On a commercial strip between a kebab shop and pharmacy, there is a black door with the word ‘CHEWDAY’S’ inscribed. Pulling back the black PVC covered entrance, I feel as though I am experiencing a surrealist detournement, stepping into an urban portal or stepping out of the ‘Matrix’ and into a lightless gallery. I am greeted by a series of black rectangular artworks hung on each of the walls. Immaculately placed, it is as if the white cube has gone black. The artworks’ plexiglass surfaces act like mirrors. I stand staring at my own image.
Encouraged by the gallery staff, I explore the exhibition with whatever light is available. In the digital age, the most convenient light source is the mobile phone. Switching on my mobile torch, the spotlight reveals paintings beneath the monochromes; images of vintage female figures, overtly sexualised, sensationalised and often victims of violence. Limb by limb the figures become exposed in the darkness, creating dramatic flashes of a sinister narrative.
Chewday’s London debut features South African born and Los Angeles based artist, Catharine Ahearn. The exhibition titled, ‘Belly-Up Dead’ is a commentary on the legacy of minimalism, the history of avant-garde exhibition strategies and the representation of women in science-fiction print culture.
The exhibition’s strategy of almost complete darkness, brings again to mind the surrealists - specifically, Marcel Duchamp’s historic ‘Mile of String’ installation (1942) and, the Art and Liberty Group’s dark labyrinth exhibitions in Cairo (1940s). Whether, climbing through string, navigating dark mazes, or, in this case, illuminating galleries with our phones, the Ahearn exhibition participates in a history of artistic strategies to obscure the artwork and the gallery from the viewer.
Ahearn’s decision to further conceal the image in black also references art history’s past, with nods to the monochromes of minimalism. ‘Belly-up’ refers to the emptying or underbelly of minimalist work. As she states, the monochromes become ‘effigies’ of the masculinity of minimalism. What does Ahearn replace their machismo with? Despite her feminist intervention, there are interesting similarities between minimalism’s ambitions and Ahearn’s work. From the perspective of art historian Rosalind Krauss, the mission of minimalism was to react against the strong individual experience that was thought to lie underneath abstract painting. Minimalism sought to relocate the focus of the work to a reflection of the outside world. In other words, it is how we appear from outside ourselves - how we are constructed through information, culture and society.
So what do Ahearn’s images reflect? Painted in gouache and acrylic on linen, the illuminated women are in distress; their composition, subject and style inspired by pulp-fiction magazines. Pulp magazines, named for their cheap production, were popular in the first half of the 20th century and offered short, illustrated narratives of adventure and science-fiction. Pulps, one of the precursors to comic books, have often been credited as beacons of anti-censorship and sexual freedom. However, Ahearn’s treatment of pulp imagery brings attention to the female figures themselves. They are not heroines of anti-censorship but hyper-sexualized victims encased in darkness. If the minimalist canvas has been emptied, Ahearn has filled it with a reflection on the history of popular culture’s depiction of women. Sadly, pulp’s violent and sexualised motifs seem more then relevant today in a culture bombarded with similar imagery in all media.
As I switch my mobile flash light off, however, the images disappear and the black square is once more emptied. I am left again, staring at my own reflection in Chewday’s, on Lambeth Walk, in London.