From time to time, strains of the March of the Toreadors from Bizet’s Carmen skirl through the galleries of Rose English’s exhibition. A refrain normally so familiar and so rousing, it is rendered melancholic by being played in snatched phrases. The music is part of the soundtrack to English’s 1983 performance entitled Plato’s Chair, and a film of its first performance at the Western Front, Vancouver, Canada, is projected onto the back wall of the end gallery.
The exhibition is arranged roughly chronologically, so that the earliest pieces you encounter are from the artist’s student days at Leeds Polytechnic. Untitled (Miss O’Murphy), 1969, plucks the model of Boucher’s erotic 18th century painting from her tumbled divan and collages her among psychedelic waves. Suddenly her plump youthfulness is shocking rather than titillating in her infamously provocative pose.
English originally trained in ceramics and here, alongside documentation of ‘performances to camera’ and further collages, is a revelatory group of her ceramic pieces, all of which were designed as integral elements of performances. Distantly reminiscent of Nikki de Saint Phalle’s ‘nanas’, and perhaps unconsciously prefiguring the aesthetic of Judy Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party, 1975, there are delicately modelled cache-sexes, and colourfully designed nipple covers with miniature hands that cradle and caress. These, together with the relief figures of ballet dancers that were worn as necklaces, were part of the early performance work A Divertissement, 1973 that English performed with two other students.
In parallel with the artist’s concern with exploring the gender and class-based politics of the day, is a deep concern with the nature of performance as a medium. That theatre is a largely middle-class entertainment was an irony not lost on her. But English’s theatrical points of reference are diverse and democratic. Alongside the beauty of classical ballet (ballet slippers abound), there is vaudeville and slapstick, as well as the absurd: Tommy Cooper is a hero for the sheer abstraction of his comedy. Guy Brett has written about the peculiarly British combination of the sublime and the satirical in English’s work, the way “her persona and her shows constantly seesaw between humour and seriousness, levity and gravity.” In her practice, the dark void of the stage is as much a protagonist in the action as the costumes and props.
For A Divertissement, the performance space was heavy with the scent of flowers. Female dancers, naked except for their pointe shoes dressed each other with the porcelain cache-sexes, tied with ribbons around their hips. As the dancers came together, the sound of clinking porcelain accompanied their kiss, and a lace veil crashes to the ground, revealing itself also to be made of porcelain. The photograph Baroque Harriet Study, (feather mattress), 1973 shows a woman rolled up in a ticking-covered mattress, tied with a pink satin bow. This references an element of A Divertissement, and serves to make clear English’s particular use of photography and film in relation to performance. Baroque Harriet Study, as well as the other studies for A Divertissement that are here, is not the dry documentation of a performance, but a performance to camera and as such an autonomous photographic work. Similarly, the seven gelatin silver prints that make up Bed in Field, 1971, are an exercise in image-making as well as the record of an action, or actions. Here the artist and her companion lie together, ostensibly sleeping, tucked up under the furrows of a ploughed field. It is at once intimate and shockingly public, rich with metaphor and thoroughly absurd.
The 1970s was the decade that saw performance as a practice emerge, allied to conceptual art and a sensibility that sought to move away from the art object towards something more ephemeral. Four decades later, Rose English continues to make performance – with costume, collaboration and music still essential elements. What this exhibition does is to trace the early part of the artist’s formation – offering glimpses of elements that have recurred repeatedly – so that a more comprehensive understanding of her oeuvre is possible. The 1983 performance Plato’s Chair is presented as a key pivotal moment. In it the artist engages the audience in a long monologue – variously self-deprecating and comic as well as confrontational. The performance goes to the heart of the pact between audience and performer that relies on a series of mutually agreed conventions, and which unpacks “the possibility of perception and deep thought in the most unlikely places”.
Richard Saltoun Gallery, 41 Dover Street, London W1S 4NS
Open Tuesday-Friday 10.00-18.00, Saturday: 11.00-17.00, or by appointment. Exhibition continues until 13 April 2019. www.richardsaltoun.com