Friday, 8 June 2018

Ornamental Neon at ASC Gallery

Alex Michon reviews a ‘performance of the feminine’ painting show by imagining that the artists are all members of a girl band. 


Amanda Houchen, Kaleidoscope Dreams, 90x80cm, oil & acrylic on canvas

A faintly corrupt sweetness seeps through the fluro-fakery overload of the sensual in Ornamental Neon where four artists present their individual responses to the explicit title. The press release states that ‘ornament, like the world of emotion, is transformed into an elaborate stage set upon which to enact the performance of the feminine’ this led me to imagine the exhibition as a metaphorical enactment of a radical girl-band, where each player lends her own rhythm to a collective song. 

As her paintings most overtly express the title, I designated Amanda Houchen as the ‘singer. Decorative - check, flourishes of neon - check, yet just as in a song where the words and the music create their own unintended poetry, so Houchen’s paintings subvert the viewer’s expectations suggesting varied, mysterious and layered readings. Kaleidoscope Dreams in all its Viennese Secessionist suggested sequinned splendour and folk-art frenzy is a carnivalesque acid tapestry trip of a painting. The eye to the turned tube releases a shaken tsunami of glass beads reconfiguring and pattering across the lens / canvas as a turquoise eyed Madonna holds court with her ambiguous black faced flame-haired companion. Cocoon with its peacock plumage-ing and lush Max Factor orange glamoured lipstick presents a bejewelled lady of fashion and fantasy. To me she appears to be wearing a crown-like hair net snood, American Civil War stylee - think Scarlett O Hara, or even those chunky knit crochet hats of the 1970s once the height of boho fashion now more likely to be relegated to some second hand bargain bin. Houchen’s opulent paintings are located in an indefinable no time where hints of previous eras replay an unknowing nostalgia for a never real.


Amanda Houchen, Cocoon, oil & acrylic on canvas,  60x50cm

Vanessa Mitter for me is the lead guitarist, as in guitar solos were the notion of less is more is disregarded her colour palette is unapologetically tuned to the highest setting. Her canvases are bathed in sumptuous over the top high-octane floribundal flourishes with added collaged overdubs. Suggestions here are of fashion, interiors or bridal magazines where the promise of a gaudy good life has been stretched so far it is fit to burst. Unquiet Brideswas particularly interesting as when I visited the exhibition the whole country was wallowing in the spectacle of the Royal Wedding. Mitter’s paintings also lead me down a rabbit’s hole of reminiscences. I was reminded of Socialist Worker Vanessa Redgrave singing the Lusty Month of May in the camp over decorative hippyfied section of the 1967 musical film Camelot


Vanessa Mitter, Unquiet Brides, oil, collage & pigment on canvas,  90x80cm

Many films from this era had at some point to include a totally unrelated hippy segment in them to make them seem more current. Mitter’s maidens however are no mere flower child fetishes, the fact that her brides are ‘unquiet’ hints at a knowing upended painterly seduction. 


Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967)

In the context of my Ornamental Neon girl band combo, Paige Perkins is the bass player, the stripped back soulful heartbeat holding down the rhythm. In Messengersa pony-tailed nude petting a little creature stares out at the viewer from the canvas in a melancholic mood of languorous longing. By her side lies a drawn-down-from the moon pierrotesque head lending the scene a ‘silent laughter of the soul’ sadness. In the background, bluebirds, blooms and crimson polka dots fall from the sky like shooting star kisses. A vaguely painted second figure looks on ambiguously. Perkins’s paintings are rooted in her subconscious, where the narratives are never fixed. Her stories are ours to steal for our own interpretation. So is this sad-eyed lady of the pink-lands post coital or waiting on a promise? Whatever the outcome it is her relationship with the little animal that is most striking. Un-lulled by the petting, the animal too stares out at the viewer ready to pounce should any harm come to its mistress.


Paige Perkins, Messengers, oil on canvas, 120x160cm


As Daisy Parris’s polemical word poetry paintings crash against the over exuberant neo-Baroque overload on show she stands in as my imaginary drummer. Parris’s hard-edged text driven paintings lend a contradictory Situationist ‘beauty is on the streets’ aesthetic. Intrigued by blood (or maybe wine) splatters she spots on the pavement as in Red Liquid in a Clear Bin Bag she uses these queasy dark signifiers of urban unease as the starting point for her painting. 

Daisy Parris, Red Liquid in a Clear Bin Bag, oil & emulsion on canvas, 92x75cm


Out of all the artists, Parris will I hope approve of my review being couched in girl band terms, after writing my piece I did a brief internet search of her work and found to my delight that she had also once formed a fantasy band which she called the Ugly Bitch Club which as she says ‘has now become more of a reality as a feminist paint collective’.

Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen Ornamental Neon have now left the building.


Alex Michon 



Ornamental Neon
Amanda Houchen, Vanessa Mitter, Daisy Parris, Paige Perkins

18 May – 1 June  2018
ASC Gallery, The Chaplin Centre, 1 Taplow House, Thurlow Street 
London SE17 2DG


Jeune Femme

Alice Pember craves a chip butty after watching a new film by Léonor Serraille.





I had an odd reaction to my first viewing of Jeune Femmeit made me hungry. But not hungry in a generalised sense. This was, rather, the sort of urgent craving which can only be conquered by indulging, abundantly and messily, in the desired foodstuff. And so it was that I found myself, at 11pm on a school night, trawling Stepney Green for a chip butty.  But I was not looking for any old chip butty. I needed the seafront chip butty of my childhood. I needed a fluffy white roll, floppy chip-shop chips, tart with Sarson’s malt vinegar and slathered in ketchup.

At my kitchen table an hour later (mission completed, butty demolished) I pondered my peculiar response to the film. Jeune Femmeis not, in any concrete sense, ‘about’ food. It’s been touted as a coming-of-age film which, in director Léonor Serraille’s words, charts its main character Paula’s journey ‘from a girl to a woman, from an object to a subject’. The film opens with Paula howling at the front door that her photographer boyfriend has just unceremoniously slammed in her face. It transpires that, content with being his ward and muse for the last ten years, Paula has stagnated. Unable or unwilling to forge an identity of her own, when she is thrust out onto the streets of Paris to invent her life anew she is so lacking in a distinct sense of self that she picks up and puts down identities at random. To present herself for a babysitting job she becomes an arts student; when mistaken for a stranger’s childhood friend she accepts the error without correction; in an interview for a lingerie shop she performs the role of vapid shop girl to secure the job. Flitting between these identities, Paula’s selfhood is so rootless that she cannot even seem to decide how to wear her hair. She modifies its style endlessly, changing it between scenes with an indecisiveness that mirrors her own uncertainty about who she should become. In a world in which women are constantly reminded to commit to ‘personal growth’ on an endless journey to impossible perfection, Paula’s uncertainty offers an antidote to these narratives of perpetual progress. She might be evolving ‘from a girl to a woman, from an object to a subject’, but this transition is neither an easy or with a clearly defined destination. 
The film has been compared to other portraits of rebellious young women that have emerged in recent years, particularly Céline Sciamma’s banlieue-set drama Girlhoodand Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang.Like these films, Jeune Femme is not a story about a lone female protagonist struggling to forge an identity, but a mediation on the need to become oneself with and through other people. In this sense the film also offers a rejection of the ruthless individualism of modern life, presenting intimacy and interpersonal relationships as vital to Paula’s personal growth. 
As Ruby Tandoh (who writes beautifully on the pleasures of film food) suggests, the magic that food and cinema share is ‘the ability to transpose something vague – heartbreak, lust, loneliness or fury – from the world of feelings to the world of things’.In Jeune Femme food becomes a shorthand for the value of intimacy in Paula’s struggle to become. The story of Paula’s journey from object to subject could be told solely through the food she eats (or does not eat) in the film. Beginning the narrative as a disconnected wastrel, rooting through bins for half eaten sandwiches and gazing longingly into vending machines teeming with confectionary, Paula’s hunger manifests her inability to care for herself. This is, presumably, the result of a relationship in which she has been controlled and infantilised (‘have you been eating?’ her boyfriend asks, tellingly, when they briefly reconnect in the film’s final third). It is through food that Paula begins to open herself to other people and other ways of being. As Tandoh writes, ‘it’s impossible to be closed to the world and still open your mouth wide for new foods. Every single bite opens us up to the world. No woman is an island, as long as she eats.’ Paula takes food, without qualms, from anyone that shows her enough kindness to offer it. First, from the woman that mistakes her from an old schoolfriend who offers her fresh, crusty bread filled with ham and then buys her some tomatoes (which Paula munches heartily straight from the punnet on a hotel bedspread). Then, from a security guard who offers her a bite of his lovingly homemade lunch straight from the Tupperware. She takes toffees from the doctor who offers her pregnancy advice, stem ginger from the mother of the child she babysits and wine from whatever house party she ends up at come the end of the night. There’s undoubtedly something transgressive about watching a woman consume food with such gusto on screen and a freedom implied in Paula’s canny ability to survive on her openness and charm. In one particularly satisfying shot Paula is shown post-coitus, framed against a burnt orange pillow, her hair a burnished gold like a Burne-Jones portrait, squeezing honey directly into her mouth.
But there’s both a fragility and strength that comes from Paula’s transition from brazen hustler to someone who shares food as a way to express intimacy. In one devastating scene Paula lets herself into the home of her estranged mother, who tries to physically push her out of the house. Paula attaches herself to the bannisters, immovable. In a wordless transition from conflict to connection the women begin what we know is a time-honoured routine. They wash and peel potatoes, finely chop them and then fry them in a heavy based pan. Silently and meticulously they lay the table, sit down, shake the chips into a bowl, serve themselves and begin to eat. For Paula this act of cooking and eating together, a gesture of love and intimacy after ten years of estrangement, is too much to bear and she breaks down in tears- a first step towards reconnection with her mother. In turn Paula becomes the nourisher of Lila, the little girl she babysits. Though Lila is initially hostile towards Paula’s attempts to make pancakes with her, in their first moment of connection Paula offers her a candy floss flavoured lolly-pop. On learning that Lila has never had real candyfloss Paula takes her to try some. This shared experience, the joy of sharing the stick of bright pink candyfloss unites Paula and Lila in a moment of intimate connection that brings Paula’s journey full circle. Her role is not reversed here- she is not just a mother figure or a nourisher. Her journey is more complicated than that. Paula’s transition ‘from object to subject’ has been facilitated by the intimacy that she shares with other people and the food exchange that has facilitated that intimacy.
On reflection, emerging from the cinema with the urge for a chip butty was not so peculiar. Food always represents the ability to translate emotion from the felt world to the real world. Consuming a food of my childhood, often handed to me by loving parents and grandparents, was a means of translating Paula’s journey on screen (from girl to woman, from object to subject) to my real world, facilitating intimacy with Paula and the screen. No woman is an island, as long as she eats.

Alice Pember




Jeune Femme (Léonor Serraille, 2017)

Watch on demand at Curzon Artificial Eye

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Pregnant Landscape: Phoebe Unwin


Phoebe Unwin resumes service in full-colour.


After the black and white paintings in her last exhibition at Wilkinson in 2015 Distant People and Self-Soothing Objects I am glad to see Phoebe Unwin make a return to colour, because she does it brilliantly.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Heaven Help My Heart Recover from the Chess Revival

A trip to the English National Opera's production of Chess proves too much for Garageland theatre reviewer, Lisa Duffy.

Chess is one of those shows that bestows a certain status onto musical theatre fans. The original concept album was something of a cult recording for the genre’s devotees in the 1990s, passed around with reverence at high school cast parties and amateur theatre rehearsals. Knowledge of the show separated casual enthusiasts from hardcore nerds and being able to perform “One Night in Bangkok” without missing a word was akin to a superpower. (Though this is perhaps truer in America, where the 1988 Broadway transfer lasted less than three months, as opposed to the original London version’s more impressive three-year stint).


After an absence of over thirty years from the West End boards, the time certainly feels right for a revival. There is an increasing trend of throwback, pulsing, synthesised music throughout the Theatre District—in addition to fellow 1980s stalwart megamusicals The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, Bat Out of Hell is currently cranking out the tunes of Meatloaf eight times a week and the upcoming Knights of the Rose will be giving a Shakespearean backdrop to the songs of performers like Bon Jovi and Bonnie Tyler. But more importantly, Chess’ story of Cold War politics told through an American and a Russian battling for supremacy in the World Chess Championship seems poised to be able to offer commentary on the contemporary world. (The American is a brash narcissist named Trumper, just increasing the potential relevance).

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Diamonds in the Rough

Cathy Lomax hunts for treasure at the London Art Fair 2018

Anna Katrina Zinkeisen, The Dark Lady, 1938, oil on canvas, 
Nottingham City Museum and Galleries

As always the London Art Fair is a mixed bag. Star of the show is the not-for-sale Art UK exhibit where five art stalwarts; Sonia Boyce, Haroon Mirza, Oscar Murillo and Rose Wylie, have each selected work from UK regional collections. This means that an eclectic group of works, that I imagine have been stashed in cupboards in small provincial museums, have their five minutes in the 2018 limelight. Rose Wylie’s choices include Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid’s In Spinster’s Salt Collection. While Haroon Mirza has used an algorithm to make his selection, thereby subverting the very idea of the elitist notion of selecting itself, and has maybe turned up with my favourite painting of the bunch, Anna Katrina Zinkeisen’s The Dark Lady.

Lubaina Himid, In Spinster’s Salt Collection, 1989, 
New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge