge our ability to rationally understand or control it. Baldock frequently returns to these genres of body-horror, which have both pleasure and a subtle threat running concurrently. The mouth that frames the entrance to the galley could come from a Grimm tale but it also has an echo of a funhouse, mischievously claiming the white cube as a hall of mirrors. We cross a threshold into carnivalesque inversions of scale and order and are swallowed into reflections upon malleable flesh, bones that can be reshaped and skin that can be shed to escape into another relation to how we manifest in our own stories. The pink felt fantasies of isolated organs can offer a reimagining of corporeality and also remind us of the precariousness of the body.
The materials and handiwork are reminiscent of crafting and making-do; a rainy afternoon spent with cotton scraps and glue to create a new toy or a new costume. There is also something here of the child’s ability to shape-shift easily, a body not yet consolidated fully into adult form and always playing with how matter matters. The whispering sounds of Baldock’s mother’s autobiography draw our attention to how we visualise ourselves through the stories that we are told and then tell. Dressing-up and playing with substitute objects, children are able to imagine many new uses for bodies and they try on embodiment without the burden of seriousness. Bedtime for children is a ritual when the imaginative possibilities of the day come to a close and the solitude of the dark threatens to close in. Whilst the scale of Baldock’s Four-Poster is clearly not a cot, his decoration of the drapes reminds us of the thin barriers in childhood between the waking fantasy and the dreaming imagination. The child who resists going to bed needs to be told a story to drift off, and these fairytales are replete with large teeth that devour, eyes that pop out, noses that grow and oversized ears to hear secrets. The mother’s story is one in which she reimagines herself at the centre of her own narrative, able to reshape the past in order to better understand the present.
Baldock frequently collaborates with performers to further explore this forgotten pleasure of dressing up and telling stories. He imbues latent movement in his sculptural assemblages, and together with his collaborators he choreographs at the edges of human form, dancing uncannily at the limits of our recognition. A child’s metamorphic talents are put aside when assuming the solid state of adulthood but this avowed theatricality makes them available again. These performances are realisations of incorporation, making the domestic tremble with spasms of potential animism. The bed is a particularly potent stage for thinking through this expanded body in role play because, once we leave childhood, beds reveal other possibilities for exploring how flesh fits together and how we can dissolve boundaries between organs and objects. In addition to playful dreams, Baldock’s bed invites us to think queerly about possibilities for activities between the sheets. We can explore the engorged ear, the lolloping tongue, the glistening eye. There is not a singular sex, gender or sexuality here but spaces for connections between parts where pleasures might be found. This is not a normative marital bed but a space for ecstatic recombinations of sight, touch, taste and smell. What we do with each other in the bedroom, and what parts go where, is an acute articulation of the politics of the flesh. The bed is often imagined as a private sanctuary but it is here that social norms can be retraced and played out differently. The springs of the mattress can creak with new stories of bodily conjugations and the sheets can be stained by the labour of producing new forms of carnal knowledge.
The politics of the bed are not only sexual but also statistical. The bed is a site for safety and recovery, a place to retreat to in order to be healed, or a secure centre in a chaotic world. Access to beds is not however universal; Hackney has one of the highest rates of homelessness and the number of hospital beds are under threat from attacks on the NHS. The precariousness of bodies, our needs and interdependence, are at the fore in the sleeping body. We are especially vulnerable to all manner of touches, whether welcome or not: from lovers, from family, from the state, and from an economy which designates certain dreams as being more possible than others. This differential over the material conditions in which we can live and sleep can potentially divest us of our bodies, fragmenting us in ways that threaten the very possibility of a liveable life. Baldock’s bed asks us therefore what bodies besides ours can impinge on our dreams or share in our pleasures. It asks who do you want to crawl into bed with and for what?
ARTFORUM | Critics Picks |15-12-2016
“Love Life: Act 1,” Jonathan Baldock and Emma Hart’s new commission for PEER in conjunction with Grundy Art Gallery and the De La Warr Pavilion, will play out in three parts, the first beginning here. For this exhibition, the artists have refashioned the gallery as a surreal Punch-and-Judy set littered with bizarre handcrafted objects. The two conjoined rooms of the candy-striped space become a gigantic theater for Mr. Punch’s family to perform their cheerfully violent hijinks. Everything is suffused with an air of menace, as though Punch could pop out at any time and brutally beat you with his stick.
In the first room, Baldock has constructed a baby’s high chair out of sickly pink felt and thin metal rods (A Guiding Hand, all works 2016). In the chair sits a grotesque stuffed head, perhaps a child’s, carrying a digital screen that displays a single eye. The eye just stares, occasionally blinking and tearing up, as though it’s witnessed something terrible. On a nearby wall is Hart’s ceramic breasts with bright-red nipples, which seem to have been squeezed to resemble used-up tubes of toothpaste (BooHoo Boob Tube). Jon and Emma is a collaborative recording of the artists shrieking out each other’s names hysterically, orgasmically—a sound track for their sexually aggressive tableau. In the adjoining room, Hart’s trio of ceramic comic-book speech bubbles protrudes from a wall, their silhouettes imitating the aquiline profile of Punch (“You two-faced lying motherfucker”). Their texts yell out phrases such as “the way you use a knife” and “cross your legs”—evoking a feeling not too unlike like that of being trapped in the crossfire of a lovers’ quarrel. Through black humor and innuendo, Hart and Baldock create an engrossingly sad tale where the viewer can decide the finale
ART MONTHLY | No.402 | Dec 2016 | p.26-27
This show turns Peer’s recently refurbished gallery into a satirical version of domestic spaces in which Emma Hart and Jonathan Baldock reimagine the traditional seaside entertainment of Punch and Judy. The theme generates a backdrop of innate violence, and multiple eyes suggest that this could be linked to such current forms of bullying as surveillance and online trolling. Visitors find themselves in the middle of a disputatious mise-en-scène, populated by objects that are carefully constructed but which remain approximate, more like props than real things, though Hart does spell out one wall text in real sausages to keep us on our toes. As I recall, Punch and Judy’s arguments were typically about either sausages or the baby, and Hart pops in her own child: Locket and Chain (all works 2016) displays her daughter’s photo in a giant piece of jewellery.
The combination of conflict and provisionality suits a collaboration between two artists who have their own separate practices, with potential for disagreement as artistic egos clash and seesaw towards a less settled identity. Moreover, this is not a fixed installation, as Act 2 will be in the much bigger venue of the Grundy in Blackpool, before the concluding Act 3 washes up at a smaller but very tall space in the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. From Peer to seaside towns with piers, there will be plenty of change ahead. Neither future stop, moreover, will repeat the natural theatre of how Peer’s windows give onto a busy street, and nor will Punch and Judy’s antics resonate with the vituperative US presidential election, which took place on the opening night of the first Act. If that’s the set-up, what do Hart and Baldock deliver? Nothing as direct as the wooden slapstick with which Punch hits all and sundry, or his combative words. But both artists have practices which tend naturally towards the humour and grotesquery of Punch and Judy: both focus on the body and the handmade, both use various materials but especially ceramic and both like excess and dislike control. That makes it tricky to tell who made what, especially when you consider the possibility of mutual imitation (Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon’s strategy in their recent collaborations). In fact, the only co-produced work provides the show’s sound: the 45rpm record Jon and Emma in which Baldock and Hart – unswazzled, in another avoidance of the obvious – call each other’s names out. Their tones vary from pleading to pained to provocative, in a routine which derives, appropriately, from a 1950s puppeteer.
Beyond the sound, the broad distinction is that Baldock creates the scene and Hart populates it with sculptures which – somewhat paradoxically – portray events. The first room sets Baldock’s giant babywalker A Guiding Hand, featuring his own eye on an all-seeing TV screen, against a red-and-white striped wall-painting recalling a performance tent on the beach. The second room features a hessian screen as an architectural backdrop on which Baldock has applied several eyes, giving it the menacing title Wait until I get you home. That room contains his twisted ceramic version of a cooker as hell, with anthropomorphised saucepans and kiln-firedsausages (It’s not burnt, it’s caramelised), and Out damn’d spot! – a washing machine of sorts which spews forth a tide of clothes. Hart populates the rooms with her action sculptures: Here We Go Again sum mons chase and flight by ringing the first room with ceramic feet wearing glove puppet socks, Bang cuts the shape of a comic explosion from a door which was evidently slammed and three ceramic speech bubbles jut into the space at mouth height so that they can be read from both sides. That explains their title, You two-faced lying motherfucker, and there is fun to be had wondering which order to read them in: is it, for example, ‘I do / nice things’ or ‘Sooo long / nice things’? Does ‘cross your legs / the way you use a knife’ make sense?
The Contemporary Art Society: Friday Dispatch // 18/11/2016
Approaching PEER you can’t miss the large eyes that welcome visitors to Jonathan Baldock & Emma Hart’s Love Life: Act 1, a touring exhibition in three acts that engages with the histories and traditions of Punch and Judy shows. Originally inspired by Italian Commedia dell’Arte, this popular puppet theatre appeared in England in the 17th century and became a familiar feature of street and seaside life from the 19th century onwards. They remained a prominent part of British seaside entertainment throughout the 20th century and marked the childhood experiences of Baldock and Hart.
Basing their collaboration around the domestic drama of Punch and Judy brings a rich and magical world of childhood pleasure to this work, but also the senseless and maniacal violence which features in so much of what children are encouraged to laugh and cheer about.
The series of works presented at PEER are homogenous and repetitious in presentation, making the viewer wonder who has authored which, or where one ends and another begins. Fittingly, this is not the first time the two artists have worked together. In 2015, at l’étrangère gallery, they staged a fictional dinner party that gathered their common interests: the grotesque and the surreal; the domestic and the handmade; the human and its excesses; the peculiar relation between violence and humour. For PEER the Punch and Judy-themed show seems a perfect platform through which to explore these themes, especially the dramatic tipping points that force everyday situations into moments of violent excess.
The space we enter is pervaded by a certain tension, created by a giant one-eyed baby in a baby walker, recalling the monstrous infants of popular horror film or the classical tradition of Polyphemus. The walls are unevenly striped in the red and white of a seaside sideshow, contributing to the deranged sense of a haunted house the owners have abandoned. Ceramic ‘nagging’ feet with black socks are lined up around the edges of the room and are joined by a pair of breasts that, as if squeezed from tubes, hang from the wall. In the background, the artists have recorded a version of Stan Freberg’s 1951 parody, John and Marsha. Their riff on this classic comedy – Jon and Emma (2016) – is rich in melodrama to show how every human emotion can be incorporated into domestic life.
In the next gallery, a baby in a huge ceramic locket ball and chain makes a strong statement on conflicting ideals of parental duty, while also invoking the casual kind of ‘care’ that babies receive in traditional Punch and Judy sketches. It is in this room where reference to the domestic intensifies with a diversity of objects: a washing machine on the floor that is ejecting blood red clothes; the cast fragment of a door implying further scenes of violence; a stove cooking human bodily parts; anthropomorphic speech bubbles on the walls suggest verbal arguments. Familiar objects accumulate and become estranged. We don’t have characters but sculptures with a dramatic charge of agency. Baldock and Hart’s work is deeply performative in this respect, where artworks stage their own theatrical experience and suggest a series of actions that do not necessarily depend on a viewer’s imaginative agency.
Philosopher Bruno Latour has written about the radical aesthetic and experiential shifts that occur when objects are ascribed independent action. Indeed, Baldock and Hart seem to believe that objects and their materiality can be more than creative, more than merely active, but a force for overwhelming destruction. Love Life: Act 1 is a set of a past performance, a balanced account of domestic tragedy staged with unsettling humour and force. And, like the ever-present and often repeated puppet shows that are its inspiration, there are three acts to this play. That’s the way they do it! So we will be richly rewarded by watching their Love Life develop at other places of seaside surrealism, first at Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool next summer, and then at De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill-on-Sea next autumn.
NOTION Magazine, Issue 72, 2016, pp.218-223
In 2017, CGP London will commission an ambitious new solo exhibition by Jonathan Baldock. It will be his largest work to date and his first solo exhibition in a public institution in London. Working across both CGP gallery sites; a large-scale sculptural installation will fill Dilston Grove (a former church and the first poured concrete structure in the UK). This installation will accompany a more formal exhibition of new works in The Gallery space.
JC -I have been fascinated by your recent collaboration with the Kokoro Dance Company in Canada Jonathan, especially at this time in your career where your sculptures are starting to move of their own accord! Where did your love of all things costume come from and what role does movement play in your sculptural practice?
JB – Body ornamentation is the oldest art form that we have evidence of. It represents the evolution of human artistic creativity. For me that makes it a very potent medium. What we wear can be a form of artistic expression, but it can also communicate identity, it is an extremely powerful tool. I believe one of the few remaining potent non-violent political acts that we can communicate effectively as individuals. If I were to walk down the street in a pink mini-dress then I would be pretty likely to encounter some sort of public abuse, confrontation or stares. I find this amazing that fabric can evoke these kinds of reactions in people. What other “material” could do this. Clothes are a skin and something we may or may not choose to inhabit or express ourselves in.
The costume element to my practice evolved through a fusion of these thoughts and the idea of how a human body could inhabit a work of art. I became fascinated by the idea of my sculptures becoming activated by a person wearing them. A lot of the sculptures that I made alluded to function or narrative so I decided to explore this more with the costumes and making sculptures as costumes. I started to collaborate with the artist and choreographer Florence Peake, and we began an ongoing exploration to the potential ways I could give my sculptures a new form of life. It was really important for me to work with someone who knew how to hold the human body, and worked with the form relentlessly. Florence had done an amazing piece at the Baltic Gateshead on how one might use the body to interact with inanimate objects. It really struck a chord with me. I think there is a fad for artists with no experience working in performance and I didn’t want to go down that route. I needed to learn from a master. We have worked together many times now and she has been a huge inspiration to me.
The recent collaboration with Kokoro Dance in Vancouver happened after a solo exhibition I had in Vancouver. I had made some costumes to be exhibited and asked Jay and Barbara to inhabit them. They did a totally improvised piece and blew me away. They have been dancing for years and are phenomenal. They contacted me some months later and asked if I would be involved in a piece they were working on called “The Book of Love”. The roles between me as the costume/set designer, and the choreography of Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi (of Kokoro Dance) were clearly defined and the act of collaboration was more independent. I let my imagination go wild with woven basket-like headpieces, and then they responded to them in the realisation of the choreography. It was exciting to see my work on a theatre stage and very different from the gallery arena.
JC – I like the phrase “gallery arena”, it makes me wonder how or if you feel that your audiences activate your works when they are installed in a more formal gallery setting (such as your 2D works for example) without activation by performers such as the wonderful Florence.
JB – Absolutely. I don’t feel they rely on activation from performers. First and foremost all works have to exist independently in there own right, and that is very important to me. The fact that they suggest potential activation by the audience is a bonus. One of the key objectives within my practice recently has been concerned with encouraging the audience to “step inside” the work, and gain an all-immersive experience. It is my hope that my installations provide an alternate reality. A stage with which the sculptures are characters each with unique personalities. Although the works have a playful theatricality I do not consider them props in any way. Each sculpture is meticulously crafted, it is about the body and made of the body. The performances focus on an interaction and conversation between the human form and that of the sculptures often with the human appearing less “alive” than the performer. Smaller objects within the installation allude to certain unknown imagined functions that are put into question when performed. Not is all what it appears.
JC – I have long admired how your work somehow manages to straddle so many contrasting aspects – formal cut-out-esque patterning and ‘design’ of sorts with the playful, comforting, tactile and humorous. You make me think of Matisse and Kabuki Theatre. It’s a lazy question but I am going for it – where do your ideas come from? How do your many influences manifest in a new body of work?
JB – I have a very guttural instinct in making work. I start with an idea, and it evolves organically into its final form. I make a lot of decisions as I go along and collect the many art historical references that my work is immersed as the work grows. I have a particular soft spot for art from the early/mid 20th Century which I feel was one of the most creative periods in western art history. This is a period when the western art canon really started to be informed by influences and ideas from around the world. Art was transformed. When I study the likes of Moore, Hepworth, Klee, Matisse, Nagochi, Picasso etc. it is not just there work that I investigate, but also their influences. What and who were there inspirations and motivations? Of course in many cases this was non-western art and even theatre like Japanese Kabuki. I should add than in doing this I am not critiquing there work. These are artists I adore, but I like the idea that I offer up other potential directions with which the many concerns of the day could of gone in.
The early/mid twentieth century was also a period where the line between art and theatre, and many other disciplines became really blurred. An example could be found with the many collaborations of Diaghilev who was instrumental in bringing art, dance and music together with artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Miro and Dali.
I am super interested in the idea of the working have a universal language. And what universally understood symbols there are out there. It is why the mask for instance is a recurring motif within my work. It is some that spans almost all cultures and civilisations.
JC – I am excited to be working with you on a new ambitious bod of work for CGP London in 2017. Do you think there will be any links to your recent DAAD residency in Bad Ems in celebration of all things DADA?
JB – I think one thing that my DADA themed residency at Künstlerhaus Schloss Balmoral confirmed is that all contemporary art owes a huge debt to DADA. I think that contemporary arts current interest in the role of the object within performance has coincided with a resurgence of the object in a variety of research areas including psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and cultural studies. I would say that this significance was an idea first introduced by Dada. I think this is something that I will certainly continue to explore in my exhibition at CGP in 2017. I hope to create an immersive work that encourages the viewer to enter the an interior psychological world which revels in my interest in the performative properties of sculptures. Through simple actions, gestures and performance I want to play with the physical qualities and potentials of materials, objects and sculptures.
Emma Hart and Jonathan Baldock have set the table for Suckerz, a co-authored sculptural installation that combines recent work by both artists. This collaboration has grown out of the artists’ friendship, and demonstrates their shared taste for culinary-themed sculpture and a fascination for the body’s performance in cultural rituals. It also reveals a common sensibility that tends to find its expression in manifestations of excess. For these artists, too much is never enough.
Hungry for an opportunity to work together and deterritorialise their ideas and sculptural processes, Hart and Baldock concocted an idea for an installation that would stage a dinner party in the gallery, with their works performing as the crockery, utensils, food and table decorations of the tableau vivant of an eccentric meal. For many, the dinner party is the epitome of refinement and culture, an elegant coming-together of likeminded peers. It’s a ritual governed by unspoken rules, and a chance to be one’s most charming self. It’s often considered uncouth to talk shop here – this is tacitly agreed – but that doesn’t mean people don’t do business. Fine linens mask extra-marital affairs; resonating crystal ware is a clarion call to quell one’s hunger for mingling, to feed at the trough of upward mobility. Hart and Baldock’s Suckerz dinner party outrages these genteel conventions with a table heaving with artworks that blur the line between food, drink, finery and bodies.
The dinner table is the site of momentous beginnings and endings: couples fall in love; families fall apart. Deals are struck and bodies nourished. Cycles of consumption and production are set in motion: food enters the body; ideas, relationships and experiences ensue. The act of preparing a meal together is often emblematic of a marriage. In this case, the marriage is between two artistic approaches that have enough commonalities and enough differences to build a fertile union.
Baldock and Hart have also provided the staff for the Suckerz dinner with a pair of regal busts stationed at either end of good ship Dinner Party. Festooned with an orgy of pearls and bells, they are reminiscent of court jesters. At this table, one imagines rich foods being passed around with detachment and cultured ladies flaunting the anatomical oxymoron of wasp waist and greedy mouth. Nearby, a gaggle of flustered ‘skivvies’ flaps around the table’s edge, outstretched arms holding trays of glasses aloft. The help is evidently anxious to please, judging by the puddles of sweat that have gathered beneath them. Their trays are decorated with gaudy collages of tropical plants, licked all over with a generous coating of lacquer.
A rudimentary social hierarchy is evident in the positioning of the busts at the heads of the table: in literature the court jester – or king’s fool – is the symbol of honesty. He is permitted to speak the truth to the monarch, though the truth is often cloaked in irony or mockery. This role endows him with significant unofficial power, a status evident in the solidity of these busts, whose meticulously stitched and padded felt forms imply knowledge and influence. The skivvies’ outstretched arms, on the other hand, are emaciated. Their unhealthy hue suggests an allergic reaction to too much scrubbing or ill-advised exposure to the sun. They are accessorised with designer knock-off watches to keep them punctual on the job.
The table is laid with rosy ‘boob’ plates, one of which has a dusky, powdery surface, while the others are glazed to a lustrous finish. These breast plates sit alongside rolled cloth napkins held by ceramic rings in the shape of wet-look ouroboros tongues, tasting, licking themselves. Together, the breasts and tongues hint that this menu, perhaps, is for another kind of eating.
Clearly this dinner table is also a dissecting table. The installation repeatedly brings to mind the rhetorical device of synecdoche, a kind of metaphor in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa. Outstretched arms signify the workers catering to the table’s every whim. The table itself stands in for the party of guests we do not see. The busts, as the official ‘heads’ of the table, preside over this banquet of body parts. They are truncated above the armpits and intricately bound in braided hair, every orifice plugged by seashells or a medley of tiny bells. They hint at an exquisite bondage devoted to culinary sensuality.
The tongue tastes and the tongue also talks. Classic dinner party conversations often follow a predictable structure, loosely themed around food, anecdotes and current events. The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel was a master satirist of the dinner party, dedicating his 1972 masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie to the story of a group of six elite members of society who repeatedly attempt to dine together. However, each time they sit down to eat, they are thwarted by an extraordinary event, the most striking of which involves the fourth wall of the dining room falling away to reveal an auditorium full of unimpressed theatre patrons.
One also thinks of Buñuel’s 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty, in which the dinner table is surrounded by six identical toilets and guests pull their trousers down or their skirts up to sit together, sharing cigarettes and magazines, and occasionally excusing themselves to lock themselves in the tiny ‘dining room’ to eat in private.
When Buñuel exchanged one end of the digestive canal for the other, he traded the formality of the table for that of the toilet, but he also revealed the dual orthodoxy of social conventions governing our bodies’ natural urges. Tucked away behind the Suckerz dinner table, the back room contains a group of works that extend the notion of the dissecting table and, potentially, the toilet. On one wall, a flock of ponytails made of shiny brown-stained strands held by oversized scrunchies suggests the unfortunate consequences of an indigestible meal, with the colourful scrunchies blossom out of the flat white wall like prolapsed flesh. Across the room, two rectangular canvases made to the proportions of the artist’s body stand on realistic feet cast from life. The raw linen is punctured with holes of various sizes, reinforced with thread to produce a textured sheen reminiscent of the fine folds and lines of the mucous membranes that ring each of our orifices.
Little has changed when it comes to the trappings of a shared meal. The furniture and equipment conceived centuries ago to facilitate social eating are still fit for function. Other than the marital bed, the dining table is the most generative item of collaborative furniture. It is the stage on which human dramas – the comedies and tragedies, the history plays – are performed for real.
The rules governing the art of social eating echo those that dictate our movements around the art gallery. You do not touch what is not yours; you wait your turn to speak and to partake of the dish of the day. You also do well to maintain a measure of control over your own body, its movements and functions. The art gallery, in contrast to the plush surroundings preferred for social eating, is an aseptic environment. And while it may seem fitting, from an aesthetic point of view, to find that particularly tantalising convention – the dinner party – staged in an environment designed for visual seduction, the act of eating itself still carries a frisson of risk and transgression when performed in the sacred space of art. It brings with it the makings of a tasty insurrection: impending spillages and stains menace bright white surfaces; wild fire threatens the controlled art-world environment.
In 1964, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss coined the dichotomy between the ‘raw’ and the ‘cooked’ to differentiate between what is found in nature and what is produced by human culture. For Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism, the theory guiding his anthropological studies, was simply ‘the search for unsuspected harmonies’ across cultures. Although they operate in subtly distinct aesthetic registers, Hart and Baldock share a fascination for the performance of the body across a range of social situations. They are interested in how nature and culture influence bodies, in particular during moments of excess and when these moments tip over into the grotesque. Individually, they each explore the aesthetics of ‘overdoing it’. Together, they generate a harmony with the conjunction of their works on the Suckerz table.
Through a series of sensual and formal dichotomies – wet and dry, masculine and feminine, crude and refined, gestural and poised – Suckerz produces a harmonious a feast of body parts in their natural state and cultured condition. The material unifying these works is that most basic element: earth, or clay. Raw earth is the matrix within which plants grow, and thus an essential requirement for the production of food and the sustenance of bodies. Cooked earth becomes ceramic, which evokes a history of cultural production that runs from prehistoric earthenware vessels to contemporary fine art and design. Characterised by an extreme plasticity and expressivity, clay is the central element that Hart and Baldock have transformed into the food, tableware and bodies that populate Suckerz.
A crocheted life-sized figure is slouched in the corner of the gallery. The Guide, 2014, fastidiously constructed by Jonathan Baldock, consists of a body sculpted in thick grey pleats with the hands and feet finished in pink — it is all topped with a series of flowery coronations. The polyester stuffing is oozing out and covers the base of the sculpture. The androgynous character’s legs are gapping wide and it is difficult to tell whether they are dead, or just knackered. The head is missing any discernible features except a pink ceramic nose. She or he remains inscrutable. Like a well-played kid’s toy, the figure feels in need of some tender loving care. Over the previous decade Baldock has developed a cast of these enigmatic characters. Like actors in an experimental theatrical production, they await further instruction.
Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2005, Baldock has established an impressively diverse practice, encompassing an array of materials such as salt dough,hessian, felt, ceramic and glass. Baldock is equally skilled as a knitter, pleater, print-maker and painter, turning his hand to a myriad of styles. Walking through a typical Baldock installation, we recognise elements from art history, such as the stacked sculptures of Constantin Brancusi and the theatrical costumes of Pablo Picasso amongst many other antecedents. Baldock appropriates these recognisable motifs and mixes them with elements from design, fashion and folk histories. He is a magpie formalist, wresting new approaches from existing forms.
Baldock focuses much of his attention on the human form, subjecting it to visual distortion. Limbs become exaggerated and attenuated, stretched and squashed — the body is at times an impediment as well as a site for sensuality. The bulbous anthropomorphism of Moore and Hepworth are an obvious touch stone (Hepworth has been name checked in a series of works made in 2014). Importantly, Baldock undermines the pure formalism of these Modernistic forebears through a more overt confrontation with the carnal. Take his titles; Organs of Narcissus, Titilation, Warm Bodies, Forms with Protrusions. A hole for Baldock is simultaneously sexual, scatalogical and injurious.
In works such as Return the Gaze, 2014-15, Baldock demands his work to look and touch as much as be seen and felt. An oval painting, raked in thick white acrylic paint is completed by an irregular pattern of glass eyes. The abstract canvas is anthropomorphised into a strange creature looking at us across the room. One can draw direct comparisons to George Bataille’s novella, Story of the Eye published in 1928. Writing in 1962, Roland Barthes wrote of the author’s metaphorical interchangeability between the globular form of the eye and the egg. Extending this, Barthes draws on Bataille’s obsession with mucus, tears, semen, milk and urine. Similarly, by eliding the erotic and abstract, one can see Baldock’s painting enacting a complex set of associative metaphors.
In works such as Screen with Peepholes, 2014, the glass eye is replaced by an imaginary voyeur. A muslin screen, decorated with an abstract pattern, hangs like a curtain from the ceiling, creating a division across the gallery space. Cut with holes at different heights, the work invites differing forms of illicit action. If the gaze suggests a moment of reverie, then voyeurism offers a moment of looking without being without being looked at and, with it, the evocation of power that implies. Who exactly is looking at who? We may turn our back on Baldock’s work but they rarely turn their back on us. These obsessions with the ocular are further dramatised in Baldock’s interest in masks. A common motif within the artist’s work — the mask offers a moment of emancipation from the fixity of the wearer’s own identity. Masquerade is a form of camouflage that invites a type of voyeurism — one can potentially act without immediate fear of reproach. By concealing our face, the mask obstructs our ability to read or be read. It is no coincide that masking is a common horror movie trope and often signals a moment of extended trauma.
Baldock’s work can often be very large, taking over the whole gallery space yet the work never feels grand. In replacing the Modernist preference for hard materials such as steel, bronze, plaster and wood, the artist counters the tendency towards monumentality. Similar to artists such as Eva Hesse, Barry Flanagan and Claes Oldenburg, Baldock embraces pliability and suppleness through the use of soft materials such as fabric. The artist’s fondness for patterning and decoration further undermines direct comparisons to canonised art history. One can draw parallels to the early work of Jann Haworth who most famously co-created The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album cover with her then partner Peter Blake. Haworth has, since the Sixties, created a personalised lexicon of domesticated subjects from life-size tableaux. Made via a laborious process of stitching and sewing, these installations conflate issues of domestic (and feminised) labour with a new quotidian iconography that antagonised the then prevalent visibility of Minimalist sculpture. Like Baldock, Haworth’s work dissolves fine art and craft traditions, creating surreal and unsettling scenarios from everyday observation.
In works such as Form with Limbs, 2014, Baldock both satirises and pays homage to archetypal Modernist sculpture. Doughnut forms are covered in patchwork felt and stabbed with terracotta thorns. Completed with small model feet, the work’s diminutive scale makes them look like a maquette for a theatrical production. The colours used; including, electric blue, pink, lemon yellow, lime green and pink further estrange their iconography. In what would have been antithetical to artists such as Hepworth and Moore, Baldock covers the form of the sculpture — he gives it a skin. Fabric both clothes and conceals, working against the Modernist doctrine of “truth to materials”. Where materials such as bronze, marble and steel evoke industry as well as permanence, fabric suggests something more intimately and habitually connected to the body. In Baldock’s work we see this universalist tendency of Moore inscribed by something more idiosyncratic and personal.
In another series, Orifice Painting, also from 2014, Baldock presents a series of canvases with cut holes. Yet the gesture, made famous by Lucio Fontana, here feels more delicate. Fontana’s holes are like abrasive punctures; Baldocks incisions are neatly cut and painstakingly framed by stitched felt. The moment of injury is an opportunity for repair — the wounding is temporary. This narrative of rehabilitation runs through much of the artist’s work, from the suggestion of wounding and bandaging to the application of distended anthropomorphism.
Baldock has increasingly incorporated performative elements within his installations. Recently collaborating with the choreographer and artist Florence Peake, his installations have become animated via durational performances. Typically, Peake inhabits one of Baldock’s characters and enacts a deliberately slow and intimate response to the objects and spectators in the gallery. A form of surreal courtship is formed between the dancer and audience as the sculptures are handled, the body at once elegant and disruptive. Gestures are deliberately exaggerated and abstracted so that if the body is tasked with communicative agency it is one that is only partially legible. One can draw parallels to the Japanese form of Butoh dance with its insistence on imposing limitations on bodily movement.
Baldock is adept at conflating various formal and conceptual registers. His work can be at times comic as well as fastidious, cute and aggressive. These antithetical positions furnish his work with its own unique tensions. While his material approaches are itinerant his focus remains steadfast. At its centre, his practice frames the body and its various activities — from the ritualisation of domestic chores to libidinal desire. Over the last ten years, Baldock has mapped out a unique iconography and it will be fascinating to see where he takes his cast of characters next.
Emma Hart & Jonathan Baldock – SUCKERZ / July 3 2015
London based artists Emma Hart and Jonathan Baldock’s first collaboration ‘SUCKERZ’ is a beautifully grotesque analysis of the absurdly ritualistic world of the dinner party. Their monstrously fantastical creations are displayed, throughout the gallery, in a nauseatingly gastronomic explosion of flesh and excess that explores the physical and mental processes associated with one of the most favorite of middle class pass times. I Managed to catch up with them to find out more about the process involved in creating art as a duo and the reasoning behind their disdain towards such customary events.
Can you tell me a bit about your relationship as artists and how the collaboration came about?
JB- Emma and I met on a residency at Wysing Arts Centre in 2012. I knew Emma’s work before meeting her and really loved it, but what was really magic is that we also got on really well. I identified with her as a person, and could relate to so much of what she said. Up until then I had never had that with another artist, and I found it quite profound. During the residency we quickly became friends, hanging out in the ceramic studio; making together and talking and having a good time. Until Wysing Emma had not made work in clay, but from that point on ceramic quickly became a common medium in both our works. I had some experience with it before, but I would say that now Emma has definitely become somewhat of an expert in it. I started off showing her how to do things, and now she shows me…
How did you find working as a collaborative unit compared to working alone?
JB- The idea for the show had originally been to place some of our older works together in one show just to see what sort of conversation arose between the works. So it wasn’t actually going to be very collaborative at all. Just a dialogue amongst our two practices. As we sat down and started to select works for the show it soon became clear that in addition to our many shared themes, there were also lots of works dealing with the bodily acts and social scenarios of eating. We decided to make a large dinner table to display both our works, and then started making the additional elements that we thought were missing in order to make it a proper dinner party… Or at least what we thought could constitute a dinner party. For me, one of things that make working collaboratively so exciting is that it is an opportunity to work outside of my usual trajectory. I no longer have to justify what I make against my past works. This is totally liberating and opens up opportunities for my practice to be informed by so much more.
Most of the materials used could perhaps be described as craftsy but are depicting these opulently, grotesque forms and acts. Is there an intentional juxtaposition regarding the materials and and what is made with them?
EH- We have used clay, textiles, photographs and found objects as materials. For myself, sculpture most recently ceramics, provides a way to physically corrupt and ‘dirty’ images and forcefully squeeze more life out of them. Clay provides a way to work behind pictures, and reveal the raw, crude, real state of things that images screen off. The dumbness and lumpiness of clay becomes a provocative way to mess things up. With Jonathan’s work craft techniques and materials are pushed to be over the top and excessive. Absurd appearances are conjoured from everyday items and a fantastical alternative is provided to our conventional experiences.
The work, for me, represents the ritualistic aspect of dinner parties and maybe not in a completely positive light. Is this intentional and Are you both fans of dinner parties?
EH- I have never been to a dinner party, and Jonathan has only been to a handful. I have certainly never held one. I live in a small grotty flat with a very small grotty kitchen that couldn’t cope with anything social. I also hate cooking. Dinner parties seem from a different world, to the one myself and Jonathan inhabit.
The work is displayed and made in a such a way that the viewer wants to pick it up and touch it (at least I did) but obviously cannot. Was it made to have a tactile appeal?
EH- Through the use of disembodied body parts a physical sensation or equivalence in the viewer can be set off – when looking at a tongue you might experience your own. Also through the fact we normally touch things on a table, plates and napkins etc a sensual experience, beginning with touch, is offered. You are right, you can’t touch it, but hopefully you can feel it.
Can you tell me a bit about how the show came about?
JB- As I said already Emma and I have wanted to work together on exhibition for some time. We recently got an exciting commission through PEER gallery, and the De La Warr Pavillion, Bexhill to work on an ambitious new work together. This was prior to our show at L’Etrangere, so when Emma got invited to show at the gallery she invited me to get involved too as an opportunity to test run how we work together and see if it in any way contributes to our forthcoming projects. For me it has been a real pleasure. During the install we agreed on all the decisions about the placement of objects and the arrangements of the show. Perhaps because at the core of if we love each others work so it was exciting to see each others work next to each other. The show has definitely proved that we make a great team and I’m really exciting about starting work together on our next project. Watch this space…
Notes from the Orifice, (VITRINE Gallery, London.) / vol.66, no.9 / December issue 2014 / p.113
Male and female, hard and soft, alien and familiar, comfort and danger, abstract and figurative, art and craft, magic and myth, fun and fetish – all possible word pairings that might come to mind when thinking about Jonathan Baldock’s work. This exhibition of new sculptures and wall pieces (all works but one, 2014), constructed using combinations of candy-coloured fabric, print, paint, ceramics, wood and modelling clay, can box-tick them all. The literal ‘orifices’ of the show’s title take the form of holes. They manifest as peepholes in the freestanding padded, patchwork-felted wall, Peephole-wall, that fills the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling window space, and through which one can view the show from the street and vice versa. Among them is the hole at the centre of the giant doughnut-shaped sculpture, Philomena, which perches on three spindly lilac-coloured wooden legs. And there are the small round holes neatly edged in embroidery thread that are cut out of a pattern-printed muslin curtain dividing the back of the gallery from the front and that also appear in hessian wall works presented on stretchers like paintings. One of these, Peach with Feet, is of human proportions and leans against the wall, pink plaster feet protruding from underneath, embodying the idea not just of holes, but of a series of glory holes.
The exhibition’s title is taken from academic Robin Lydenberg’s 1985 essay on the materiality of language and the body in William Burroughs’s counterculture novel Naked Lunch (1959). Baldock’s soft sculptural aesthetic and pastel palette may initially seem far away from the harder, seedier, more bodily subject matter of Burroughs, but there’s enough ambiguity in these works to allow not only the corporeal element but also the sinister and the sexual and the violent to seep through. Take the two small felt sculptures, Form with Protrusions, that not only stand on legs in the shape of large nails but have nails bashed into them like totems or torture implements. Then there’s the pair of club-shaped felt sculptures suspended from the ceiling on rope. They don’t exactly scream out ‘severed heads’, but considered with their title, Atlanta’s Lovers, and with Atlanta being the virgin huntress from Greek mythology who beheaded a procession of unsuccessful suitors who failed to beat her in a running race, severed heads is exactly what they are.
Perhaps the human-scale, masked grey and pink knitted figure slumped in the corner exuding kapok stuffing, The Guide, is Atlanta herself. The fleet-of-foot huntress was said to have worn armour to give her suitors a sporting chance. The thick strips of jersey fabric used to knit this figure create an effect not dissimilar to chain-mail. During Frieze London week, the unstuffed figure was worn by artist Florence Peake for a series of performances. It isn’t hard to imagine that she might still be in there.
Seductive Spaces; Four new art talents expand expectations of installation / issue 11 / chapter 15 / 2014
Jonathan Baldock creates installations with the mindset of a painter. Designing tableau-style compositions, he wants us to feel like we can step inside the picture frame. Having entered into his surreal landscape, he draws our eye to clusters of small sculptural constellations that are not quite what they seem. Objects that resemble archeological tools are in fact impractical and absurd. Strange handmade objects are everywhere, made from felt, sourdough and polystyrene. Filtering an interest in ancient artifacts, ritualism and tribal costumes, Baldock knits, sews, kneads and glues an imagined contemporary primitivism.
“I think the concept of craftsmanship and the ‘handmade’ has never been more relevant than it is today,” he says. “For too long, ideas associated with craft have been dismissed as sentimental and nostalgic.
I believe in the power of making things, and the bringing together of head and hand.” Baldock quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on education, Émile, by way of explanation: “If, instead of making a child stick to his books, I employ him in a workshop, his hands work to the advantage of his intellect, he becomes a philosopher while he thinks he is simply becoming an artisan.”
It is Baldock’s talent for engaging the mind that makes his work so compelling. Handmade objects litter the ground like the cultural artifacts of a fantastical lost population. They invite us to imagine our own narrative. His sculptures become characters in stories drawn from our own thoughts.
Jonathan Baldock’s work presents the human as a built thing – an object sewn, stuffed and patch-worked together. His current show at VITRINE gallery in London is named after an essay on William Burroughs, and the writer’s ideas on escaping the body and language permeate the artists work. By taking the bodily hole as its key motif, ‘Notes from the Orifice’ considers the points at which the self tumbles into and entangles itself with the space that is in fact distinct from the self. And in the show, this space forms itself as colourful, crafted works that rely on the artist but from which he is crucially absent.
‘Notes from the Orifice’ is the title of a 1985 essay by Robert Lydenberg on William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Has this essay influenced your works, or did you notice thematic connections after you’d made them?
It wasn’t the essay that particularly influenced the exhibition, but the title. I had been reading Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – on which the essay was written – and was really interested in Burroughs’ fascination with the relationship between the physical body and mind, which is an ongoing investigation in my work. I had already considered the thematic connections between Burroughs’ work and mine in my previous solo at Chapter Gallery, Cardiiff, entitled ‘The Soft Machine’. As the title of the show specifically quotes Burroughs’ essay title, I thought it only right that I should credit him. Although living in the age of the Internet, we often don’t know, or forget, the source of the information we absorb.
‘How does this exhibition at VITRINE relate to and expand upon your older work?
This show is a continuation from my solo show at Chapter Gallery; Cardiff, entitled ‘The Soft Machine’ after the William Burroughs book. I aimed to draw a link via the title but also wanted to continue to explore the idea of the viewer stepping inside an artwork as an alternative reality. I am thinking about how an exhibition can make the visitor an essential part of the artwork, by choreographing their movements around the exhibition from their very first encounter of the show. I begin with the window on the street outside; visitors have to tiptoe or bend down to see the exhibition through the peepholes I have created through a wall sculpture in the window. To make the interior world, I chose light bright pastel colours that I hope will lull the viewer into a false sense of calm and cosy familiarity, that is then subverted on closer inspection: all is not quite as it seems. I will also be continuing my ongoing collaboration with artist and choreographer Florence Peake, whom I first worked with at Primary in Nottingham early this year, with a performance in the gallery on October 16th. Why do you think the orifice is particularly worthy of examination?
A few years ago I made a series of salt-dough busts in which things were growing and sprouting from their noses, ears and mouths. Its been a recurring motif in my work and one with which I have considered throughout. What is my fascination with this part of the body? I sometimes wonder if it’s my complete inability to articulate myself with words. The mouth is a vessel, which suppresses expression rather than aids it. My mate Emma Hart did a show at Camden Arts Centre last year that dealt a lot with mouths as the link between inside and outside. It really resonated with me. We share a lot of concerns within our work, and she’s a great inspiration to me: one of my all time favourite artists. Next year we’re planning a big collaboration so watch this space.
I have been making these hollow sculptures for a few years now, after a long running obsession with the work of Barbara Hepworth. My friend Kathy Noble actually also kept describing my hollow sculptures as orifices… It seemed right that the word should appear in the title of the show, as it was an aspect of my work that I wanted to explore further. I became more and more focused on ideas of the hole and what it meant for me. I started with hollow sculptures and then tried to translate this onto canvas with a series of “Orifice” paintings. It then struck me that Lucio Fontana had made the slash paintings, where he slashed holes in the canvas – hard angry gestures against traditional forms of painting and art history. I wondered if I could respond to that with meticulously stitched holes. In these orifice pictures you can see the skeleton (the frame) beneath.
For me the hole is the perfect metaphorical symbol of the portal separating two worlds – the inner reality and the outer reality. In terms of the human body the orifice is the only link between the inside and the outside.
‘What place do aspects of traditional craft have in your work?
I think the concept of craftsmanship and the ‘hand-made’ has never been more relevant than it is today. For too long, ideas associated with craft have been dismissed as sentimental and nostalgic. I believe in the power of making things, and the bringing together of head and hand. To make things by hand is not a mindless activity; a painter still paints with his hands. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on education Emile (1762), he writes of teaching teenagers a craft: “If, instead of making a child stick to his books, I employ him in a workshop, his hands work to the advantage of his intellect, he becomes a philosopher while he thinks he is simply becoming an artisan”.
As a society we are forced more and more to experience the world we live in virtually. The objects we encounter have been ordered online, or bought from huge supermarkets. We have no real idea how or where they were made. My work does not offer an escape from that but perhaps it allows time to process and understand better. My sculptures are performed in person – they are not prefabricated. For me making things by hand can be an almost meditative experience. It is an opportunity to think and imagine by oneself as opposed to having an experience projected on us.
‘There are a few cases where the shapes in your installations and paintings look as though they could be ancient symbols. Is this intended?
Coming from a painting background I realise the importance of how formal tropes of composition, such as colour and shape, affect a work’s reading. With some of the wall-based works I wanted to create forms that looked like a painterly action or gesture, but that also alluded to some sort of unidentifiable language. Language in its earliest, and most primitive, form started as a pictographic method of communication. As such, it was also significant that I played on this by creating marks akin to a type of hieroglyphic language – it was important for me that it seemed on some level familiar like a lost forgotten language without it actually being one. I think this gap between something alluding to something, without it actually becoming the ‘thing’ alluded to, is a very interesting space. It invites the viewer to fill in the gaps. It is something I play with a lot in my work – by making ceramic objects that are seemingly forgotten archaeological tools and performances that allude to having a narrative without actually having one. It is quite a difficult ground to tread, as it is so easy to automatically define something by what we know already.
THE SOFT MACHINE / Published on 11.06.14
An inky scrawl, that just about reads ‘Z’, has been scratched across the book’s jacket in one feverish motion: a hieroglyphic structure that calls to mind the bending shape of Tatlin’s tower. This is the cover of the 1961 first edition of William Burroughs’s The Soft Machine. By 1966, the calligraphy had softened up, its forms curved as opposed to jagged; and by the time John Calder published it in Britain in 1968, the mood was all-out psychedelic. The changing covers of Burroughs’s novel reflect the flux state of its prose: the first three editions of The Soft Machine differ widely in their cut-up formations. His writing was in a constant state of assembly: as friends annotated dog-eared manuscripts; as printers dictated the arbitrary order of Naked Lunch (1959); and as the spiralling overspill from this abject book became the next three novels (The Soft Machine being the first of The Nova or Cut-up Trilogy), the process of making this verbal material was as frantic and bodily as how it felt to read it.
Jonathan Baldock’s eponymous installation, currently showing at Chapter in Cardiff, is similarly corporeal: a compartmentalization of bodily forms that gradually mutate from one to the next. A patchwork of sculpture, costume and objects, it is one work, like Burroughs’s ‘one’ novel, but it has been pieced together from a collage of cut-ups. Baldock’s ‘The Soft Machine’ (2014) makes a nod to its literary namesake in form, as seen in the stitched together fabric-fragments, but also in content. As Burroughs’s novel traces a peripatetic journey through time and place, crisscrossing through Mexico, Panama and the Mayan Empire, Baldock’s objects appear similarly archaeological, like the ‘Mayan artifacts and codices’ that moved through the brain of the novel’s narrator ‘like animated cartoons’. Over and above narrative setting, however, it is the human body – what Burroughs calls ‘soft night flesh’ – that thematically links both artists. In novel and artwork, this material vessel is sculpted beyond recognition.
The novel features a changing cast of ‘Crab men’ and ‘Cannibal Trog Women’, and Baldock’s installation stars equally mad characters: the first one I meet is a stuffed, white and headless tribesperson, with a tubular torso and reeds sticking out of its head like a crown. It looks suspiciously like the cover illustration of the 1973 edition of the novel – robbed from Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus – with its witchy digits shooting out of the ground, and egg balancing on top, giving birth to a daisy. Baldock’s felted metropolis is just as anthropomorphic: a world apart, where humans have been splintered and malformed, made into puppets of mythic fantasy. Many of these padded protagonists have been stripped of any familiar features, so what we are left with are mere suggestions, or extensions, of the human body: malleable and morphing, permeable prosthetics.
The environment is primal, with scatterings of mythic hand tools and woven masks interspersed with the androgynous creatures that use them. In Burroughs’s novel, the soft machine is a synonym for the human body invaded by synthetics and surveillance; in Baldock’s artwork, the soft machine corresponds to the corporeal triggers on show, with their intestinal pipes and organ-oblongs, and the materials from which they are made. Reminiscent of Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s Rabelaisian happenings and homespun costumes, Baldock’s work is a soft and squidgy theatre-set for the uncensored. The word ‘soft’ invokes another meaning, however: one related to its source material and compound sculptures. We are in a space of pliable semantics, where syntax and language is multiple and hybrid. The ‘Soft Machine’ is fiction embodied; it is a space of imagination, and licentious narrative, whereby Baldock’s stitched circles and gaping orifices perform as thresholds into a storytelling space. It is not only Burroughs, nor Baldock, that is penning this dream: the viewer too, has the power to reconnect the pieces of the puzzle.
Stepping into Baldock’s sculptural village, he or she is met with an eclectic bunch of performers: a pair of elephantine habitants, downy and deflated, sit forlorn on the gallery floor, while wall-hugging nipples are more expectant. Arranged as one vast rainbow frieze, Baldock’s carnivalesque fantasy is close in spirit and structure to the costumes and stage-sets of Picasso’s ballet, Parade (1917), where the human body was carved into cubist mechanics. And in Baldock’s work, the human body is warped, extended out of itself, into the space of sculpture: the space of fiction. From the phallic spears strewn across the gallery floor, to vivisected stuffed arms, Baldock’s textile talismans are things to be played with an on: invitations to rule-break. Coming face-to-face with the inhabitants of the artist’s metropolis, the ‘carnival city’ of Burroughs’s novel, feels like a metaphor for Baldock’s artwork, feverishly scrawled.
THE SOFT MACHINE / June 2014
I found myself surrounded by things that I wanted to touch, pick up, or use; strange primal, perhaps Neolithic, entities made from clay, wool and felt, in primary colours — tools that were for a task that was unknown to me at that moment. Hung in different spots on the walls were other objects — fan like disks woven from corn and wonky amorphous forms — verging on phalluses hung off hooks, as if kitchen implements, dangling, ready for use.
Dominating the space were a series of different soft sculptures; hulking rock like rectangles and squares, some potted with holes or orifices, in blue, brown and yellow — their hard skeletons covered in soft felt skins, sewn tightly together using blanket or surgical stitches that scarred their surfaces. Several were piled on top of one another. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two knitted things lying on the floor. These were loosely human in shape — slumped bodies with heads hanging low, depressed, over their chests, their clumpy arms and legs, sprawled outwards, ending in bulbous, heavy hands and feet.
I asked Jonathan Baldock — who was standing next to me in his exhibition at Wysing Arts Centre (2013), in order to do a public talk with me about his work — whether they were costumes or sculptures and suggested that we wore them whilst we did our talk; Jonathan laughed hesitantly. It struck me that they needed to be enacted or adorned, to become animated characters, in order to complete them.
What followed was physically traumatic. It was a very hot summer’s day and the costumes were made entirely from knitted wool, filled with itchy stuffing, with only small holes for our faces to poke out. Even though I removed much of my clothing before donning the costume, ten minutes into the talk I hugely regretted the decision to wear them, as I sweated and scratched, hot and dizzy, attempting to focus my brain and mouth in a vaguely intelligent way. I could tell Jonathan was seriously uncomfortable too, as he wriggled around opposite me, perching on the side of the stage, looking like he might pass out. We talked about many things: making, materials, sewing, knitting, his mother’s influence, artist inspirations such as Sarah Lucas, and choreographies of people and objects. But it was only through wearing the costume that I realised something extremely important to him and the work that he makes — the bodies we have, the skins we are in, the masks that we hide behind, and the things we use to extend ourselves – our movements and abilities – such as simple needles or tools, are the essence behind everything he makes.
When we are babies we learn to differentiate things via shadow, light and movement. In order for them to become objects or spaces the brain needs dynamic information or motion to understand what is around us. Colour is not an essential ‘truth’: it is an artificial construction formed by the brain in order to pick up different wavelengths, which eventually form the environments around us. As such, we are not biologically conditioned to see the world but, in fact, we have to learn to see. Whilst doing so we are taught how to exist within the framework of architecture and objects that constitute the contemporary world, and to behave appropriately within the different social contexts that we experience.
In 1975 the sociologist Erwin Goffman wrote the book Frame Analysis in which he argued that much of our behaviour is cued, or prompted, by the ‘frames’ that constitute the context of action. Which essentially means that our behaviour is triggered by the structures in which we find ourselves, and by the objects around us — we use frames to identify what is taking place. This is our “organization of experience”. More recently the anthropologist Daniel Miller began investigating Goffman’s theory and was also influenced by art historian Ernst Gombrich, and his book The Sense of Order (1979), that focused not on the artwork but on the frame in which it is placed or displayed.
Miller’s research focuses on the objects that we do not ‘see’ as such, and how these determine socially correct behaviour: “The less we are aware of them the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviour, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so.”
Art is often considered as an act of ‘seeing’ and experiencing, for both artist and viewer. The impulse to make art arises from a need by the artist to see or envision the world around them in a unique way. As very young children we have no pre-conceived view of the world. We are encouraged to play, to create, to invent language and to imagine other worlds. As adults we are rarely encouraged (or perhaps allowed) to do any of this — however essential these may be for the human psyche. We learn to see and use objects as a physical language before we learn to speak — yet so much of the language of seeing is sublimated, unacknowledged, or taken for granted.
Baldock has developed his own physical language of material and colour, creating things that function as sculptures, props and paintings. Imagine an art world version of the The Wizard of Oz set in Stonehenge with Barbara Hepworth playing Dorothy, Sarah Lucas as the Scarecrow, Oskar Schlemmer as the Tin Man and Phyllida Barlow as the Lion.
Elements of his bulky amorphous, rock like sculptures are rooted in British Modernism: Hepworth’s large stone sculptures often had circular orifices, such as Pierced Form (1932), waiting to be penetrated – an idea Baldock regularly echoes in his sculptures. Yet rather than eluding to human form, Baldock’s holes often take a more literal or human form, such as mouths or holes for arms.
Baldock often creates extensions of the body that, as costumes and usable objects, can both highlight and conceal it. In this sense, Sarah Lucas’ more recent Nuds series — sculptures made from tights as if female body parts, cut up and reordered like a three dimensional version of a Hans Bellmer Pupee (the German artist’s darkly surreal photographs of limbs and torsos of plastic dolls, taken apart and reformed into monstrously sexual objects) — are relevant to this interest, in highlighting, separating, or reconstructing elements of the human form.
The sculpture-costumes Baldock has created for The Soft Machine also have predecessors in Oskar Schlemmer’s visionary work the Triadisches Ballett created in 1922 at a time of enormous social, political, scientific, mechanical and cultural transformation. Schlemmer’s sculpture-costumes masked the dancer’s bodies – in rounded, elongated, extended shapes, often accentuating a limb or curve — into an entirely new body part. He was interested in a kind of mechanisation of the body, masking the vulnerable mortal flesh — as his own ‘super-humans’ — that also created smooth lines, so that the dance became a kind of abstracted painting. Prostheses, in medical terms, are used to extend, or replace parts of the human body in order to advance or replace lost function or movement. Baldock’s ‘prosthetics’ may extend elements of the body, via hard and soft forms, but they do not necessarily enhance or advance the movement. Both Schlemmer’s and Baldock’s costumes inhibit the person inside them, restricting and confining their range of movement and action. Baldock’s could also be considered in terms of cybernetics, as in its most basic form, it is about the circular relationship between object and human and the affect that occurs when one uses, or relates, thus creating a network, to the other.
Throughout the later twentieth century, there is a rich history of artists experimenting with costumes and sculptures as material forms of body, mask or prosthesis. Franz Erhard Walther created sculptures out of simple lengths of fabric, with tasks such as unfolding them, wearing them, standing in them, or otherwise used to unite those experiencing them. James Lee Byars created numerous living sculptures such as Dress for Five Persons (1969); Rebecca Horn created extensions of her body, sewing together simple fabric and wood that developed into large prosthetic extensions using material, padding and bandages — that formed bird- or dinosaur-like creatures.
Baldock often uses the objects he makes within choreographed performances. Ritual objects are utilised in most religious or belief systems as performative tools for worship, where the ‘thing’ becomes a vessel for an action or meaning greater than its materiality. One of the most common forms is a ‘rosary’ — a string of beads, bones or seeds, varying in number, used to sequence prayers or remind the user of certain ideas or stories. Spiritual and transcendental values are placed upon a simple object; when engaged, it communicates to its user and could be considered to be momentarily alive.
In comparison, most objects that we actually use with our hands or bodies have a purely practical role. Artist Franz West’s Passtukes (Adaptives) were sculptures formed roughly from bandage and plaster. These wonky, bumpy, lumpen white forms were West’s ritual object: they were made to be ‘used’, yet had no ‘purpose’, other than to be handled by the viewer in whatever way he or she saw fit. As such, art, which purportedly has no inherent ‘use’, is perhaps more similar to these early forms of religious ritualistic objects than we may like to think today, in that its value lies in its transformative ability, provoking or enabling us to look or see in new ways — Baldock’s work offers us an alternative language, or frame, with which to view the world.
SOFT MACHINE / Issue 144 / May 2014 / p.34 – p.35
Walking through The Soft Machine is more of a journey into the mind than a journey through a gallery. The exhibition functions as a single work of art, which loosely follows the narrative of the novel of the same name by William S. Burroughs. The title itself is a reference to Burroughs’ view of the human form as simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) part natural and part artificial, and this is poignantly expressed by the sculpted forms throughout the exhibition. Baldock uses these natural materials to create distinctly unnatural forms, which he uses to begin an intriguing discussion about perceptions of our bodies.
The primary textures selected by Baldock are natural fibres, such as cotton and wool, threaded with oversized needles that function as a nod to Burroughs’ morphine addiction. Wood, carved and glazed to represent faecal matter, squats brazenly in a corner. A glass ball in the centre of a pile of red sand evokes a bloodshot eye. Baldock’s ability to utilise natural forms to invoke surreal imagery is nothing short of masterful. But it is the childish, joyful colour choices of Baldock that most intrigued me.The palette is incredibly rich, comprised primarily of vibrant yellows and oranges, clashing boldly with deep blues and browns. Colours are presented typically in block or patchwork form, adding to the childlike quality of the sculptures.The individual sculptures themselves are somewhat reminiscent of M. C. Escher’s paradoxical architecture; individual aspects of Baldock’s sculptures depict parts of the human body in a realistic and insightful way, but when seen as part of a larger whole, they only serve to confuse and disorientate the viewer. One can clearly see a nose, and then try to force oneself to see a face where a face simply does not exist. A human form looms imposingly in the corner of the eye, but upon facing the sculpture, it is merely a fuzzy, woollen caricature of a person’s silhouette, with too many limbs and no facial features.
It is their near-human form that is the most unsettling thing about the exhibition. Whilst not invoking any real, personal sense of horror, the human-esque forms that Baldock creates certainly have a nightmarish quality. Despite the fact that the gallery itself is actually a relatively open, well-lit space, it nonetheless felt claustrophobic. The ability of these inanimate objects to communicate is likely due to their respective proximity to each other, which certainly makes one highly apprehensive when moving through the exhibition, being careful not to step on or bump into any of the pieces. This newfound self-awareness of one’s body as a physical object – the space that it occupies, and how it interacts with its environment – entrenches and reaffirms Baldock’s notion of the human form as a Soft Machine. It reminds me of the humorous notion of the brain as the overprotective owner of a meaty vehicle.
The Soft Machine also contains a set of cumbersome, oversized costumes with cartoon-like faces woven into the fabric. The first parallel I drew was how Baldock’s use of artificial media to convey natural forms mirrors the way in which humans use fabric and clothing to convey their personality. But there is also a deeper artistic meaning here; a homage to Oskar Schlemmer’s 1922 Triadisches Ballet, in which the designer created costumes that enlarged and emphasised aspects of the body in an attempt to transcend the traditional human form. The costumes are deliberately difficult to wear, which Baldock uses to represent the fact that, at some point, everyone feels uneasy in their own skin.
But the piece most closely linked to the theme of transcendence is that of a large blue felt cuboid held aloft by four brightly-coloured wooden stilts. It stands imposingly at the entrance to the third andfinal room, which represents the final chapter of The Soft Machine. Resting gently atop the felt is a mass of cotton wool, crafted into a stunningly realistic cloud formation. The placement of the cloud, which is not easily visible due to its height, likely represents the age-old, primordial desire for humans to reach the clouds. Furthermore, its deliberate placement directly over the doorway is clearly part of Baldock’s repeated desire to force the viewer into close proximity with the art; to engage with it whilst also reflecting on our own bodies.
The ultimate effect of the exhibition is to serve as a challenge to our experiences of our own bodies, how we represent them, and how they interact with our environment. Baldock makes art appear to be the most natural, instinctive way that our bodies can interact with their environment. The result is captivating.
Never be cool was a piece of advice I was once given. So here it is; I think Jonathan Baldock’s work is incredible. I am an unrelenting fan and it gets better, as each time I see his work I fall deeper for it and deeper in to it. I feast on it; and chew it over and over.
I can still feel the sharp breath I took in on my first encounter with his work. Elaborate sourdough busts, highly detailed and coloured glare straight at me. Their intense odd force grabs me by the eyeballs and snaps me out of my resigned art stare. My head knows that I should recognise their plotted co-ordinates, but my guts are telling me this is news. The busts nod towards historical moments, but they are spewing up hair and this resonates with how I feel currently: like I’m always choking. Time has been condensed and repackaged to create something I have never seen before. The work demands the attention of all my senses. I can taste and smell that hair too. My whole body is called upon whilst my mind is rushing to build a new place in my head for what I’m taking in; I am changed.
Then in 2012, it gets even better, I do a residency with Jonathan at Wysing Arts Centre and then, it gets better still, we become good friends. We work together in the ceramics studio, and I hungrily observe him at work.
Across the various materials Jonathan uses, such as ceramics or felt he has invented his own techniques with which to work. This thinking up of processes means that he can start an artwork without being actually sure what the results will be yet take strength in this freedom. Initiating his own methods ensures the work comes from within whilst not being contrived. This approach can too easily be dismissed as a definition of style, but it goes much deeper here – it’s a new language with materials. It is the production of an imagination. My hunch is that if there is an infinite amount of vivid stuff in your head it can be overwhelming to try and get it all out. If you can instead extrapolate methods that all these things can be made by, you can at least begin. You can take the risk that they will manifest as you have imagined them. Jonathan can operate with conviction.
Jonathan’s commitment culminates in unswerving attention to detail. Something I recognise from my own work is a desire to overwhelm the viewer with detail, preventing them from being able to take the entire work in. This is close to how we encounter the world around us, editing our own experience from a bombardment of information. Detail closes the gap between art and life. Jonathan’s recent solo exhibition at Wysing Arts Centre was rich; spilling over with ideas and potentiality. Clusters of small ceramic objects – helmets, batons, hoops, rulers, spatulas – had gathered around large felt monuments whilst stuffed club footed costumes wobbled and swayed. Everywhere you looked you found something and everything you found needed to be looked at more than once. It was a fertile jungle of invention; it was alive.
His interest and work with items such as masks and costumes is revealing, suggesting he harbours a psychological attachment to things that cover us up. Looking at things is an important part of his process. Jonathan researches things he loves – from masks and costumes, to Boy George, to corn dollies and on to Barbara Hepworth. One of my favourite memories from the residency was our research trip to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Together we pored over ceramic artefacts. However, Jonathan does not push his ideas into the form of something that already exists, he filters the things he researches through his ideas. This is not semantics; it means that he does not mimic, he transforms. He makes odd things, dark things, weird things, sacred things, magic things – but all of them are new to me and I have to alter the way I think to experience them.
Energy is what I strive to transmit through art. Energy can be kept in an artwork and released to a viewer when she encounters it. The smouldering and spitting heat radiating from Jonathan’s work has been stored there through his passionate relationship to his materials. He works intensely with his hands and his work gains in intensity. He relishes his tasks; Jonathan is making what he wants to make. This simple observation is deceptive. As an artist, making what you want to make without being thrown off course by doubt, anxiety, vagueness, fashion or addiction to attention is very difficult. What is he making? He does not stop moving; it is infectious. He is rolling, pinching, slapping, shoving, poking. He may well, as he describes, be thinking through doing, but he does not falter or waver. Ceramic hand tools (made with his hands) emerge, they would break if really used in this world, but are purposed to underpin the other world he is producing. To dig into yourself and honestly create the weird and unruly images in your mind without adjusting them according to your perception of what is expected is my definition of having vision. Jonathan is not dangling his big toe in the shallows: he is in headfirst. Spending time with Jonathan, taught me to be brave.
A strange cross between a butcher’s shop and a nightclub (Wysing Arts Centre) / Jul-Aug 13 / 368 / p.30 – p.31
There is a notable legacy of discussion pertaining to the fact that a piece of art may or may not display the hand of its maker or the process of its production. As with any aesthetic circumstance manifest in the exhibition of contemporary art, this can be an element of the conscious conceptual thesis of the work of art, and thus of the artist, or equally it can be irrelevant and incidental.
It is this finite instance of craft and touch passing osmotically through the artistic membrane to its audience that Jonathan Baldock’s work brings to the fore. It is exactly this relationship between the artist’s hand and the audience’s eye that Baldock abstracts so purposefully in the production of his heartily manufactured sculptural installations. The most recent of these, A strange cross between a butcher’s shop and a nightclub, is the product of Baldock’s six-week residency at Wysing Arts Centre, the art farm metropolis of the East Anglian countryside. The residency, which Baldock undertook in October and November of 2012, was the third in a series of thematised residencies, Baldock’s being concerned with the notion of the forest, the previous two being themed around the Cosmos and the Mirror, respectively.
The process by which Baldock produces his patchwork monoliths involves, roughly, the sewing of felt patches of varying sizes, shapes and colours together over carved pieces of polystyrene. The resulting shapes could easily go unnoticed as imposters on the set of a children’s television programme, or equally in a sensory development installation in a pediatric ward’s recreation facility. The sculptures, while they are absolutely faultless in their mismatched, handcrafted imperfection, have an unusual posture for objects of their class, holding themselves differently to the way that abstract sculpture might usually in the gallery space. These works seems to bulge, swell and pulsate with the trace of Baldock’s hand. The swerving seams that traverse the sculpture’s surfaces, although carrying the appearance of a tailor’s work, are so meandering and unconventional that they seem fit to burst. They invite the gaze, but not in a sacred, seductive way; instead they exude a tactility that reassures the viewer that to touch would be fair, and understandable, if not entirely appropriate. In essence, these works immediately betray their desire to be touched, handled and used, yet they seem completely devoid of purpose. They are the sort of blissfully innocent creations a child might create, were a child capable of such exquisite craft. Yet simultaneously Baldock’s installations carry an overflowing baggage of referential intelligence, with references to folk art, paganism, the theatrical canon and even more specific cultural nodes such as Samuel Beckett’s televised work Quad, 1981, which features heavily in the show’s accompanying text.
The works, which are arranged around Wysing’s gallery space in small groups or sets, are encountered intermittently by the viewer, who bounces around the room, from one arrangement to the next. Each set of sculptures and props stands completely autonomously, and is titled as such, despite each comprising multiple objects of varying sizes and materials. However, the body of work as a whole remains coherent due to the adhesive nature of two central elements: firstly, Baldock’s work Wallpaper and instruments, 2013, a large tapestry adorned with ceramic hangings, suspended on the gallery’s back wall, which enacts the role of a theatrical backdrop; and secondly, a low, wide stage that occupies a large section of the gallery’s floor towards the far end of the space. The stage, too, is adorned with objects: small tools which are designed and arranged so as to give every impression that they are born to use, but as clumsily glazed, fragile ceramics ultimately reveal their own uselessness. Similar tools are arranged on or around the felt and polystyrene works throughout and, again, their scale and their hand-crafted appearance invites tactile interaction.
Factor in the masks, both sewn felt and corn-dolly, that bracket the show, appearing on the left and right walls upon entry, and it becomes clear that this is a site of performance and that these objects, while already bordering on kinetic, will eventually come to life, given the opportunity. During Wysing’s annual open weekend, on 6 and 7 July, Baldock’s collaboration with reputable choreographer Henrietta Hale and her collective Dog Kennel Hill project will be realised in a performance whereby the works – or, rather, props – will finally become performative. The stage, at present a sculptural element of the exhibition, will become a site for the activation of these objects; as so far their status as modernist sculptures has been disrupted by the omnipresent nostalgia of the artist’s hand, so a new disruption will occur, bringing these props absolutely and immediately into the present.
A conversation between Jonathan Baldock and Lotte Juul Petersen, Curator, Wysing Arts Centre, May 2013
I wanted to start by asking you about the television play Quad by Samuel Beckett, which you showed during your residency at Wysing. What attracted you to this play and how has it influenced ideas for your new works and ways of activating your sculptural works in the show?
The artist Emma Hart introduced me to the work during the residency. I had been thinking of ways I could introduce performance and interaction with my sculptural objects for a long time. Much of my practice references the human body in some way, so it really interested me to see how this could affect the work, and in turn how this could affect the audiences’ reaction and interpretation. I found Beckett’s Quad really fascinating because it articulates a space you can’t touch or see. It is less of a play and more of a dance with four robbed figures moving around a stage in a coordinated fashion. Whilst thinking about the idea of introducing performance I decided very early on that I didn’t want there to be a narrative, or for it to be an illustration of a play, text or song, instead focusing on a series of gestures and actions that were performed with the sculptural objects. In Quad, the cloaked figures repeat movements and this has a ritualistic and dark quality that also appealed to me. However, I think that whilst the Beckett piece definitely influenced part of the thinking process behind the performative element of the exhibition, the resulting collaboration with Henrietta Hale will be very different.
It has been really interesting to follow how you have researched and developed an approach that within your work naturally creates an interaction, for example some sculptural elements will function as both objects and bodily accessories. Could you tell more about the process and the actual making of these new sculptural works?
I came to the Wysing residency to explore the metaphorical idea of the forest environment in relation to the future/ a return to nature/ and transformation. This residency was a fantastic opportunity to have conversations and dialogue with the other artists-in-residence and the Wysing curators throughout the development of the work. Much of these discussions were the catalyst for the concept of the exhibition.
All the works in the exhibition are made by hand so that by their very nature they relate to the human body – the touch, shape and weight. In the case of the felt sculptures, each is entirely hand sewn, shaped and cut through a self-taught technique that does not rely on any of the traditional rules used by a tailor or dressmaker. No strict planning or pattern cutting is involved, so the process is very spontaneous and more like a collage in the way I assemble the sculptures. The work evolves slowly through cutting, pinning, and stitching.
It was my intention that everything in the exhibition had the potential to be picked up or held, and could be used within the performance. The ceramic and felt appliqué forms allude to a set function or purpose, but the material with which they are made defies this by its very nature. For example, the fragility and scale of the ceramic hand-tool sculptures means that they are implausible tools.
Since your time here at Wysing you have been to Shanghai and currently you are at the British School of Rome. In which ways when going to a completely different cultural context, has it been possible to test out new ideas for the show A strange cross between a butcher’s shop and a nightclub?
Although living in a state of flux over the past 9 months has been at times very stressful, it has also been incredibly important and useful. Since developing the idea to have a performative element to the Wysing exhibition I was able to test these ideas in collaboration with the German dance duo Rubato Dance Company in Shanghai. I came to them with the idea of making costumes for them to choreograph a performance in response to. My costumes were activated as a kind of sculptural painting through the physicality of dance, in order that they accumulate a history as objects in themselves. The pieces were made specifically for the dancers and were inspired in part by the costumes of traditional Chinese Opera. I wanted the costumes to allow freedom for play, and to function as objects that transform and mutate through dance. This experience was incredibly important to me as it was the first time I had collaborated with others, and so had to relinquish a certain amount of artistic control. Having no prior experience of working in the medium of dance we decided that Jutta Hell would take on the choreography of the performance. I was incredibly pleased with the resulting performance at the Rockbund Art Museum, however I realised that I wanted to have much more involvement in my collaboration with Henrietta Hale. Rather than a polished performance I would like the process and development of the work to hold equal importance – hence the open weekend of the 6/7th July working in the gallery space with Henrietta and keeping it open to an audience.
My time in Rome has been much more reflective and provided an opportunity to process ideas and experiences whilst thinking about how to make them coherent in the exhibition. I love the title A strange cross between a butcher’s shop and a nightclub – it somehow suggest a fictive and implausible space. In your works there are many subtle references to literature, film, and pagan rituals, archaeological materials, the carnivalesque and theatre, could you tell a bit about your inspirational materials.
The title of the show is actually a statement J.G.Ballard used in his 1991 BBC documentary to describe his vision of the dissecting room whilst studying medicine at Kings College, Cambridge. It was such an unlikely visual connection, but seemed so absurdly descriptive. On many levels it seemed an apt title for the exhibition, as I had been reading Ballard during my research at Wysing, and then moved to Shanghai to complete the residency. Shanghai was in fact Ballard’s birthplace and the city that informed so much of his work, so he had been a constant presence in the production of the show. In the statement Ballard links two very different locations through referencing the human body. This is something that really resonates in my own practice as I like to draw unlikely parallels and connections together from very different references and one of the main ways in which I do this is through the human form.
Much of the sculpture in the exhibition is inspired by very disparate sources. The larger monolithic sculptures quote the monuments of Stonehenge whilst also looking to the modernist sculpture of Barbara Hepworth. This same sculpture is made through a process of appliqué – stitching together a skin-tight fabric over forms and giving them a very human/bodily presence. The resulting hand-made fabric skin is both a mask and mimicry of the surface of stone, but also a costumed character on an open stage, about to perform.
In my work I try to weave together many different references and make subtle nods to them in the work. I love the idea that the works can be interpreted in different ways and to different levels of intensity. Usually a work starts with a single idea which by the end this is often almost completely abstracted. In this manner I try to avoid any sense of narrative. The pieces must work independently as well as together in an installation. It’s important that they have a conversation.
Critics Picks JONATHAN BALDOCK / 10.28.11
The clown—a source of laughter for some and of unease or even terror for others—is the central motif in Jonathan Baldock’s sculptural installation Pierrot, 2011, which takes its title and inspiration from Jean-Antoine Watteau’s 1718–19 painting of a commedia dell’arte fool. Standing alone above his fellow actors, Watteau’s Pierrot appears lost in thought, the expression on his unpainted face remote. In this moment, he seems unable to fully inhabit his persona—perhaps he is a man forced to play a part that stopped making sense long ago. Baldock’s version of the Pierrot figure evokes a similar sense of displacement, albeit in a comically literal fashion: The clown’s costumed body has been abstracted into a series of modular geometric forms that the artist can (and does) reconfigure at will. Baldock sculpts the individual components out of polysterene foam, then blanket-stitches sections of cream-colored felt directly onto the forms, forming a taut sheath over the entirety of each. On top of this are sewn additional fabric cutouts in the shape of tears, body parts, polka dots, and stripes.
When viewed as an installation, the sculptures yield a single, exquisitely balanced visual tableau. Seen as individual works, however, their affects career wildly from humorous to bawdy to downright creepy. A head placed atop a stack of cylindrical and rectangular forms evokes a clown in jauntily striped pantaloons, yet the bullet-size hole where one of his eyes should be, and the scarlike strip of black fabric running down the jawline, conjure far less comforting imagery. Comparisons to Frankenstein’s monster and his slasher-film offspring are inevitable, but equally resonant is David Wojnarowicz’s 1990 Silence = Death and its iconic image of a man with his mouth sewn shut, blood running from the sutures like tears. For the most part, Baldock avoids pinning any one cultural or art-historical reference to his sculptures, preferring instead to allow for a potentially infinite number of them. A torso with outstretched arms, for example, suggests the graceful leaps of a dancer en pointe, while the crudely suggestive smiley face appliquéd to its chest reminds us that “low” forms of culture offer modes of levity that are just as powerful as “high” culture. What is a clown, after all, if not a man who can show us the potential for transcendence that lies in both?
Brand New JONATHAN BALDOCK
FRANCESCO SCASCIAMACCHIA: In the Commedia dell’ arte, professional players acted with masks. In your work the mask recurs as autonomous sculpture along with other elements to create an installation. What’s the semantic significance of the mask for you? JB: The mask is a mode of transformation. In theater it can be a representation of something grotesque, beautiful, good or bad, but it can also be simply a means of disguise. A smiling exterior could be a disguise for something much more sinister — beauty unmasks the horrific. It is the infamous image of juxtaposed comedy and tragedy masks. I love the duality that masks symbolize, which feeds a lot of my practice. As human beings we are inherently both good and evil. We are conflicting and opposing forces, mind and body, and the mask expresses this rather well. I enjoy this tension and ruminate on this. A lot of my work is inspired by classical figurative sculpture. I take elements of the past and transform them into something of the present. Also, the ‘mask’ is a universally understood symbol that transcends cultures — it is theater, more visual than verbal.
FS: Do you think that the only way to get away from customs of painting is putting them into an “installative” dimension? Is this a prerogative in your work?
JB: In addition to sculpture and installation, my practice also includes painting. I come from there; often painting informs what I do. In recent work I have not so much tried to get away from the customs of painting as to enhance the link between painting and sculpture. I am really interested in this idea that the two support each other in their unifi cation. I think painting is as relevant and important now as it has always been. Its high art status is particularly interesting to me when sitting alongside the everyday, craft materials that I use to make my sculptures.
FS: I saw you sewing your puppets, primping your masks. It’s like watching a costume designer.
Can you imagine a storyline or narrative element while you work?
JB: The nature of embroidery and sewing means that a certain amount of planning is involved. However, I usually arrive at the finished work rather organically. I do not use patterns or templates for the sewn elements, and the whole process is usually led by a lot of making, editing and seeing what “fi ts.” I don’t imagine a storyline or narrative element in the work, but I do like the idea that each work has its own personality or character, and that they in turn have a relationship with each other. Whether it is a painting or sculpture, I am always looking for ways with which to inject life into them. For example adding hair or eyes to a work gives it an uncanny ability to perform and become alive — therefore allowing the work to touch on the defi ning questions of existence itself.
Jonathan Baldock was born in 1980 in Pembury (UK). He lives and works in London. Selected solo shows: 2008: Backlit Studios, Nottingham; FAS, London. 2006: Meals and SUVs, London. Selected group shows: 2010: “NEWSPEAK: British Art Now,” The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg / Saatchi Gallery, London. 2009: “O/A Stiff New Speak: Bandeau,” Tricycle Arts Centre, London. Francesco Scasciamacchia is Flash Art Italia news editor.
Jonathan Baldock’s The Fool’s Flipside Through to 6th June 2010 at Cell Project Space
As a giant procrastinator I sympathise with those who let things pass them by. Although, let’s face it, in London blinkers are a necessity to maintain a certain level of sanity. A big caveat to this however is missing out on the once offs. Like the burgeoning beginnings of a bright career. Like Jonathan Baldock’s. There are so many ingredients to the consensus of success that it can all too easily slip by the way side. Something tells me this won’t happen in Baldock’s case. With just 8 days left till Baldock’s first solo exhibition since he graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2005 is dismantled and packed away, this is a call to action.
His funky colourful hand crafted sculptures, mostly busts and figures, are a blend of references from Comedie del’Arte to Henry Moore’s reclining figures to contemporary sci-fi without being, to use that awful word, in any way derivative. They are unsettling to some, ‘darkly humourous’ according to the blurb. I imagine having one in your house staring at you through those freaky dolls eyes could well be disturbing, but in general the atmosphere at Cell Project Space is not so dark, more curious. Together perhaps, the works nomalize each other. Isolated they’d react differently.
The paintings are really interesting too and sufficiently different to the sculptures to show that he understands the mediums in their own terms. This makes the works sound conventional or conservative somehow and me too but they are not, I‘m not. That said, what I do like is the lack of force that is so often present in contemporary art, where it seems artists expect their work to have an edge before it has even had a chance to form at all. Baldock’s exhibition seems to me at least to be a very substantial marker in an unrushed and ongoing path. Focused yet very open and inventive.
I really don’t want to give too much away. Nothing worse than too much of a low down before you have had a chance to think about how and when you can get to the little gallery near Vyner Street in Bethnal Green. It is quite hidden, so be warned. Ok, you know what the message is – go see it.
Claire Flannery runs Artfeelers art tours – www.artfeelers.com http://www.fadwebsite.com/2010/05/29/review-jonathan-baldocks-the-fools-flipside-through-to-6th-june-2010-at-cell-project-space/