Natura Morta at Ilenia
- Friday dispatch
- Read Time: 5 minutes
Ilenia, 1A Old Nichol Street, London, E2 7HR
19 January – 9 March 2024
Ilenia gallery is just six months old, and the current show is its fourth since opening at the time of Art Basel last year. Situated on the first floor of a former warehouse building, it is a stone’s throw from Kate MacGarry gallery and Brick Lane. The gallery has a wonderful high ceiling and enormous windows that look out towards the 19th century redbrick architecture of Arnold Circus, one of painter Leon Kossoff’s most famous motifs.
The current international group show, Natura Morta, has less to do with a traditional vanitas genre and leans more towards an uncanny take on the natural world. The press release, written in an inimitable style by Charlie Fox, takes the form of a dialogue between a fox and a tree. It ends:
TREE: Like, do you think any of this has to do with our vexed and apocalyptic relationship to nature right now?
FOX: Aw, possibly maybe. But a lot of other stuff, too. I wouldn’t want to wreck the mystery, and they’re very mysterious works.
The juxtaposition of the sculptures by Aaron Angell in the centre of the space and the drawings of Javier Barrios just beyond sets the tone. Each is, in its own way a missive from a parallel universe but so materially different in every other respect that they create a fantastic dynamic between them. Angell’s sculptures were fired in the Oxford Anagama kiln in the autumn last year, using a centuries-old method that requires literally days of stoking with firewood. In the three pieces here, ropes coil and stony flowers bloom from craggy surfaces rich in feldspar. One could imagine these objects having been chipped off a barnacled shipwreck among the bones of ancient mariners. Or perhaps the plants blossom only in the cold moonlight of another planet altogether – they offer no explanation of themselves.
Mexico City based Javier Barrios’ trio of drawings fascinate with the delicacy and precision of their draughtsmanship. What at first glance are careful botanical drawings of orchids rapidly reveal themselves as far weirder than scientific. Orchids are sluttish at the best of times, but here they leer back at us with narrowed eyes over their pink-flushed and fur-trimmed sexual organs, a half-threatening come-on from the rhizomatic wood-wide-web. Barrios’ drawings come trailing stylistic hints of Japanese woodblock prints via contemporary animé, with a strong consciousness of the extractivist colonialism that underpins botanical illustration of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Matt Copson’s Cross-Polluted Lover’s Chasm, 2023, is a glass sculpture illuminated by pulsing, colour-changing LED lights. Within it is an image of deadly datura, a plant with psychoactive properties, as well as a string of colourful common names, like moonflower and devil’s weed. In Copson’s piece, the plant is trapped in a tangle of barbed wire, with cartoonish clouds floating in the background, exuding unarticulated forebodings.
A pair of drawings by the late Viennese artist Birgit Jurgenssen (1949-2003) tend more towards a recognisably surrealist imaginary. In her 1971 drawing Shoe Design 1, a woman’s boot appears to burst at the seams under the pressure of the luxuriant moss growing out of it. Dream symbolism pervades the second, untitled drawing from 1973, in which a table with human female legs has kicked over its chair and rent itself asunder. Set in an empty room, the architecture is reminiscent of Leonora Carrington’s drawings of the 1950s in which women and girls enact dramas in oneiric domestic settings. Jurgenssen taught alongside Maria Lassnig and Arnulf Rainer at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna. Her work was included in Cecilia Allemani’s Milk of Dreams exhibition at the last Venice Biennale in 2022.
Joanna Piotrowska and Formafantasma have collaborated to produce works whose flawless production belies the highly charged circumstances of their conception. In 2015 Piotrowska was arrested on suspicion of spying in Nagorno-Karabakh, the contested border territory between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The steel tray frames created by Formafantasma feature prominently screwed-down panels – a reference to the fixed furniture in interrogation rooms. The artist has used photographs of the roses that grow everywhere along this border in a self-censoring act of recording the least contentious subjects. Nature here is the innocent bystander, evoked in all its fragility, trapped within the security apparatus of the frame.
Calvin Marcus’ diminutive ceramic head with its insolent, lolling tongue, was conceived as a piece in a fictive board game that never materialised. Marooned in the world and divorced from the stratagems that gave it purpose, it becomes something more like a trickster figure, punctuating the group conversation.
Finally, Megan Rooney’s works offer a counterpoint to the rest of the show. The artist usually works on a far larger scale, calibrating her canvasses to the span of her own arms. Here, she presents a pair of paintings specially made for this exhibition, their smaller scale doing nothing to undermine the artist’s powerful colour palette and the intensity of her mark-making. It is the titles of the paintings, Chasing Sun (mine) and Chasing Sun (yours) that do the work to draw artist and viewer together, implicating them in a chase of unspecified purpose.
This deftly composed, cross-generational exhibition does indeed speak to our vexed relationship to nature now; flashes of hallucinogenic surrealism perhaps reflecting a kind of incredulity at the scale of damage that humans have wreaked on the natural world, when, in many ways, we are only beginning to understand how it works.
1A Old Nichol Street, London, E2 7HR
Opening Times: Wednesday to Saturday 12-6 pm
Exhibition open until 9 March 2024