In an era where voyeurism is rife, where top entertainment consists of watching young men and women copulating on beaches from the comfort of one’s sofa, it is a privilege to see an exhibition that beats fresh blood into a dated-yet-cherished seaside genre.
Following its first iteration, in the factual origins of London (LOVE LIFE, PEER, 2016), LOVE LIFE, ACT II brings Emma Hart and Jonathan Baldock’s Punch and Judy themed exhibition to its spiritual seaside home, in Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery.
ACT II presents several new works that were not featured in ACT I – including a large fibreglass thumb, ‘Under The Thumb’ (2017) – that was commissioned by the artists and fabricated by Blackpool Council’s Illuminations Department. The thumb and audio accompaniment ‘Jon and Emma’ (2016) create the presence of a guard of honour at the entrance to the exhibition. The thumb nods to diminishment, pressing down to the floor from high above, with a heavy touch of Python-era Gilliam. The audio is played from a turntable that requires a staff member to operate. In doing so, they are adding a subtle puppeteer element before entering the main gallery.
Blood red candy stripes adorn the walls transforming the Grundy’s Edwardian gallery into a life size Punch & Judy booth interior; an off-kilter ideal homes display. The quadrants of the platform dominating the space contain an abundance of subversive motifs with the works ambiguously recognisable as both Hart and Baldock’s simultaneously. This owes to their undoubtedly well tuned and fruitful relationship; a testament to their craft. All of the works are produced collaboratively, though they seem to seesaw from elevating one artist over the other. The ceramic pairs of socked feet of ‘Here We Go Again’ (2016) each have indented toes and are repeated throughout the main room. On first inspection the indentations could represent expectant, open mouths or the result of a very hard kick, but context suggests they relate specifically to the jaws of a Crocodile. There is an uneasy undertone throughout the exhibition which hints at antagonism or harassment. The socks allude to surveillance and omnipresence, or the shadows of previous audience members.
New video work ‘Love Life’ (2017) which acts as a violent ode to domesticity is intentionally punishing and frustrating. Perforated with genuine hilarity, it documents the day-to-day activities of a ‘real-life’ Punch & Judy, performed by the artists to a pacey rhythm. Phallic motifs are rampantly proliferant. The dark cloud of domestic violence is softened by slapstick but is still difficult to stomach and rightly so.
At the rear, feeling a little annexed, is a display of Punch and Judy artefacts and artworks from the Grundy’s collection. This is a somewhat unique experience as traditionally a Punch and Judy’s Professor’s puppets would be burned upon their death. The Estate of Professor Green. Colin Frederick’s accompanying paintings could be viewed as naïve, outsider art. They are clean and stylised but their cheerful sinisterism is unnerving and a perfect adage to the main event.
LOVE LIFE, ACT II, Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool.
17 June – 12 August 2017.
James Hedley Harper is an artist, curator and writer based in Liverpool.