A wicker basket spits hay across the floor from its gormless mouth. Papier-mâché masks with hooked noses and chins, a pair of hessian arms ending in red hands and a roughly hewn cudgel are nestled in a rustic bed. In the window of PEER, Jonathan Baldock’s ‘The Play Box’ contains the ingredients for a ‘Punch and Judy’ show which visually acknowledge the origins of this British institution in the 16th-century Italian Commedia dell’arte.
The exhibition creates a warped domestic interior that could be inhabited by Punch and his dysfunctional family. In the puppet show a string of fabric sausages are stolen by the crocodile when Punch’s back is turned; here actual sausages are hung from nails on red and white charcuterie string to spell out “Your Back” in Emma Hart’s ‘I’ve Got Your Back’.
On entering the gallery, Baldock’s disturbing ‘A Guiding Hand’ greets you: spindly metal rods support a bloated pink head with a single blinking weepy eye. In the adjacent room Baldock has created domestic appliances from similar pink rods, a washing machine spews clothes across the floor like theatrical guts. Resting on a cooker are pots and pans with tongues for handles, containing faces and rogue eyeballs. On the oven shelves a ceramic flan dish spells out instructions – “do this, eat this, drink this”. The titles of these works, ‘Out damn’d spot’ and ‘It’s not burnt it’s caramelised’ allude to the pressures to perform the role of domestic goddess. Nearby on the floor, Hart’s ‘Locket and Chain’ – an outsized locket featuring a pink baby’s face – more closely resembles a ball and chain. The domestic interior with all its trappings and expectations is heightened into a nightmare scenario.
A collaborative audio piece ‘Jon and Emma’, can be heard throughout the space. The artists repeat each other’s names back and forth with varying emotion, from love to hate, through desperation and desire. While the audio’s melodrama plays out the roles of a romantic relationship, this back and forth also reflects the artists’ creation of the exhibition. Although the rest of the works are attributed individually, they employ such a similar aesthetic – using the same reduced palette of red, pink, white and black – that it’s not easy, or perhaps necessary to distinguish between the two makers.
The audio plays from a hi-fi deck, complete with a pair of knitted breasts protruding cheekily from the tape decks. Throughout, the double-entendres and slapstick comedy of the bawdy British seaside are emulated, with Hart’s contributions to the exhibition often employing puns. In ‘Boohoo Boob Tube’ two white tubes hang down transforming into a pair of pendulous breasts and in ‘Here we go again’ pairs of disembodied feet have open nagging mouths for toes. Yet in all its lurid colour and playfulness, it is the sinister edge that prevails in ‘Love Life’. Rather than the domestic being a space of nurture and safety, it becomes one of conflict, violence and friction in a struggle to redefine roles associated with gender, love and parenthood.