Each of the works on display is distinctly impressive and to the gallery’s credit, there’s no attempt to impose any kind of rigid categorisation that can flatten or erase the individuality of artists’ practices. However, the broad curatorial focus nervously holds the viewer at a distance; we’re given no framework or entry point and so we’re unable to situate the works in wider discussions around the expression of identity and gender through art.
The accompanying text notes that figurative works are ‘contrasted with expressionist and abstract pieces’ but truthfully, there’s only one work that doesn’t meditate on questions of identity or self: About Lilac (2017) by Bridget Riley. In the context of the other works, Riley’s undulating landscape of colour and shape is brilliant, but distracting. Added to that, the instant recognisability of Riley’s style, makes its inclusion feel a little affected, which relates to the wider decision to exhibit “big names” alongside lesser known artists.
From a cynical point of view, it seems like a shrewd and probably very effective marketing technique: luring in audiences with the promise of artistic fame. But, even if that is the case, it undoubtedly results in viewers encountering artists who they might not otherwise encounter. In fact, the bigger names – such as Riley, Tracey Emin and Cecily Brown – are somewhat eclipsed by the bold visions of the next generation.
Layla Andrews’ portrait entitled Toulouse, for example, presents a compelling tension between struggle and stillness, strangeness and familiarity. Urgent brushstrokes create a sense of movement – as if the figure is caught in between expressions – while one eye, rimmed with black, holds an unnervingly steady gaze, as if boring into the viewer’s soul.
Hanging on the opposite wall, Sahara Longe’s painting Cousins (2021) creates a contrasting mood of warmth and playfulness. While one figure stares solemnly outwards at the viewer, the other looks off to the side of the canvas as if distracted by something beyond the frame, recalling the awkward set up of posing for the camera.
Emma Prempeh similarly employs the casual composition of snapshot photography in both of her works The Arrival (2021) and Red, White, Blue and Brown (2020). The former depicts a woman standing in a doorway, squinting into the sun while the details of the world around her appear to be fading, evoking the sense of a once vivid memory becoming increasingly indistinct. Meanwhile, Red, White, Blue and Brown is based on a photograph of the artist’s mum in the 80s in her first flat in Brixton and while there’s a hint of nostalgia in the interior details – lace wall hangings, an old fashioned television and gold edging on the furniture – the vibrant colours and her mother’s pose feel forthright and contemporary.
There’s a seductive whispering of potential around “new” artists that is sometimes more of a reflection of what other people are saying rather the quality of the work itself so, in a way, viewing this exhibition digitally avoids that trap. The digitally rendered gallery is frustrating – you can’t see the texture of the surfaces, or get any real sense of scale – but without an eager gallerist, dealer or collector following you around, waxing lyrical about the “next big thing”, you get to view the works on your own terms. And whilst it might leave you wanting a little bit more, the exhibition does, ultimately, achieve what it sets out to do: provide a “snapshot” of the powerful, vibrant and various art made by a collection of exciting British, female artists.
‘Heart of the Matter’ runs until 15 April 2021, access the show via: gillianjason.com
Featured Image: Toulouse (2021), Layla Andrews