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Craft/Work

Unknown Venuses: Renee So At The De La Warr Pavilion
Grace Ayre , December 7th, 2019 10:34

Renee So's show at the De La Warr Pavilion uses archetypal forms to forge a unique personal language

Renee So: Ancient and Modern' at the De La Warr Pavilion 28 September 2019 until 12 January 2020. Photo © Rob Harris

Temporal dislocation becomes a vessel for gender satire in Renee So’s exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion. Ancient and Modern responds to the centenary of the Bauhaus’s founding and unsettles traditional hierarchies between craft and art.

Visitors to Ancient and Modern will encounter a range of works by the London-based, Hong Kong-born artist that encompass ceramics and textiles, wall-based works and sculptures. Some are abstract, some figurative; some are functional, others merely to be looked at; and many are masquerading as old. First though they must walk past a giant booted leg that stands floor to ceiling sentry and inexplicably singular by the entrance to the exhibition. With closer inspection, the boot is revealed to be a domestic lamp, its cylindrical trouser in fact performing the role of lampshade. Were the light emanating from it brighter – or the daylight darker – Boot Leg would be literally brilliant. Instead, it’s so So: subtle and strange, suffusing the exhibition with whimsical humour.

Made in part during a residency at West Dean College of Art and Conservation, the ceramics in So’s show continue her investigation into the vessels that mankind has used since pre-history – such as ancient Asian, Middle Eastern, pre-Columbian and African pottery. She mixes these with figures that reference classical Assyrian, Greek and Roman portraits and glazed ceramic pieces that revisit ancient gods and myths in a distinctly contemporary and idiosyncratic fashion.

Flow State (2019), a wall-based image made out of nearly a hundred individual tiles, is a case in point. Depicting concentric arching bodies against a pale blue surround, its figures recall yoga poses and images of Nut the Egyptian goddess of the sky whose body created a canopy over the earth. Its quest for flow is ironically met with an atomised, painstaking artistic treatment, and the bodies described stretched, interrupted and disjointed.

Renee So: Ancient and Modern' at the De La Warr Pavilion 28 September 2019 until 12 January 2020. Photo © Rob Harris

Venus of Valdivia (2019) is another wall-based ‘drawing’ made out of multiple glazed tiles, similarly elevating the unpredictability and unwieldy physicality of unfired clay. Depicting two big-haired women in a palette of rusty colours and shrunken limbs, the work refers to the figures’ namesakes: the feminine ceramic figures found on the Western coast of Ecuador whose hairstyles and individual features suggest that each represented an actual woman. These overlook another footless – as well as headless and armless – but otherwise life-sized female: an Unknown Woman, made of white-glazed ceramic and mounted on a plinth in mock-museological style, as though all but its torso has been lost over the years.

Nearby is a table-top of small terracotta and black stoneware female figures that reference Pre-Columbian figurines of Venus in which pot-bellied forms were designed as vessels for food and drink. These ‘Unknown Venuses’ have a modern as well as ancient history, having been collected and celebrated by the ex-Bauhaus couple Anni and Joseph Albers who delighted in finding an indigenous and functional art that speaks to all. So’s ancient-looking earthenware pieces have a kink to them however, their saggy bodies standing on three footless legs.

Like the women of the Bauhaus, who were pushed towards craft practices within the modernist school, So’s art embraces textiles as well as ceramics. Much is handmade, whether woven or knitted by the artist on a 1980s domestic knitting machine, and there is pleasure and beauty in this humility. A geometrical weaving titled Abstract Composition and a wall-based ceramic mosaic Learning to Weave form an autobiographical pair, while Woven Past recycles the artist’s garments to form an abstract curtain.

Renee So: Ancient and Modern' at the De La Warr Pavilion 28 September 2019 until 12 January 2020. Photo © Rob Harris

Two further textile works introduce a new character to the exhibition. Slinky hipped and clad in coral-pink boots, a Reclining Male strikes a carefree attitude, languorous and blithe as a parliamentary Rees-Mogg. His slim posed silhouette recalls the men decorating ancient Greek vases, or that of Anubis the dog-headed Egyptian god of death – thanks to a further boot shape in place of his head. We find him knitted reposing in yin and yang symmetry and again on a textile adorning a bench; and perhaps hinted at in the giant booted lamp that guards the exhibition’s entrance.

What is he doing here, this lone dandy among an assembly of women, apparently unfettered by sex or ravaged by time and showing off his footwear when others lack feet? What is So up to, fashioning him out of natural and synthetic fibre and making him available to be sat on – a surrealist twist within her cohort of ancients? Harking back to figures across art history, he’s also contemporary: a mix of imagery, material and colour palette references that is as culturally coded as it is nuanced, and which – far from the Bauhaus ideal of communicating a universal language of form – conveys an individual sensibility.

Renee So, Ancient & Modern, is at the De La Warr Pavilion until 12 January