Orange and white striped wall with towel hanging on rail to the left, broom propped up against the wall to the right

Garth Gratrix:
Cheeky Felicia

Installation view of Garth Gratrix: Cheeky Felicia, 2023, at Crescent Arts, Scarborough. Image: Matt Cooper.

Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside! Scarborough offers up fish and chips on tap and the clanking of penny arcades, familiar waves lulling us into a nostalgic reverie. The coastal town is often depicted as a patriotic Victorian throwback – a dream of a place that perhaps never even existed. Wind breakers, Britannia and cockles. Arcadia for the cash strapped. This insistence upon the glory days of promenading to tempt the tourist trade stifles the true identity and lives of the people living by the sea. How do we document the reality of the modern seaside town? Do we place our feet on the sandy shores of the past, present or future?

Blackpool-based artist, curator and raconteur Garth Gratrix is often drawn towards the coast, with each new jaunt adding further context (versions of the beach towel here present have also kissed the shores of Plymouth, Margate, St. Ives and Eastbourne, and will be journeying to Lancaster and Blackpool in the future). The artist seeks to explore the coexistence of cruising spots within these coastal towns, and interrogates their working-class histories using the language of DIY materiality. The result is an earthy and effete wonderland for the senses: a swift, wet kiss beneath the pier.

Installation shot of a long gallery space: voile hangings to the left, blue box with objects on in the centre, orange and white striped wall with beach towel on rail to the right.
Installation view of Garth Gratrix: Cheeky Felicia, 2023, at Crescent Arts, Scarborough. Image: Matt Cooper.

On first setting eyes on Cheeky Felicia, what grabs me is the sense of playfulness. The bold use of colour evokes ice cream on the pier. Along with Gratrix’s unique approach to colour theory, each piece has a title that conjures a world of double entendre and sass. The pink and blue striped walls of ‘Cheeky Felicia’ (2023) and ‘Freshly Washed’ (2023) beam coquettishly, framing voile hangings each as fragile as a mid-morning rainbow. This is unequivocally a queer space, but rather than a bejewelled shout, Gratrix gently teases the built environment of the seaside, skilfully pairing bold interventions with smaller, more intimate works that carry serious undercurrents. Each piece is keenly subtextual, almost flirting with you before revealing its true nature.

Gratrix drew inspiration from a painting in the Scarborough Museums and Galleries collection, William Etty’s ‘Man Lying Face Down’ (1820). This work depicts a pale muscled male figure, lying naked, their peachy bottom resplendent. It is this voyeuristic intensity which informs the artist. What has been created is a set of abstractions, which play at the edges of Etty’s candid image: wherever you land your gaze, a reimagined act of dominance, submission, gesture and posture confronts the viewer.

A broom with a bronze handle rests against an orange and white striped wall
Installation view of Garth Gratrix: Cheeky Felicia, 2023, at Crescent Arts, Scarborough. Image: Matt Cooper.

‘I’ll polish the brass with a broom up my arse whilst I’m at it’ (2023) is at first sight – title aside – an unassuming object: polished brass pole with a broom head resting on the wooden parquet floor. It reminds me of school chores at primary school, making the main hall ready for PE lessons on the apparatus. This piece jabs at our ideas of the domestic while the placement of the piece, leaning nonchalantly against the wall, conjures up a self-effacement and overlooked strength redolent of working-class stoicism. Seen as a metaphor for the complexities of queer joy, shame and love, I couldn’t think of a more fitting object. In contrast, at the far end of that same wall Gratrix has placed a custom beach towel – ‘Shy Girl, Dim Love, Home from Home’ (2021) – at a nine-inch tilt on a bronze-coated steel bar, which could perhaps be read as a more territorial gesture, a taking up of space.

The use of fabric to convey meaning is also present in the C-type print ‘Innocent Peach’ (2022): an image of a handkerchief hanging out of someone’s back pocket referencing the hanky code of kink signposting. Another secret, another flirtation. This coded message is expanded with ‘Sling your ‘Ook’ (2022), the crumpled and discarded silk handkerchief draped on top of the boxy wooden form of ‘Nine Inch Freshly Washed in Pursuit of Happiness’ (2023). It is joined by two nine-inch polished lengths of brass pole and yellow brick-like forms around the base bearing the impressions of knees. The combination is a nudge and a wink towards the sauciness of comic postcards and sexual innuendo, but also creates a dialogue between the innocence of human connection and the shame queer people are forced to seek to expunge in a society that perpetuates a heteronormative view of sex and pleasure. It is the essence of the voyeuristic disquiet of ‘Man Lying Face Down’. Should we shy away from or delight in public displays of affection? Dotted around the space are further yellow brick-like forms. ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ (2020-present) scrambles up the walls, each oblong imprinted with a trainer tread – a transitory presence on the red-brick stolidity of the building.

Blue and white striped box surrounded by yellow brick-like forms. On top of the box is a dirty hanky and two lengths of bronze rod.
Installation view of Garth Gratrix: Cheeky Felicia, 2023, at Crescent Arts, Scarborough. Image: Matt Cooper.

The nine hung voile fabrics each have a name that oozes double entendre. ‘Kindness of Strangers’, ‘Snake Charmer’ and ‘wink wink’ (all 2023) hang according to Gratrix’s rigidly self-imposed rule of ‘nine inches apart, together, away, repeat’. This formalised interplay of distance and proximity is another key by which the exhibition may be further unlocked. Tension and relaxation captured in sheer flounces; the fabric seems to undulate in the space between breaths. It speaks of a person needing to conform, but failing to hide everything. A brief tactile temptation that doesn’t feel ready to hold your hand. Being our true and authentic selves takes bravery and a safe environment in which to flourish. Until then, the allure of backstage, behind the curtains, gives us comfort.

These are splendid contradictions, a compendium of Queer codices ready to unlock the back door to the fun house. The question asked here is whether the magic still shines as brightly if you look behind the curtain. Are these works a glamorous conceit or a painterly reimagining of the complex realities of Scarborough and its inhabitants’ lives? Queer people often identify with and venerate battle-axe characters in the media – Peggy Mitchell, Kim Tate and Bet Lynch. Their acts of over-performing gender loop around to become camp. The accessories, ornament and decorations these archetypes wear are akin to the act of masking performed by LGBTQ+ people. We use, abuse and accrete things to hide our vulnerability and trauma. Make up is war paint, a handbag is a battering ram. The same can be said of our lived environment: a bright beach hut hides a forlorn trawler; illuminations shine bright enough to blind you to the view of empty shops. It is this cold fire that Gratrix invites us to dance in. We see the mask slip but never fall.

These works skilfully use nostalgia to paint a new vision for the seaside. This reality is one which speaks to a contemporary audience, the pain of loss and the joy of union all coexisting in a liminal space that frolics between past, present and future. In seeking to answer the question of where to plant our feet, Gratrix asks us to abandon the notion altogether. By repurposing the ornament and decoration of the old, we can reimagine a future free from the insipid sugary sweetness coastal towns can sometimes conjure. The present time is one of restructuring, rebalance and change. It would have been simple to create a work which acted as an empty pastiche of the funfair; Gratrix instead invites us to poke fun at the kiss-me-quickness of the place inside our own minds. Nostalgia often gives comfort, but Gratrix’s reality is so much more bracing. Take a dip!

Garth Gratrix: Cheeky Felicia is on at Crescent Arts, Scarborough, 16 September 2023 – 18 February 2024.

Even Allen (aka That Looks Queer!) is a writer based in Sheffield.

This review is supported by Crescent Arts.

Published 28.11.2023 by Benjamin Barra in Reviews

1,298 words