There are certain words and phrases—certain names, in this instance, but more on that later—which carry enough of their own baggage as to throw the rest of the sentence they're carried by off-course; they're linguistic Trojan horses, derailing any attempt at rational discussion (an anecdotal example of this is a friend of mine who refuses point-blank to speak the word “croissant,” on the grounds that it forces the speaker to contort their face into an angry shape—she refers to the pastry, instead, as “the C word,” in hushed tones). The reason I mention this phenomenon is this: that whatever I believed about Marvin Gaye Chetwynd's show at Sadie Coles HQ's South Audley Street gallery, I was aware that in recording it, I'd be forced to write down the name “Marvin Gaye” with unusual frequency. This throws a small and absurd semantic spanner into the works. If I were to offer glowing praise, the praise—in my mind's eye—would be re-routed on some level to find itself aimed at the author of "Sexual Healing"; likewise, were I to trash the exhibition, any vitriol would be dampened by its apparent proximity to the mind behind "Got To Give It Up." If this is Chetwynd's intention, I have to say that it's vaguely genius—a piece in The Guardian, written to commemorate her change of name, finds the artist saying that: “If someone calls up the gallery now and asks for Spartacus, they will say: 'Do you mean Marvin Gaye?'” The name itself is a small performance joke with the viewer (or in this case, the caller), which—like the artist's previous moniker “Spartacus”—carries the twin suggestions of both total anonymity and definite pop-culture tag.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Outside view of Sadie Coles HQ, 2014; Courtesy of the Artist and Sadie Coles HQ - South Audley St
And so, avoiding all temptation to type the soul sensation's name a dozen more times in the sprit of sheer pomo absurdity, commence the review. The show itself is interactive, after a fashion, as by the time I reached the space, the super-sized photocopies which adorned the floor were creased and faced and torn around the edges. Inspired by Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (which the artist has illustrated for a recent release by Four Corners books), the images are suitably grotesque and bawdy and caricaturish—including asses and gargoyles and frogs and odd, bulging features. Some of the photographs used for the book's montages have been donated by both friends and acquaintances; even when Chetwynd is choosing to work with image in lieu of performance, a certain level of creative collaboration still finds a way in. Installation shots of the space before public intervention are actually far more beautiful, at least from the camera's more distant viewpoint. Still, the work of Chaucer is uglier viewed in forensic detail than it is as a part of the canon, and nothing more, and perhaps this disarray is part of the exhibition's purpose: a lighthearted look at our own ugly, thundering passage through the world. The effect, after weeks of Joe Bloggs roughness, is one of both slapdash and slapstick practices, an atmosphere apropos for these two hundred riffs on the similarly human Canterbury Tales, at least.
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Bat Opera, 2013; Courtesy of the Artist and Sadie Coles HQ - South Audley St
Less transparent is the inclusion of a series of miniature oil paintings of the gothic community's favourite mammal, the bat. These group "portraits" and close-ups showing the details of their membraned wings line the walls of the downstairs space, on a wallpaper backdrop made from more Chaucer-cut-up ephemera. Enigmatically the release refers to the “genre” Bat Opera, and this is repeated elsewhere by reviewers, but I—perhaps a dunce for even looking—can find no other trace of the phrase, unless it's a coded nod to Die Fledermaus.
(Image on top: Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Bat Opera, 2013; Courtesy of the Artist and Sadie Coles HQ - South Audley St)