There’s an orgy of misdemeanours taking place—breasts are being grabbed and bottoms are being fondled, lecherous eyes are smirking and clownish faces are locking lips. It’s hard to tell where one mound of flesh ends and the next begins. Cat Roissetter’s exhibition ‘English Filth’ at The Cob Gallery is populated by some disreputable characters who look suspiciously like the lively heroes of fairy-tales and bedtime stories—gone feral. For Roissetter, the famous British sense of propriety is a façade for all this carousing. And it’s hard to disagree when the story of a frolic with a pig’s heads by the political elite is still fairly recent news.
London-born Roissetter graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2011 and, alongside her own work, assists British artist duo Jake and Dinos Chapman. The ghoulish comedy of Roissetter’s drawings resonates with the brothers’ notoriously gruesome and puerile scenes, in which toys enact the murder of Nazi soldiers and monstrous child mannequins are fused together. But in Roissetter’s hands, tales of debauchery are matched by the disintegration of materials. It’s not just Roissetter’s subjects that are morally bankrupt—her media is falling apart too.
Roissetter has always distorted and destroyed her materials—relishing the results of bleaching her paper in the sun, dipping it in an acid bath or letting it cover in dust. This transformation reveals how Roissetter treats her paper, graphite and crayon as conceptual tools that mimic the way in which her subjects descend into madness and mayhem. At The Cob Gallery, Roissetter takes her approach one step further by allowing the sensuous curves of bodies to coalesce and dissolve in a haze of turpentine, and linseed and cooking oils—lines of bright crayon are now amplified by the slip and slide effect of this ground. The dreamy quality of Roissetter’s oily foundation, worked and reworked over time, adds to the sense of swollen flesh disintegrating, just as British politesse unravels into an orgy. Curiously, this handling of materials, reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler’s canvases soaked in pigments thinned with turpentine, means that Roissetter’s drawings will continue to change over time.
In ‘Study for King’s Maid Dream II’ (2020), the supple silhouettes of bodies entwine and caress. Dimpled forms suggest the throbbing nature of flesh; on the left, a hand appears from the clamour to cup a breast. It’s the lusty King and his saucy maid, lost in a bacchanalian revelry. In the finished ‘King’s Maid’s Dream’ (2020), the vision is more elusive, but in the centre, the ridiculous monarch with a flaccid penis comes face to face with his bloated seductress. In ‘Eglantine’ (2020), a clothed body is locked in an erotic embrace with another voluptuous nude in acid green, while in ‘One Lover Softly’ (2020), a large pink hand envelops a desirous couple in the throes of a kiss. Sultry acts similarly abound in ‘Slow Poke’ (2020), as body parts manifest amidst the throng to clasp onto any other pieces of flesh they can find. There’s also something endearingly joyful and childlike about Roissetter’s characters, comparable with the cancan dancers and carousers from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of the Moulin Rouge, after a few too many absinthes. One of Roissetter’s lewd encounters even seems to personify the drink—‘Green Goblin’ (2020).
If all this cavorting feels slightly ludicrous, it’s because Roissetter doesn’t want us to see her bulging figures as erotic at all. In her whimsically perverted world, Roissetter’s characters are equal parts sexually-charged, bloated, unsightly and absurd. ‘English Filth’ is a kind of contemporary reimagining of William Hogarth’s ‘Progresses’—darkly satirical parodies of 18th century society, filled with aristocrats behaving badly. Roissetter explains that her affable rogues, in turn, are a response to the very English proclivity for making nudity shameful—meant to be seen by squinting through keyholes or in the guise of grand historical and mythological narratives. There’s a certain power to Roissetter’s focus on nakedness here or, at least, a derisive attitude towards the male artists that have addressed the sordid subject before.