Art about art – Mel Brimfield: Between genius and desire at Ceri Hand Gallery

Mel Brimfield, Vincent (Portrait with Fur Hat and Bandaged Ear), 2012

Mel Brimfield makes art about art in a very different way to others that I’ve written about here before (the reworkings of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress by David Hockney and Yinka Shonibare or Gregory Crewdson’s remained Edward Hopper picture, for instance). As with Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Brimfield’s work is performative but there’s a humour in the work that feels more connected to Nina Katchadourian’s Self-portrait as Sir Ernest Shackleton though in Brimfield’s work the performances are collaborations between artist and performer. The resulting works – photographs, videos and sculpture – reference not only the artists Brimfield is looking at but also our ideas about art and the way the artists have been represented in films. Brimfield’s exhibition Between Genius and Desire at Ceri Hand Gallery Project Space – the gallery’s first show in London – gave me a lot to both think and smile about.

Vincent (Portrait with Bandaged Ear), 2012

Brimfield worked with performer Dickie Beau on works about both Vincent Van Gogh (as performed by Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life) and Jackson Pollock (as played by Ed Harris in Pollock) to produced both still photographs and video works – Between Genius and Desire – Vincent (after Kirk Douglas) and Jackson (after Ed Harris), both 2012 – in which Dickie Beau lip-syncs to an edit from each film’s soundtrack to produce extraordinary monologues as a curious versions of the two artists.

Clement Greenberg – Lee Krasner = Jackson Pollock, 2011

Pollock is also the subject, at one remove, of another work. Clement Greenberg – Lee Krasner = Jackson Pollock, in which actress Joanna Neary plays Krasner, is a monolgue delivered from a dark, damp basement studio in which she has been trapped for two days, pushed downstairs we suspect by Greenberg as she isn’t young enough or beautiful enough to be ‘seen on Pollock’s arm at this stage in his career’. This, I think, was the piece I enjoyed the most in the main for the way it uses humour to unpick the sexism and machismo of American modernism; Neary’s performance is both touching and funny but it’s Brimfield’s script that really makes me laugh, especially I think in the way that references to Pollock are invariably couched in terms normally used to talk about the behaviour of a dog.

He Hit Me, 2011

In He Hit Me… and it Felt Like a Kiss (2011), which is projected within an installation of stuff (bits of sculpture made by Brimfield, magazines and accumulated objects as a reference to the way artists’ studios are sometimes preserved for posterity) called The Sculptor’s Studio (2012), singer Gwyneth Herbert performs a reworked version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Memories  as a half-carved sculpture emerging from a block of marble but wistfully regretting her abandonment by the sculptor having been relegated to storage when he became interested in abstraction. The inner life of a sculpture is a bizarre idea – used more commonly perhaps as toys come to life in children’s stories – but it talks of male sculptor and his relationship with the female body he is carving in a way that is both funny and slightly creepy.

As an exhibition that is essentially all art about art this is unexpectedly entertaining. It gave me quite a lot to think about in terms of the work it is referencing and in Brimfield’s approach to making art. There is a gathering together of materials that in some ways put me in mind of aspects of The Bruce Lacey Experience and the way ideas flow between pieces here made me wish I’d had a little more time.

Mel Brimfield: Between Genius and Desire is at Ceri Hand Gallery Project Space, 71 Monmouth Street, London WC2H 9DG until 18 August 2012

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