Text by Hannah Elizabeth Allan.
The Varieties at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery offers varied and interdisciplinary perspectives on performance, reviving and exploring Vaudeville comedy, co-curated by artist Harold Offeh and Clarissa Corfe (Contemporary Art Curator at the Harris). The show is played out via a series of tensions, between the absent performance versus the static art object, between the then and now of performance practice. The exhibition space itself is sectioned into two rooms, creating a literal division between the on-stage space of the main room to the altogether more shambolic backstage area.
One of the most striking pieces in the show is Florence Peake’s Satin Boots, Fiery Horses. The filmed performance work offers a complex narrative based on George Eliot’s Adam Bede, with Peake working and describing characters from the work in clay. We are given a close up shot of the material being worked with the narration of the artist mixing with the audible cracks and squelching of vivid hot pink false nails working into the pliable surface. There is a sense of viscerality and immediacy to the piece, which is arresting in the context of the show; it is a work that keeps drawing you back. Peake displays the ability to marry intensity and complexity alongside a sense of irony and tragi-comedy.
Also present in the main gallery space, and particularly setting the visual tone of the space is Offeh’s sculptural series O-N-D-A, which creates colourfully lit mini-stages spelling out the surname of Preston’s clown, filmmaker, and later mayor, Will Onda. The work creates a space for interaction, audience members appear comfortable sprawling, resting, jumping – performing themselves in and about these structures.
CURTAINS by Andrea Booker is a piece that carves up the space, creating a literal barrier above the heads of viewers. The found sign is hung as a marker between the performer’s private space and the public stage of the main room. Although some of the bulbs have failed, we can clearly read the sign’s text as the marker for what might be in this space – heavy drape curtains denying us entry to the space beyond.
The lights are brighter here, fluorescent and cheap rather than offering the alluring glow of Offeh’s work. Chipboard stands display elements of the Onda archive held by the Harris. Sparse tokens of the life of the performer: posters, photographs and tickets. Adding to this sense of fragility and futility is the lean to painted wooden scaffold of signs and images making up You’ll Never Learn by David Mackintosh. Potentially part finished scenery, or glimpses of the moments passed in this liminal space.
Back into the main space of the gallery, Offeh’s series of short performance films demonstrate most clearly the ideas tested throughout The Varieties. In pieces such as High Bar Offeh attempts to mimic the actions of the trained gymnast by using children’s playground equipment. This playful series of films includes a series of potential entrances to be made through a doorway, and offers the viewer a repertoire of overtly dramatised facial expressions. These works navigate the use of historic research of lost performance styles as a base for contemporary work, without giving up any sense that the practice itself remains heartfelt, true to the spirit of the original, and far from kitsch.
Photograph courtesy of Alexander Cutler.
Hannah Elizabeth Allan is an artist and writer based in Lancashire.
The Varieties, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.
12 February – 11 April 2015.