The British seaside town has seen something of a rejuvenation over the past year in queer experimental writing. Isabel Waidner’s observation of seaside towns ‘looming mythical in the British psyche’ is perhaps an understatement when it comes to Blackpool.[i] Famed for its illuminations, pleasure beach, drag shows, arcades and karaoke, today the town can’t be mentioned without bringing to mind its faded grandeur, its Brexit vote and high rates of unemployment and depression. Yet even in austerity, Blackpool sparkles: ‘this bleak crystal seaside town’ is, for poet Caspar Heinemann, a home of the ‘glittering situationist internationale’—a centre for détournement.[ii] Having grown up locally, Garth Gratrix is well aware of these tensions. Shy Girl, his first Blackpool-based solo exhibition, explores them.
For many in Britain, the current moment is one of brutal disillusionment. In the wake of the Brexit vote and each subsequent Tory victory, bigotry and violence have been unleashed and emboldened.
Yet for many more, what’s long been recognised as hiding in plain sight is finally, brazenly, out on display. Much of the work in Shy Girl could be described as hidden in plain sight. In place of publicity banners outside the Grundy hang two of Gratrix’s pieces, ‘Shy Girl meets Dancing Bear at Flamboyant Flamingo’ (2020) and ‘Shy Girl with No Boundaries on Campground’ (2020). In spite of their playful titles, these pieces are easily missed on entering the gallery, partly because of their restrained pallet: dusty shades of grey, teal and off-pink in vertical stripes on sheer fabric. Their transparency mimics the faded grandeur of the seaside. They seem already weather-beaten, attached to their flagpoles on rusted bars.
These pieces are the first encounter with the exhibition’s main motif; Gratrix’s take on the pink triangle. Appearing on a striped background in works such as ‘Shy Girl on Campground’ (2020), the symbol refers back to its sinister origins: the striped prisoner uniforms of Nazi Germany where the pink triangle—die Rosa Winkel—originated. Gratrix’s pink triangle is much paler than previous queer subversions of the symbol (to signal solidarity and liberation). The similarly muted tones of his banners echo their surroundings: the fuchsia lights of Funny Girls (the longest-running drag show in town) and the dark blue sign of the Blackpool Catholic Club. By visually drawing these institutions into the frame, Gratrix brings in all their attendant oppositions. Some of Waidner’s further comments on British seaside towns are pertinent here:
As metaphors seaside towns hold antagonisms, and so does the best contemporary writing and art: queer potential sits with phobia. Openness to outsiders sits with misanthropy. Dependency on the tourist industry sits with xenophobia and racism. The limitlessness of the sea sits with military defence structures, boulders and border controls.[iii]
So too with Shy Girl, in which offering and refusing are both at work, that partly shows and partly conceals the different manners in which we move through different spaces and moments—what we show, what we include or exclude, and what we assume.
Entering the gallery space, it appears, at first, empty. The work evades, playing with the viewer’s expectations and desire. A few pops of colour break up the expanse of white wall, and a square, boxy balcony fills the middle of the room looking down onto the atrium below. Its outer sides are painted a stark white, but inside it is painted with the iconic bright blue of the beach stripes found on Blackpool’s deckchairs. The three towels draped over this short wall are of similar design to the banners outside, but with brighter colours of green, orange and yellow. Tastefully kitsch, the room’s playfulness is tempered by the dark backstory of the pink triangle.
This disquieting edge is carried over into how the viewer is encouraged to navigate the space. Looking down onto the atrium brings the fun of seaside people-watching into the gallery. Unlike the beach-goer, who submits willingly to the gaze of others, the visitors downstairs are not aware they are being viewed from above. The show’s minimalism foregrounds the bodies in it, making the space feel like a stage-set on which we move about, performing ourselves. By playing with our desires to see and be seen, the performativity of our genders and sexualities are brought to the fore. Gratrix uses this space to comment on the objectification of our bodies, and how we willingly subject ourselves to these acts.
The exhibition’s dark undertones are also reflected in the works’ sardonic titles, taken from the names of household emulsions that lend the works their shades. The titular ‘Shy Girl’ is the dusty shade Gratrix uses for his pink triangle. She becomes the show’s protagonist, her very name performing the doublespeak that underpins the works. Here it hints at oppression, even as it is repurposed through camp appropriation. By re-packaging languages of oppression in fun and flirty ways, Gratrix reveals the danger of their everyday use. Yet the composite paint names, when imagined in the context of a normcore couple decking their house out with them are wickedly funny. This is especially clear with ‘Shy Girl meets Dancing Bear at Flamboyant Flamingo’ (the Flamingo in this context referring to the gay nightclub in town), while others read more like photo captions, as with ‘Shy Girl Wave Hello Beside the Seaside’ (2020). In this way, Shy Girl pokes fun at the domestic processes of homemaking and, by extension, heteronormative family structures. The artist questions the gendered stereotypes that persist today by setting masculinised manual labour against the feminised practice of home decor. Gratrix’s continuation of the very working-class, mid-twentieth-century tradition of concealing architectural features is also significant (he spent two weeks in the space installing the waist-high boxing that encases the room’s original balcony), perhaps commenting on having to hide one’s sexual or gender identity from public view.
All the towel-based works have a white cotton trim around their edges and only one is listed as ‘double-sided’, announcing them as non-functional objects in the guise of functional ones. By challenging our assumptions about the purpose of everyday objects, Gratrix completely alters the relationship we have with them. In this way, he illustrates a method of resisting normative stereotyping. This is taken further with the double-sided towel, ‘Shy Girl looks Radiant with a Nice Tan in Pursuit of Happiness By the Seashore’ (2020). Rather than being folded over the balcony flatly like the other two, this work is artfully bunched and draped, in both a painterly and a just-left-here manner. The rendering of the towel as art object speaks more directly to the absence of the body that would use it, and encourages a narrative interpretation from the viewer. Its placement suggests a quick, carefree departure, as if all three towel owners have just gone skinny dipping.
Like the absent characters there’s an elusive or even evasive quality to the exhibition that, I think, is where the show comments on its own historical context. The hiddenness of the work speaks to the oppressive experience of growing up under Section 28 (as the artist did), being denied opportunities to speak or be heard. Indeed, Gratrix’s pink triangle is always half-hidden, partly buried beneath the works’ stripes. Similarly, choosing pale pink instead of the vibrant colours of Pride parades comments both on historical hiddenness and contemporary refusal. The triangle was reclaimed as a symbol of solidarity and liberation from the 1970s onwards, through to its use by ACT/UP and others, but has since fallen prey to consumer capitalism (you can buy, for example, a pair of Nikes sporting the pink triangle). Just as the rainbow flag has been appropriated by banks, Gratrix critiques our complicity in the structures that oppress us which masquerade as liberation.
Referring to Nazi Germany helps to make a very real and urgent connection between the political landscape of 1930s Germany and the political landscapes we currently find ourselves in. The resurgence of violent far right sentiment and organisation is terrifyingly real, and the dog-whistle rhetoric of British politicians enforcing racist, patriarchal power has already shown its effects. Gratrix’s pink triangle, like previous appropriations, is also offered as a plea: that we cannot allow the crimes of the past to be repeated.
Gratrix plans to extend this political message; each weekend of the exhibition the artist will invite queer audiences into the space for a performance piece created in collaboration with another artist. Using public funding to create ongoing, congregational, safe, vibrant spaces during a time of violence, austerity and hate is the kind of intervention that is urgently needed across the country. Shy Girl is not afraid to make those demands, and to remind us why they are so urgent. Yet Gratrix does not forget to be playful: forging flirtatiousness and humour from bleakness, he creates a show of complex humanity, couched within the political.
Shy Girl is on at Grundy Art Gallery, 18 January – 28 March 2020.
A full list of events coinciding with Shy girl can be found here.
Jazmine Linklater works for T-Junction International Poetry Festival and Carcanet Press, and co-organises No Matter, a queer feminist performance series in Manchester.
This review is supported by Garth Gratrix and Arts Council England.
[i] Isabel Waidner, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019)
[ii] Caspar Heinemann, ‘Situationist International Airport’ in Novelty Theory (The 87 Press, 2019)
[iii] Isabel Waidner, ‘Class, queers & the avant-garde in new British writing’, aqnb 2019