Mythologies & Masquerades

3/8, Ilyinka Street, Building 5, Moscow 109012, Russia.  28th April – 13th May 2018 

‘Mythologies and Masquerades’ encapsulates the otherworldly domain of emergent British painter Georgina Clapham, born Somerset, England, 1993. Conspicuously engaging with story telling and theatricality she draws together Renaissance portraiture, Greek Mythology, folklore, mysticism, animals, nature, the artificial, high fashion, subculture, gender, identity and sexuality, in her meticulous life size figurative paintings. 

Through the traditional media of oil paint on linen and intaglio printmaking, she creates her own contemporary mythologies, reworked from archetypal narratives in Greek Mythology and European Folklore, such as the original moral tales collated by the Brothers Grimm; in doing so she tries to find a balance between beauty and the grotesque. Her paintings operate as portraits and as tableau, referring to conventional Old Master compositions of the early modern European period, principally of nobility or elevated mythological subjects she substitutes past historical symbolism with contemporary fashion, costume and subcultural elements, drawing the viewer into the present in the hope that ‘such anachronism might filter our impression of the past or emphasize the difference in dialogue between old and new.’ Staging her paintings using people in her everyday life, she infuses these timeless narratives with the intimacy and tangibility of her friendships and personal relationships drawing out their psychology and sexuality; as such, the works become as much a depiction of her own imagined narrative as of the individuals’ personality. 

The garb in Clapham’s paintings is a melting pot of carefully curated social signifiers, that refer jointly to the individuals and narrative she depicts. Combinations of historical costume, haute couture, fancy dress, vintage and contemporary fashion subcultures are a defining feature of her work; they reflect both her engagement with the fashion world, including the generation of designers evolving alongside her and an understanding of clothing’s complex layered cultural associations through time. Clapham quotes her favorite designer the late Alexander McQueen in saying;  ‘It’s a new era in fashion, there are no rules. It’s all about the individual and personal style, wearing high end, low end, classic labels, and up and coming designers all together.’ – 

She goes on to say; ‘My choice of costume is highly personal, often made by or belonging in part to my models who are mostly fellow artists, fashion designers, performers, poets and writers from London and The Glasgow School of Art, the works are a natural reflection of youth and a period of transience to which I could relate, my use of clothing helps to question notions of identity, sexuality, gender stereotypes and beauty standards. For example: clothes, which deliberately look awkward or ill fitting becoming the physical manifestation of a characters’ psychological transition.’ Sometimes this may take the form of obvious or more subtle cross-dressing. In doing so she hopes to highlight many ongoing questions of gender recognition and stereotyping, by creating portraits in which gender is either subtly defused, or embraced in full, upsetting fixed conventions.

A notable addition to her attention to the figure and clothing are depictions of animals and nature: moths, beetles, snakes, a rabbit, bird, feathers, eggs and fur, feature either as backdrops, adornments or disguises, both denoting their symbolic meaning in mythology or folklore and the personality traits of the sitter. In ‘Artemis and Actaeon,’ (FIGURE) we see part of Actaeon’s transformation into a stag by Artemis, in the Greek myth he sees her naked whilst bathing in a stream and thus she turns against him; here it is set in Scotland at the banks of the river Clyde, dense foliage surrounds the pair, the atmosphere is fecund but contrary to a romantic scene, his heavy antlers burden his arms as he makes a plea to Artemis to forgive his transgression. In this case the antlers may prefigure his death, as in some versions of the story he is devoured by Artemis’s hunting dogs, but the stag is also associated with sensitivity, intuition and gentleness all of which he employs in his defence in this painting so the outcome is unknown. In other works, references to the natural world compete with elements of artificiality and the illusory façade of fashion and beauty. ‘Gucci Empress,’(FIGURE) depicts a luminous celestial female adorned in a Gucci gown from the Spring / Summer 2017 collection. The ambiguity of the natural setting: a lone branch supporting a large elephant hawk moth which shoots up against a Holbein green backdrop helps create a sense of fantasy but also foreboding, detached from place and time. The inherent warning of the mysterious moth, seen as a carrier of messages to the afterlife or in Chinese culture souls of the dead, perhaps reflects a sense of the increasingly fragile and uncertain times that we face; though equally it represents hope and the power for both spiritual and physical transformation, operating comfortably in darkness and light.      

Some of the works in the exhibition reflect a distinctly more whimsical nod to the world of high fashion such as ‘Night Walking in Mark Jacobs I and II,’ (FIGURE) in which Mark Jacobs Spring 2017 platform boots are dragged though a muddy field at night perhaps on the way back from a party, a play on chopines’ which prevented fifteenth century Florentine women’s dresses from trailing the dirty streets, and ‘The Astrologer’s Ritual Glove,’(FIGURE) a mock seventeenth century hunting glove attaches to long ribbons the preserve of the sixteenth century Florentine upper classes, highlight the hypocrisy of the deliberate inconvenience of power dressing for the fashion conscious.  

A sense of literal and metaphorical masking and disguising is carried throughout this body of works, Clapham’s abundant use of chiaroscuro where characters appear from the shadows or darkness, only half revealing themselves, is a device used to enhance the dramatic tension of the scene or the intensity of the sitter; in some cases where the sitter is revealed they are so heavily made up that they are unrecognizable from their true selves. This has the opposite effect in ‘Goth Visard Mask,’ (FIGURE) the eyes in this case distinctively belonging to UK fashion designer of the moment Matty Bovan; a play on the black velvet masks worn by travelling gentlewomen in the sixteenth century to protect their skin from sunburn and also keep them anonymous. Similarly the Lover’s Eye Miniatures worn as jewellery by those that wanted to keep their secret lover close to them, could almost be worn as a trademark badge of Bovan’s eye make up Instagram reel. (FIGURE)

The illusory atmosphere created through the careful depiction of fine jewellery, luxurious fabrics and furs is a skill that is hard won, Clapham handles the paint with confidence shifting between naturalism, artifice and heightened drama, echoing tropes of sixteenth and seventeenth century European portraitists from Giovanni Battista Moroni to Thomas Gainsborough and his ‘Swagger Portraits.’ Of this she says: ‘I see my work as partly a comment on the delight of painting and an exploration of materiality. I have employed techniques that refer directly to the history of oil painting such as the support, building up in very fine layers of glaze, but there are also things that I have now set aside; I use impasto more liberally, glitter, juxtaposing traditional pigments with synthetic ones and iridescent paints, making textural objects. As long as these different languages lend themselves to the conceptual intentions of the work I have embraced them.’