Works in The Reactor at The Sunday Painter, London quietly suggest the psycho-emotional and physical fragments of grief
In his memoir, The Reactor: A Book about Grief and Repair (2022), psychoanalyst and author Nick Blackburn writes, ‘I have dreaded to look at the pieces or see how many there are because I know they don’t join up.’ The subject of this memoir is Blackburn’s grief for the death of his father, and the ‘pieces’, here, are presumably a reference to the fragmented structure of his book, begun as a series of notes, which see Blackburn working through his grief via thoughts on literature, art, pop culture and film, all of which are held together by his obsession with watching YouTube videos about the aftereffects of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
The book is the catalyst for this five-artist exhibition. But there are no great public displays of grief here. Instead, visitors move among works that are more quietly suggestive of those psycho-emotional and physical fragments that are left for the living to make sense of following a death. And, like Blackburn’s memoir, they appear to present methods of processing grief, of the putting back together of pieces.
Some of the works, such as Racheal Crowther’s wall-mounted photograph Headquarters II (all works 2023), depicting locks of brown hair in a sealed plastic bag attached to an aged compliment slip of a hair salon hand-dated ‘27th May ‘93’, obliquely reference acts of mourning. Just as a parent might sentimentally keep a curl of hair from their child’s first haircut, locks might also be saved from the body of a loved one. Preserved in this photograph and with no discernible context given, the wisps of hair may or may not be both – an ambiguous marker of a beginning and an end.
Sometimes there is an expectation to mourn in a certain way. Facial expressions can be tricky, particularly when shock or extreme emotions manifest as numbness. (In The Reactor, Blackburn notes that it can be ‘much easier not to write about a feeling that feels like nothing’.) Six paintings by Beatrice Lettice Boyle hang in the gallery’s basement space; three portraits (according to their titles) are of footballers Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho, and actor Shelley Duvall. Their faces are contorted in anguish, exhaustion or surprise, and read like a visual guide to performing certain emotions when none might be felt at all. Boyle’s other paintings – of worn sneakers titled Dad (Nike Waffle Racer I, II and III) – are also, in a sense, portraits, though pictured in isolation the trainers more keenly mark their wearer’s absence.
Amanda Moström’s two sculptures provide unexpected levity. Dangling from the double-height ceiling, from a length of wool rope, is what appears to be a giant scrotum made of hundreds of dried dates. Sweetmeat makes me want to laugh, but such humour is simultaneously tamped down by feelings of guilt – a pretty accurate simulation of the conflicting emotions felt during periods of grief – and the work exploits the otherwise solemn context of the exhibition to earn its laughs. Meanwhile, arranged on the floor to the side are four stools, the Sucking Ice series. Each is formed from filled two-litre water bottles zip-tied together and topped with a silver-plated bronze seat. Though the stools are unstable and uncomfortable-looking, visitors are invited to perch on them. While, initially, there’s a visual heavy-handedness to Moström’s sculptures, the impact of these works lies in their ability to evoke grief ’s indeterminacies.
Moving closer towards a sense of repair, or at least an acknowledgment of its process, George Binda Celeste Alexandrino Ferreira Da Silva’s De kære børn (The dear children) is a small room-shaped installation, the contents of which are almost entirely covered in brown packing tape. It looks like it’s recently housed a hurricane. (Blackburn’s text for the exhibition reads much the same way – a disconnected, flurrying stream-of-consciousness that’s hard to make sense of, save the partial thought: ‘the gale as originating from a conspiracy of household items rattling amongst themselves’). Debris is strewn across the floor, but as it’s all made of cardboard, there isn’t anything of material value here: drawers, clothes, a clock, a vase, picture frames. Partially hidden in one corner, a television set plays footage of a person dragging a cardboard model of a house down various streets; the model house sits among the ruins of this room. Despite its haphazard appearance, the installation is shrinelike, and the care taken in the making and wrapping of the objects is palpable, as if the painstaking putting-back-together of the deceased via their belongings were keeping part of them alive.
Hung opposite Da Silva’s installation is Patrick H. Jones’s series of ten mixed-media portraits, Self. Each depicts the same figure in three-quarter profile drawn in black, and each is overlaid with a gauze, under and over which have been painted skin-pinks, greys and vibrant blues of varying thickness and intensity, so that in some the figure is only just visible. It’s as though, through iteration, Jones is engaged in a study of rebuilding the self – trying out different shades and hues to see what might most outwardly resemble ‘feeling ok’. Because, after all, the best that can be hoped for is finding a way to patch together the pieces of ourselves – even if they don’t quite join up.
The Reactor at The Sunday Painter, London, 24 November – 13 January