In their first solo exhibition, Justin Fitzpatrick allegorically explores themes of identity, repressed desire and decadence through a gastronomic journey from seed to plate. Charting natural growth and technological processes of consumption, Fitzpatrick delivers an exhibition rich in visual substance whilst taking deeper dives into feelings around objectification, oppression and emancipation. In addition to their own work, Alpha Salad includes a curated selection of works from Leeds University Library Galleries and Special Collections (by Wendy Abbott, Duncan Grant and Käthe Kollwitz), and photographs from Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture.
Fitzpatrick(b. 1985, Dublin – now residing in France) works with oil painting and sculpture to deliver bold statements infused with a distinctive palette of greens, greys, reds and blacks. These are characterised by an exotic blend of scientific imagery and personal symbolism in a style that dances between Art Nouveau and the grotesque. Depictions of skin, hair follicles, muscles and nervous systems are embellished and bound with macrame twine. Across the exhibition there is a strong sense of visual delight, underpinned with layers of darker meaning and expression.
Across the first floor of The Tetley, visitors are offered a probing exploration of taste as something pleasurable and sensory, for which the artist introduces a system of aesthetic categorisation that begins in the atrium. A large central sculpture entitled ‘Moteur Idéal’ (2021) sets the tone. Created in collaboration with Fitzpatrick’s partner, Nils Alix-Tabeling, two iron horses pull in opposite directions, bound by red twine to a fixed wooden pillar. They are flanked by sculptures of cat/bat-like creatures – an allegorical reference to Henri Bergson’s book Matter and Memory (1896), which argues the importance of memory and physical experience acting together. Hung on the balcony panels and overlooking this struggle between body and mind are two commissioned bas-reliefs that speak to Fitzpatrick’s fascination with organic growth, ‘Horizontal Gene Transfer’ and ‘Pollination’ (2022).
In gallery one, the audience begins their digestive journey at the beginning, with seeds. Paintings ‘Alpha Salad’ and ‘Solar Net’, surreal agricultural scenes, sit aside photographs of corn dollies being created as harvest offerings, relaying a hesitancy towards the mechanised and technological and creating a tension between internal growth and aesthetic change. There remains a deep sense of shame or reticence toward change, whether through a natural or artificial force (in ‘Solar Net’, that external force is the sun triggering photosynthesis). Clues are rife within Fitzpatrick’s paintings, including a nod to human depravity in William Blake’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ (1795-1805), and expressed through the visual tropes of Art Nouveau and Expressionism.
Moving to gallery two, photons take centre stage with a large historical print of the passage of the moon’s shadow across England in 1715, alongside two of Fitzpatrick’s works. ‘Trepanning: The audience is listening’ (2020), a sculpture of sinewy men cradling knotted nerve-like strands in their hands, is a comment on Enlightenment thinking while ‘Photon Pump’ (2021) is an expression of the strength of the sun that includes an auto-asphyxiation apparatus, suggesting a darker relationship to knowledge, ownership and technological progress.
In gallery three, themes of taste, enjoyment, feasting and erotic tension gain traction. The audience is invited to imagine a plant’s consciousness, in which its growth and agency are affected by hormonal changes. Paintings ‘Design for Plate’ and ‘A Sap is Rising’ (both 2021) explore desire and sexual awakening across hybrid forms; the former depicting a hybridised plant-machine that is forced to flower, the latter a growing human-plant that blossoms upon sexual release.
Muscles and agricultural production are the subject of gallery four. An etching by Kollwitz, ‘Sturm (Storming the Gate)’ from 1893-97 depicts a labour strike while Kissling’s photographs document the construction and use of a hay creel that appears as an extension of its owner. ‘Voluntary Muscle with Lemon’ (2019) is a mediation on luxury which depicts a flayed humanoid figure poised against a trellised backdrop, complete with oversized quartered and whole lemons. One of show’s standout works, ‘Filet du Cheval au Citron’ (2020), references the post-war rebranding of horse meat with a restrained and panicking stallion, with undertones of bondage and sexual repression. One is left to ponder the fine lines between consuming flesh for sustenance, dominance and pleasure.
Gallery five explores nerves and the transition from life to death. The visceral boiling of a lobster in ‘Bathing’ (2020, an interpretation of Duncan Grant’s work of the same name) transforms its dark crustacean blue to the bright, vibrant red that makes it desirable to consume. ‘Bathing’ depicts lobsters as half human figures attempting to save themselves from the butler who transports them to their painful deaths and away from their true selves (and colour). Another excellent canvas by Fitzpatrick, ‘Drawing by Sergei Eisenstein mounted in Bobbin’ Style Frame’ (2019, copy of a sketch by the Soviet filmmaker) depicts a nervous system simultaneously entering and exiting a body – an allegory for transitioning between planes of freedom and ownership.
In gallery six, visitors enter the afterlife. The aggressive nature of preparing animals for consumption is displayed here, with ‘Bisque’ (2020) illustrating the boiling, quartering and seasoning of a lobster with sadomasochistic undercurrents. The preparation of the meal and its instructions are written in first-person pronouns such as ‘He holds…’ and ‘My muscles…’, with the lobster seemingly at peace with its destiny, ready for the painful process through which it will becoming something else. Across the room, one of Fitzpatrick’s larger canvases, ‘Psychopomp’ (2020), depicts the excessive performance of food preparation for seated diners – an elaborate spectacle that ultimately destroys life.
In gallery seven, the role of servers is interrogated. ‘Omega Salad’ (2020) is a self-portrait, reflecting on the similarity between the server’s suppressed desires and the experience of living ‘in the closet’, where performance and assimilation are necessary for acceptance. Opposite is Wendy Abbott’s ‘In Heavy Air’ (1968) and Duncan Grant’s study of ‘Judith and Holofernes’, which contribute to the dialogue of identity and performance through their characters’ clear and direct actions.
Gallery eight, with a focus on dining, presents the exhibition’s biggest canvas, ‘Chef’s Table: France’ (2020), a homage to the German New Objectivity movement. The waiter’s animatronic body is compartmentalised into restaurant spaces where diners enter through the mouth, while cooks occupy the phallus-kitchen where they carve unseen creations for the delight of diners. Opposite is ‘A Conflict of Interests’ (2020), a cross-sectional examination of personified taste buds that considers their role both in giving pleasure and guarding against harmful food.
In the corridor, Fitzpatrick (as a good host should) offers us a digestif on the form of ‘Cuisine Roulante’ (2021), a drawing of an elaborate cart made of muscle tissue. The cart propels itself with twitches and spasms and is continually seasoned with lemon juice. Here, as throughout Alpha Salad, Fitzpatrick’s love of metaphor and allegory is delectably omnipresent, cradled within the intimate gallery spaces of The Tetley. Artworks revolve through the complexities of nature and technology, and impulse and repression, against the backdrop of a culinary nightmare. Visitors will find new dimensions through which to contemplate our complex relationship with food, along with unsettling themes of societal excess and the metaphysical nature of identity.
Alpha Salad runs 26 January – 8 May 2022 at The Tetley, Leeds.
Louis D’Arcy-Reed is a writer based in Yorkshire.
This review is supported by The Tetley.