A Cautionary Tale is Claire Partington’s first solo exhibition at the James Freeman Gallery. Part fairy tale, part social commentary, part art-historical treasure trove, the show exhibits a wide collection of her ceramic figures together with a series of plaques and smaller precious works.
Claire Partington is an artist who revels in historical influences. After graduating from Central Saint Martins in 1995, she went on to work at a number of museums, most notably the V&A. In A Cautionary Tale we see Golden-age Spanish portraiture, eighteenth-century salt glaze bears, Renaissance madonnas and medieval pilgrim badges. We previewed some of the pieces ahead of the opening on the 7th September.
Two of the pieces that stand out (pictured above) are the devotional plaques inspired by the works of the fifteenth-century Italian sculptor, Luca Della Robbia. A single mother cradles her infant; she wears her engagement ring around her neck. On the right, a bull terrier, garlanded with fruits, standing guard. The borders have been decorated with apples, lemons, and pears which would feature in Robbia’s work, but in this case they remind us of Eve and the Garden of Eden as well as the apple which is present in pictures of the Madonna and infant Jesus as a sign of redemption, and as a warning against sin and temptation.
Folklore and fairy tales are an important influence on her work, both for their vivid imagery and for how the narratives mutate over the years and in different contexts. Some works make direct references such as that of a Flemish saint holding a silver nutmeg and a golden pear in allusion to the Tudor nursery rhyme. Other sculptures are zoomorphic reflecting fairy-tale characters. On the above right, a super-gold Goldilocks is seen engaged in a private moment with a towering bear which appears to be dripping in maple syrup. Goldilocks lightly places her palm on top of the bear’s paw, gently pushing away his grizzly advances.
Alongside these are figures that seem to have emerged from an unspecified history; characters surrounded by animal friends drawn from a medieval master’s symbolic lexicon. A dandy king with a white hart standing to attention (above left) – is this Richard II? And in the middle, A matron, making her entrance. Small colourful birds hold up her hair as she holds her squirrel monkey, on a small gold chain. Her outfit – part armour and part tapestry, displaying intricate patterns.
Underpinning all of Claire’s work is a social commentary, particularly about women, and particularly about power. All Claire’s women have attitude; these are women who use their aesthetic presence to project strength and power more than to attract. Contrast this with her dandified male figure counterparts who seem beholden to whimsy. In part, this is a conscious redressing of the gender motifs that have prevailed unquestioned for centuries in folklore and aesthetics. But it is also a means of re-evaluating the beautiful object – that beauty can be far more complex and far more mischievous than it may at first appear.
A Cautionary Tale is on show at the James Freeman Gallery from the 7th to 30th September, 2017
Read our previous Q&A with Claire Partington.