Platform Foundation is a non-profit gallery in Mayfair showcasing emerging artists from the UK. I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural exhibition this week and meet with one of the founders and curator Sara Terzi, who organized ‘Generation Y’ with Kate Bryan, the head of collections at Soho House. The exhibiting artists all have work in the Soho House Art Collection, though these newer works are all for sale. The proceeds from ‘Generation Y’ will be divided between the artists, public programming, and Kazzum Arts—Platform Foundation’s charity of the year.
I was drawn to Platform Foundation because I like to support socially-conscious arts organizations, but what sold me was the work itself. Terzi and Bryan have an eye for boundary-pushing work, whether the limits it stretches are political or material. ‘Generation Y’ features work in both categories, and is curated to provoke dialogue on a number of themes.
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The first word that came to mind as I perused the space was ‘suture,’ because many of the featured artists experiment with reconstruction through various modes of attachment. Antoine Langenieux-Villard nails calico to wood panels, while May Hands weaves assorted ribbons and cotton canvas across a wooden stretcher. Sebastian Jefford lines a corner of his pu foam work, Shrill, with plastic snaps, though I can’t discern if they serve a functional or symbolic purpose. These methods of attachment elevate material from tool to subject, and draw attention to the aestheticism of process itself.
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I was very intrigued by the artist Aimée Parrott, who uses thread to sew thin sutures across her saturated canvases. Puncture (2018) was first treated with fabric dye, ink, batik, and monotype, before Parrott stitched meandering lines across its surface. Salep and Whitecap (2019) are also threaded, but are only treated with watercolor monotype and acrylic paint.
I find these pieces very sensual, which is partly the result of Parrott’s interest in bodily functions and cyclical patterns in nature. In Puncture I see two fleshy thighs converging at a sharp central point, where a saturated accumulation of pigment resembles a pubic mound. Whitecap contains several lines capped by hooded tulips—a motif I interpret to be vaginal.
Though Parrott’s imagery can be interpreted as quite sexual, it is her treatment of such motifs that lends her work its sexual energy. The gradation of colors across canvas recalls the way seeping fluids stain a white sheet or get caked on skin. Parrott is interested in notions of interiority and externality, and I observe the fusion of these concepts through streaks of fluid. I am reminded in her work of saliva exiting the body and blood rushing within it, of menstrual blood stockpiling and releasing, and of semen spraying. The paint itself is erotic, as it performs such sensual bodily functions.
Within this reading of Parrott’s work, thread plays a multitude of roles. It forms the lines that construct the reproductive system: the fallopian passageways and the phallus, to name two. But the artist’s stitches also puncture flesh, an action that spills more blood. The sutures conjure feelings of pain—an aphrodisiac to some and a source of trauma for others—but never nothing at all. Our bodies are canvases marked with pain, be it menstrual or dysmorphic, or caused by chronic illness, fatigue, and hunger. Aimée Parrott understands that pain comingles with pleasure, and self-loathing with self-love. She reserves judgement, merely documenting the sensations of both in a canvas marked by seeping colors and bleeding stitches.
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Scarlett Bowman is similarly preoccupied with attachment, though her mixed media work is even less iconographic. The artist rearranges and juxtaposes mundane materials as a way to explore how meaning changes and multiplies when materials are viewed in different contexts. This process also enables her to highlight the aesthetic qualities of utilitarian goods that consumers often neglect to recognize.
Loose Ends (2019) is composed of scrap materials, including recycled canvas, found cotton, and a used Krispy Kreme wrapper. These scraps are placed beside one another like items on a store shelf, separate enough to be read as independent objects, but always in dialogue with their peers. The undulating lines of the pink and white patches draw attention to the smooth contours of a mustard pentagon. The right angle of the white triangle opposes the right angle of the pink triangle, and I realize suddenly that the two—if slid together—could form a wonky square. Meanwhile, a patch of murky white sits above all three, its edges torn and stained and stitched up the middle like a dirty flag.
In their original contexts, these items bear little significance. They are scraps severed from their wholes; the chunk of fabric that falls away from an exacto knife or the paint that curdles on the sides of an acrylic tube. But isolated and then juxtaposed on canvas, they feel beautiful and important. A discarded abstract shape comes to resemble a recognizable motif.
Through re-assemblage, Bowman reveals the process by which a raw material is physically and psychologically transformed into a symbolic object. Human beings are highly susceptible to suggestion, and we are trained to attach meanings to certain contexts. An artistic environment implores the viewer to value its contents, and so the viewer subconsciously transforms utilitarian scraps into items of value and particular significance.
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‘Generation Y’ is also notable for its abundance of symbols that evoke a multitude of meanings. Some artists, like Daniel Davies and Tom Pope, achieve this effect by utilizing a highly-charged motif– the male body– that has gained many associations over time. In The Bungalow, Davies eliminates the body entirely, leaving behind a well-tailored grey suit. It is an image so irrevocably tied to maleness that disembodiment has no effect on its masculine charge. The presence of a thin black curtain obscuring a part of the suit is more uncanny, as its sheerness feels at once supernatural and erotic. The viewer is thus left to reconcile maleness with fantasy and carnal sexuality, a blend of connotations typically associated with the female body. The effect is jarring, though the colors in The Bungalow are melancholy.
In Mask of Masculinity, Tom Pope narrows in on the face of masculinity, the actor John Wayne, whose 20th-century performance in Hollywood Westerns solidified him as an icon of maleness. His broad features epitomize the aesthetics of masculinity at the time, from his wide nose to his square jaw, and this strength is magnified by the sheer size of his cowboy hat. At the same time, Wayne’s features demonstrate his emotional restraint. His gaze is brooding yet impenetrable, and the shadow cast by the brim of his hat renders him mysterious. Perhaps it is the cowboy’s stern facade that makes him such an intriguing character; we see the soulfulness in his eyes, but are denied access to his true range of emotions. Pope challenges this practice– which has lasting repercussions for men to this day– by staining the cowboy’s face with tears. By superimposing emotion onto the face of John Wayne, the artist criticizes the societal restraints that demonize male sentimentality and thus construct the mask of masculinity.
Other artists in ‘Generation Y,’ such as Catherine Parsonage and Bea Bonafini, deconstruct symbols so that their form and meaning are rendered ambiguous. Separated from the context of a face, Parsonage’s frowning lips no longer connote sadness. I am reminded instead of a clown’s exaggerated expression, and Untitled comes to feel somewhat light-hearted and theatrical. This effect is amplified by the floating spheres that collide with the artist’s mutated mouths. They resemble planets or beach balls, supplementing whimsy for sadness. These spheres are also shaded with the same orange-red hue as the drooping mouth, a quality that actually brings the motifs in Untitled closer to the surface of the paper, and away from allegory.
Bea Bonafini’s Him (Lo Sposo), also features a deconstruction of symbol that renders the work conceptually multivalent. Him (Lo Sposo), features, a pair of deformed scissors that obfuscate a fuzzy pastel portrait of a man. The deconstruction of the scissors is a parody of their primary function, which is to sever a secondary object.
The manipulation of the metal tool also creates new potential shapes that are recognizable to the viewer. My eyes see a strutting rooster in the scissors’ pointed legs and protruding chest. Having made this cognitive jump, I then attach connotations of ego and confidence– associated with the male bird– to the portrait of the man beneath. And so, Him (Lo Sposo) demonstrates the capacity of a single mutated symbol to trigger a chain of cognitive associations that render the work multivalent.
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The artist Henry Hussey, who I had the pleasure of meeting at Platform Foundation, speaks enthusiastically about the collective subconscious and the symbols that reside within it. He considers such symbols to be powerful tools for communication with the viewer, though he also emphasizes the importance of active thought in the spectatorial experience. I find this duality to be very intriguing in Hussey’s work, as he provides the viewer with certain symbols that register on a primitive level, igniting interest, but refrains from didactic storytelling. The series Untitled (Buried II-V)(2018) is composed of bodily fragments that immediately arouse discomfort due to their evocations of mutilation, but Hussey lets the viewer investigate these feelings.
After a few moments of gazing at a hand whose pinky and index figures have been severed, it occurs to me that such mangled appendages might evoke the fear of castration. An amputated male torso streaked with white lines might also signal some sort of lack, though its phallus is intact. Devoid of arms or legs, it hovers in the ether, held down only by the weight of paint itself. Can such a figure be autonomous?
I am also entranced by the white lines that crawl down the torso. Their placement identifies them as indentations in the skin created by ripples of muscle and rays of light, but their stark white coloring belies the figure’s bone structure. He is at once a skeleton and a mass of painted tissue, his solidity questioned by the ambiguous nature of paint itself. Thus, Hussey’s isolation of the body and his utilization of line complicate a simple motif, attaching to it a plethora of significations.
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Another artist whose use of symbol caught my eye was Declan Jenkins, whose imagery is rooted in the archaic as well as the futuristic. Motifs in the artist’s work are often instantly recognizable, though his manipulation of such motifs considers their layered significance, rendering his work conceptually malleable for different viewers. Furthermore, Jenkins juxtaposes multivalent motifs with other symbols that engender new meanings, creating what the curators call “a new fictional mythology.”
The Missionary (2019) is one such work. In this woodcut, a cross resides within the body of an eagle. The cross bears obvious connotations of Christianity, but the religion itself provokes a variety of reactions in viewers, from devotion and piety to hope for redemption to guilt and self-loathing. For some it elicits fear, and for others, anger. The eagle has been an emblem in many cultures, often utilized by the state to convey the nation’s power, strength, and vision. When nation and religion are fused, the eagle also becomes divinely charged, as in the Aztec tradition and that of the indigenous Pueblos and some early Christians. The iconography of The Missionary contains all of these connotations, and in embedding the cross within the eagle, Jenkins forces these connotations into dialogue with one another. The result of this dialogue is entirely dependent on the viewer’s experiences with each symbol.
As an American, I immediately associate the eagle with freedom. But also because I am American, and understand that freedom has never been universal in my country, it symbolizes false promises. The eagle is a white-feathered façade that promises freedom if you, too, are white-feathered. The cross within speaks to the faith that has forced open a chasm between right and left in the United States, as conservatives use Christian tenants to argue against women’s reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights. That the cross is hidden within the eagle is a reminder of the way Christianity is woven into our political make-up—‘One nation, under God’ we say, facing the flag—and has encouraged discrimination since 1776. These are my experiences with these symbols, and with The Missionary. But every viewer’s interpretation will be different due to the multivalence of each motif.
Jenkins has two other works on display in ‘Generation Y,’ another woodcut with Christian imagery, and a painting called Beret Identity (2019) that is a departure from his printmaking. In my meeting with Terzi and Hussey, we discussed how artists experiment with different mediums while maintaining a through-line or artist narrative that can be traced from series to series. Beret Identity is striking to me as an individual piece, but also as a recognizable part of Jenkins’s oeuvre. His brushwork within the orange beret and in the space surrounding the black beret recall the strips of ink that characterize a woodcut. An emphasis on motif remains as well, though here Jenkins descends deeper into abstraction, a descent into ambiguity that actually provides Beret Identity with deeper significance. A geometric room divider shields these oblong berets from an unseen threat, while the berets transform themselves into something less recognizable. Are we meant to see their abstraction as a defense mechanism against the entity beyond the screen? Or is Jenkins merely directing our attention to these stylish hats, and asking that we consider the way dress is a performance of identity?
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‘Generation Y’ is on at Platform Foundation through June 28. Hours are Monday-Friday, 10-6.