Jonathan Baldock: Notes from the Orifice

8 October – 15 November 2014, Vitrine, London

By Helen Sumpter

Notes from the Orifice, 2014 (installation view). Courtesy Vitrine, London

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. 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.