Almost three-quarters of older people in the UK are lonely and more than half of those have never spoken to anyone about how they feel, according to a recent survey carried out for the Jo Cox commission on loneliness. Many of the works comprising Lindsey Mendick’s exhibition are the culmination of a series of ceramic workshops she led for Ilford-based over 65 year-olds, including over 70 ceramic sculptures – ranging from Dorothy Gale-style red stilettos and a bird bath, elaborately decorated vases and colourful crockery, fabric clad angel figurines and anthropomorphic animals at sail in a fictional sea – together with painted wall murals, fabric banners, and sculptural display structures. The show marks the grand opening of the new SPACE Studios in Ilford situated in the rear of the Town Hall.
The glass-domed gallery resembles a cross between a brimming curio shop and post-modern stage set. Inspired by SPACE Exhibitions Curator Persilia Caton’s open call, the group works take the form of advice each participant would have given their younger selves. In the middle of the space are two long semi-circular tables edged with green frills, like a woman’s cocktail dress, displaying nearly 30 ceramic works, supported by an assortment of grotesque plaster-cast legs wrapped in snake-like forms and embossed tattoos donning the phrase: “Youth is wasted on the young.”
Created by a diverse cadre of participants, some of the glazed ceramics address sombre themes, others proffer more light-hearted advice but all undermine the equation of truth with beauty, and muddy any clear distinctions among cultural hierarchies and gender roles, authorship and authenticity. A few works are politically minded, such as a dish with “Don’t forget” written beside an image of a yellow ribbon evoking the “Support our troops” slogan. Others incorporate religious elements, such as a roofless church with the words “homelessness, hunger, mental health” scrawled across its walls. Mendick’s mother, a children’s clothes designer and seamstress, has crafted outfits for some of the ceramic figures to wear, while other objects have been provided with bright floral-patterned doilies to sit on.
Mendick’s own piece, standing alongside the other ceramics, is a deformed krater with the words “Garnier Ambre Solaire,” the sun cream brand, embossed on its side, featuring tortured, bikini clad Rodin-esque figures slathering themselves with oil and bathing around its girth. “Art changed for me,” Mendick said during a recent interview, “from being something that seemed so free to something almost slimy, where you were a product.”
On the opposite wall is a painted mural of oversized Tesco Value range items: tissues, washing up liquid, milk chocolate digestive biscuits, salad cream. Scaled up, the blue striped branding, almost resembling prison bars, transforms food enjoyment into guilt. “I utilise foodstuff,” Mendick observed, “in order to talk about weightier issues such as loneliness, female oppression and sexual desire.” “You are not as fat as you think you are,” reads a nearby banner written in silver psychedelic text sewn over an image of what appears to be bushels of uncooked spaghetti and dancing stuffed olive-like eyeballs. Mendick proposes a positive femininity in her work, declaring: “It is political to talk about being a woman who is unashamedly insatiable.”
On the far wall, painted in an institutional viridian lime-green colour, glazed ceramic objects are displayed along a postmodern-style stepped shelving system. A pair of colourful banners, hand-sewn by Mendick, hang snugly above the shelves, each containing advice to herself. Some are droll, others reminders to find balance in life, such as: “Any port in a storm,” “Floss,” or “Be kind to your knees,” written above fabric cut-outs of three nude female silhouettes laid over what appears to be a giant x-ray of a pair of leg bones, focused at the knees.
Taking advice is a notoriously difficult thing to do. It takes time and effort. This “softening up” process, like hands working in moist clay, can be likened to how the ideas expressed in art are rarely meant as immediate salves to democratic, economic or gender inequalities. Like ‘Regrets, I’ve Had a Few,’ such things take time to sink in and break apart these complex and interconnected issues. Mendick’s exhibition recalls the spirit of the empowering Women’s Postal Art Event from the mid-1970s, initiated by artist Kate Walker, which considered, as the artist Monica Ross recounted, “the process of making art work as communication rather than the production of commodities.”
‘Regrets, I’ve Had a Few’ successfully opens up a new channel for cross-generational communion between young and old, the local citizen and topics of national concern, the enthusiast and art world professional, through hand-worked clay and shared interests, as well as fears and desires articulated collectively over the course of many months. The exhibition stretches beyond Mendick’s frequent use of autobiography, on personal depression and anxieties, to include those of the local participants, and transforms being vulnerable together into an empowering, constructive force.