‘Chips and Egg’ quotes a classic piece of British cinema,’ Shirley Valentine’. The film tells the story of a Liverpool housewife breaking out of her world of domestic cliché to embark on a spontaneous Greek holiday and find love and adventure only to end up in another set of clichés. This is precisely the self-digesting system of cultural production that’s light-heartedly recognised by this exhibition. The success of ‘Chips and Egg’ lies in highlighting the beauty and sincerity in seemingly futile repetition for the sake of care, survival, indulgence and art.
The first room shows six of Milly Thompson’s vibrant canvases (2015-2018) juxtaposed to Hayley Tompkin’s subtle sculptural punchlines. Thompson’s paintings are a celebration of the post-menopausal female nude, playing on classic portraiture with a contemporary edge. Her muses are lounging on luscious forest floors, beaches and clouds, surrounded by velvet fabrics, exotic animals, fruits and more luxurious iconography recalling the settings of Dutch still life paintings. Tompkin’s candy-coloured found objects, ‘Tele and Data II’ (2015) and ‘Hammer’ (2011), act as playful domestic props and enclose the paintings in a poetic frame.
The exhibition continues with ‘Unfolding’ (1987), a black and white film by Alia Syed shot in a council laundromat in Deptford, which is not only a visual shift from this dominant colour palette, but also a transition from leisurely subjects to women in the process of labour. Syed explores the act of doing laundry and the site of the laundromat as a context for collective support and community amongst women. The video shows repeating sequences of folding and unfolding clothes, the monotonous cycle of doing and undoing, capturing the very essence of maintenance work. The effect is highly aesthetic, transforming mundane gestures into a kind of dance, a graceful choreography of conviviality and belonging.
In the downstairs gallery, two moving-image works by Cinzia Mutigli and Kate Davis are surrounded by more of Tompkin’s small pieces, ‘Knife II’ (2019), ‘Sleeve’(2019) and ‘Digital Light Pool’ (2018), as well as by her two paintings, ‘Time Holdings I and II’ (2019) on balsa wood sheets. These bright spatial interventions add a different plane not only visually but also temporally. I noticed during my time in the gallery that one might spend around 15 minutes respectively with the two films, and then is invited to an equally engaged way of looking at the paintings by having to encircle these small works to see both sides, instead of simply encountering flatness.
Davis’s film ‘Charity’ (2017) frames breastfeeding as a form of labour. Her dead-pan narration of ironic naiveté and cheeky, subversive eroticism is a meditation on her relationship with her child, navigation of work and her own identity as a woman and a mother against a slideshow of various art historical depictions of women breastfeeding children, men and Gods. Next to the screen are two of her abstract drawings, ‘Flaw I’ and ‘Flaw II’ (2019), after the Roman mosaic, ‘The Unswept Floor’. These address the politics of maintenance work within the domestic sphere and explore the possibilities of disorderliness as defiance.
Mutigli’s film, ‘My Boring Dreams featuring Whitney, Nenah, Kylie and the gang’ (2019) collages clips of female celebrities and advertisements for cosmetics, hygiene and fitness. She reflects on stereotypes – clichés - of female representation in the media and how these shape impossible expectations towards women by means of conditioning. Her poetic narration, occasionally interjected with her long, repetitive lists, follows an interpretation of her dreams (possibly a tongue-in-cheek nod to Sigmund Freud) through various gurus and dream encyclopaedias, including the meaning of dreaming with kittens and Whitney Houston. Her conclusion seems to suggest that the cycle of conditioning is inescapable, even when it comes to the subconscious.
Maike Hale-Jones’s ‘Embers in the Ashes - The Rise and Rise of the Pat Phoenix’ (2019), which accompanies the exhibition, also reflects on such pressures of expectations. It follows the inner monologue of British actress Pat Phoenix, known as one of the first sex symbols of television. Coming to terms with her suicide attempt and several breaking points, it finds Pat in a moment of self-rediscovery as a phoenix to rise again and again, in triumphant repetition.
All in all, ‘Chips and Egg’ is a gracefully nonchalant, humorous and necessary exploration of women’s politics of work, leisure and everything in between.