Garth Gratrix and James William Murray are both coastal artists based in Blackpool and Brighton respectively—towns as different as they are tethered by their celebrated queer scenes and histories. Living and working on the periphery of land has engendered, for both artists, explorations into the peripherality of matter and queer materiality. Relations between viewer and object, language and physicality, bodies and space are the subjects of their collaborative exhibition Many Splendored Things at Abingdon Studios.
On first entering the space the slipperiness of the exhibition’s title makes itself apparent. I had been expecting many splendored things, but the sparseness of the gallery inferred a misreading. Being met instead by an intensely minimalist show, each artwork became a many-splendored thing. To settle on either understanding of the title, I came to realise, would be to misinterpret: the slippages and contradictions embedded in the phrase are integral to the inner workings of the exhibition. Borrowed from Susanna Paasonen’s essay ‘Many splendored things: Sexuality, playfulness and play’, her definition of playfulness helps to situate the artists’ investment in minimalist principles. ‘Playfulness here translates as a mode, capacity and orientation of sensory openness, curiosity and zest for variation that precipitates improvisation in acts of play.’ It is for me—as a body and a viewer—to navigate these objects and their multiplicities, to experience the relationships that the space and artworks offer and create.
The most striking thing in the gallery space is the floor, which Gratrix has painted with a bright pink household emulsion named ‘Flamboyant Flamingo’. A nod to Blackpool’s long-running gay nightclub, Flamingo, the eggshell finish also has us treading on the puns which abound in Gratrix’s work. His colour choices are led by their titles rather than made as aesthetic decisions, and his second piece here, ‘Shy Girl (Flamboyant Flamingo, Crown of Feathers)’ (2021) also follows this methodology. A reiteration of motifs in work previously exhibited at the nearby Grundy Gallery, here the piece is a navy blue and pink striped beach towel. ‘Shy Girl’ is the shade used for the half-visible pink triangle that appears to be tucked beneath the stripes. The piece both buries and reveals symbolic histories of coding through its use of the pink triangle, the resemblance the towel has to a flag or a handkerchief, and the stripe as variously beach-chic, football stripe, or prisoner of war uniform. Gratrix’s work cleverly carries this darker undertone within a bright, fun and flirty aesthetic.
By contrast, Murray’s palette is restrained: stereotypically masculine colours and materials including wood, metal, and grey linen give his works an industrial feel. An installation wall which features two pieces, ‘Touched III’ (2021), a framed photographic print of the artist’s hand, and the sculpture ‘Proportion Study with Brass Rods’ (2021), a glass jar holding three metal rods inside, is reminiscent of a workshop or garage where traces of labour are left behind. An untreated wooden shelf is covered with flecks of paint; a metal plate bears evidence of touch in smudgy fingerprints, echoing the dusty footprints the eggshell floor now carries. Absent bodies are mapped throughout the exhibition, from Gratrix’s abandoned towel to the photographed hand’s invisible body just beyond the camera’s lens. Murray’s work utilises the materials of labour and production, turning them into useless objects. ‘Proportion Study’ simultaneously resembles a pot of paintbrushes and a fragrance diffuser in a living room or shop window (think The White Company), subtly probing ideas of masculinity and homemaking. This touch of camp subversion complicates what I first mistook as a rather sombre contribution.
The juxtaposition of differing aesthetics is key to Many Splendored Things, which attempts to hold contradiction throughout. These ideas may have arisen from a text both artists were reading in the early stages of planning the collaboration: Queer Formalism: The Return (2021) by William J. Simmons, an expanded version of his essay ‘Notes on Queer Formalism’ originally published in Big Red and Shiny (2013). Here, Simmons develops a loose definition of queer formalism, navigating the paradoxes and tensions of queerness in formalist art practices, alongside broader considerations of queer categorisation and definition in both cultural and personal applications.
Both Gratrix and Murray engage with ideas of categorisation by working within loosely formulated linguistic or numerical constraints. In Paasonen’s terms, they are ‘carrying out playful scenarios under more or less clearly defined sets of rules and guidelines’. This is, I think, where the peripheries of matter start to be felt, as language (as material) works to open up or divert attention from the formal objects on display. Gratrix, for example, often works with a ‘nine-inch rule’, derived from the inevitably intimate lines of questioning followed on apps like Grindr. His ‘Shy Girl’ towel hangs from a diagonal rail which is nine inches off horizontal, allowing the fabric to bunch at one end, its tip brushing the pink floor beneath. The use of anatomical ideology here, even as an imposition, nevertheless gives rise to this flirtatious contact. The bar itself is bronze powder-coated steel (a reference to a bronzed, beach-ready body), with bronze casting linking overtly with Murray’s two sculptures, ‘Trio II’ and ‘Trio III’ (2021). Formed each of three metal rods pointing vertically out of flat, linen-covered boxes sitting directly on the floor (think Carl Andre), these pieces recall the braces or struts used to support classical statuary—but here support is made monument in the absence of the sculpted body. ‘Trio II’ measures half of ‘standard male’ height; ‘Trio III’ is half that height again. Although Murray’s three ‘Trios’ nod to Gratrix’s ‘nine-inch rule’, neither artist’s titling reveals the constraints employed in their construction.
Playing with language’s ability to deceive or confess in this way, the artists metaphorically navigate the constraints of labels on our identities. Their formal rules are, in one sense, as arbitrary as being categorised as one gender over another or being labelled with a sexual orientation. Tension thus arises in the fact that our genders and sexualities are so often integral to how we live our lives—which is to say that the artists’ constraints are simultaneously contingent and necessary. This is also, therefore, about the difficulty implicit in demands for queer visibility, which are apt to slip into spectacle. Thus where Murray conceals, Gratrix jokes and puns, playing up to the audience. It’s the linguistic, perhaps even poetic, dimension of their objects that temper our relationships with them. Through coding and suggestion, the paradoxes inherent to lived experience are teased out through queer sensitivities to minimalist, constraint-based practices.
If this all sounds a little like I’m ‘reading too much into’ the work, it’s worth noting that the exhibition is accessed via Abingdon Studios’ reading room. Here Gratrix and Murray have laid out multiple texts which inform their practices. There are books on artistic disciplines and curation, cultural historical texts, novels, and publications by the artists, alongside foundational queer theory by the likes of Foucault, Butler and Sedgwick, among others. As Simmons comments, ‘Queer formalism is not entirely theoretical, but it knows theory like the back of its hand’. I don’t think this means the work on display can’t stand alone without the texts from the reading room. Rather, I think the artists have offered their contexts as another loose constraint, defining the boundaries of play before we become physically implicated in the space.
Many Splendored Things in fact begins in the doorway between the reading room and project space, with a display case including two sculptures: Gratrix’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ (2021), a stack of five yellow bricks, and Murray’s ‘Fist with Sovereign’ (2021), a marbleised resin cast of the artist’s hand. Returning to this case brought the exhibition to life for me. Gratrix’s piece is built of Oasis blocks—a foam-like sponge used by florists for its water-retention, which is often used in funeral arrangements. Displayed beside Murray’s grey, stone-like hand, again recalling classical statuary, this pairing opens fraught conversations around memorialisation. At a moment when so many lives have been lost to the coronavirus pandemic, and conversations around HIV and AIDS have been renewed, the ways in which we commemorate and mourn are open to rethinking. Since protesters in Bristol tore down and threw the statue of slave-owner Edward Colston into the harbour, the ways we learn to remember are up for discussion too. That is, the ways we live are open to change. ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ queries ideas about parade and pop culture (the yellow brick road), and what ‘happiness’ might mean—especially where queer social or sexual life might be risky or even dangerous, such as cruising in-person or online. To quote Paasonen again: ‘Like human actions in general, [play] can be asymmetrical, risky, hurtful, violent and damaging in its reverberations and the pleasures it offers’. As such these works demand complex engagement from their viewers; they create contradiction and challenge.
While the works aren’t overtly about sex, they both infer it, questioning whether ‘queerness’ as a rubric forces readings of sex onto the work. Each of Gratrix’s floristry blocks bears the imprint of a knee. The mind might jump to blowjobs, or it might jump to the myriad symbolism the knee was imbued with throughout 2020, linked to the brutal murder of George Floyd and taking the knee in solidarity with oppressed peoples. The same is true of Murray’s fist: a symbol of sex, yes, of violence too, but also of solidarity. His sovereign ring also speaks to class relations (the monarchy reference echoed and subverted in Gratrix’s ‘Crown of Feathers’ colour) and the value afforded to ‘sovereignty’ in recent British political discourse. In short, this display case speaks directly to the intersection of queer experience with race and class against a background of art historical references and historical, social contexts. It is deceptive in its minimalism and powerful in its reach.
I initially found the exhibition a little underwhelming: too cool, too sparse. But the space drew me into bodily relation with the works, unfurling its politics subtly, slowly. Many Splendored Things is clever, it successfully foregrounds contrast and tension as sites of generative difference. While there are many points of harmony between Murray and Gratrix’s artworks—where gender and sexuality are explored through formalist attention to material, colour, shape and line—there are also many points of divergence. Murray’s contribution feels somewhat more traditional in its engagement with canonical art history (his use of linen and references to classical statuary, for example) and stereotypical ideas around beauty and masculinity. In contrast, Gratrix plays more overtly with camp comedy, posing questions about how we access desire and pleasure through fun and playfulness (shown most overtly in his titling). Murray favours hard materials; Gratrix, absorbent ones. If the body is at the centre of both artists’ thinking, only in Murray’s work is it ever visible—Gratrix’s body is always inferred or departed. This representational flirtation is one of the major differences in their work, as well as one of the major similarities through their use of trace, touch, and mapping. As ever with successful minimalist artwork, the exhibition is deceptively simple and opens wickedly proliferating points of connection and conversation. It is testament, therefore, to Murray and Gratrix’s abundant minimalisms and queer engagements with formalism, that there remains, for another time, much more to be said.
Many Splendored Things is on display at Abingdon Studios 17 May – 7 June 2021, followed by a second collaborative exhibition with James William Murray, Object Q/The Pursuit of Happiness, Gallery DODO, Brighton, 29 June – 28 July 2021.
Jazmine Linklater is a poet and writer based in Manchester, where she works for Carcanet Press and co-organises the queer feminist performance series No Matter. Her most recent pamphlet, Figure a Motion, is published by Guillemot Press.
This review is supported by Abingdon Studios and Arts Council England.