People say you rule me with one wave of your hand~
Darling, it’s grand
They just don’t understand …
‘Easy Living’ is a song that has become part of the American musical canon. Most closely associated with Billie Holiday, it has been covered countless times by various artists. In Katie Schwab’s ‘Covers’, we eavesdrop on a rehearsal of the tune by Deep Throat Choir, an all female ensemble. The video focuses on their hands, legs and feet, as they tap along to the beat of the song. Other shots pick out bold patterns in their clothing: the sole of a Reebok trainer, pinstriped trousers. While we can hear their voices, at no point do we see these women’s faces.
‘Covers’ is one of three works that comprise Schwab’s commission for ‘Jerwood Solo Presentations’. ‘Lines’, a curtain made from dust sheets and covered in a blue-striped print, runs the length of the gallery wall, providing a backdrop for ‘Stripes’, a set of three tables and stools. In ‘Lines’, the double meaning of ‘cover’ is evoked, not only in the work’s function, but also the prints themselves. Schwab has used these objects to pay homage to the designs of Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, a printmaking duo that worked together in the interwar period. ‘Lines’ is also homage to foot pressure printmaking, a method employed by the female-run Footprints studio, established around the same time. In doing so, Schwab shows reverence not only to these designs and processes but also to the women themselves. While craft making is so often sidelined in art history, Schwab celebrates the domestic and intimate nature of these works and their associated histories.
This takes us back to the video. The focus on hands and feet seem to similarly pay tribute to their printmaking techniques. And a closer listen to the dialogue reveals a deep sense of comradery, as the members of the choir chat, laugh and sing with one another. It is not hard to imagine a similar scene taking place between Barron and Larcher or at Footworks. And between these snippets of song and speech are intervals of hand-scratched film, bright bursts of colour and line that punctuate the vignettes, a wave of Schwab’s hand brought to the screen.
‘Jerwood Solo Presentations’ displays three new commissions by artists in the early stages of their careers. There is no underlying theme that joins the works, with the only similarity being the artists’ common engagement with video. Rachel Pimm’s installation tackles ecological themes and ‘Macrobeads’, a video montage of film and photography, is at the centre of the installation. Pimm uses the motif of a black circle to tie these shots together. Her use of analogy to tease out the many inconsistencies at the heart of her investigation into water ecology is particularly compelling. In one shot, a skin care advertisement shows the effects of microbeads in cleaning out pores. We are next shown images of black balls covering the surface of a reservoir, a practice used in California to decrease evaporation of their dwindling water supplies during recent droughts. The contrast between the idea of personal cleansing, and the harmful and corrosive impact this has upon the environment, is very effective.
The video is displayed in a spa-like installation: multiple lightboxes that resemble pools and water features, again filled with the ubiquitous black spheres that inhabit the video. We hear trickling and bubbling water, although this sounds closer to a water irrigation system than that of a spa. While the desired effect is to create a sense of sanctuary that jars with the message underlying Pimm’s work, it lacks the frenetic energy of the video. It is this sense of instability and chaos that gives Pimm’s ecological message its immediacy, and hits home for the viewer the ticking time bomb faced in regards to our water ecology.
In ‘Apologies’, Lucy Parker continues her research into the practice of blacklisting construction workers in the UK. The bulk of the video takes place in a lecture hall, in which Dr Mihaela Mihai debates the value of public apologies in light of a recent one made by the construction industry to victims of blacklisting. Unlike a typical lecture, two of these workers join students in the discussion. While this is a scenario constructed by Parker, what strikes the visitor is the openness and honesty in these exchanges. Semantics are important here, as the group questions both the veracity and usefulness of the public apology, in particular picking apart the language used. For example the word ‘blacklisted’ is never used by the industry in their admission of guilt, which instead uses the term ‘vetting processes’ to describe their actions.
In a moving moment, Stephen Kennedy describes his own experiences to the group. After taking part in strikes that were widespread during the recession in the construction industry during the 1990s, Kennedy was unable to find steady work to support his family, eventually leading to the breakdown of his relationship. When Mihai lists the reasons given for blacklisting, these range from the unfair, to the nonsensical, to (in Kennedy’s case) the nonexistent. So can an apology ever make up for the irreparable damage caused to him and thousands of others like him? It is hard to see how it ever could, thus leading Mihai to ask the group whether we should do away with such apologies altogether. At that point, the screen goes black, Mihai’s question made rhetorical. This is a thought provoking video, made all the more powerful by the inclusion of blacklisted workers, providing moments of humanity in stark contrast to the faceless corporations being discussed. It is a strong finish to an equally strong show; expect to hear more of and from these three adept artists.