Review | ‘Sleepless’ and ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ at the Mamoth Gallery

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'a dream', acrylic on canvas, 2019. © Lenz Geerk, AP

Charlotte Newman


Dreaming, seeing

Sleepless, Lenz Geerk, Mamoth Gallery, 27 February – 3 April 2020

If on A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Anthony Cudahy, Dominique Fung, Alessandro Fogo, Stanislava Kovalcikova, Jenna Gribbon, Mamoth Gallery, 27 February – 12 April 2020

The figure is wearing pyjamas and a pensive expression. He juggles, or simply tries to catch, a piece of falling fruit, the parent of which coils its leaves against a clouded orange backdrop. He is the subject of A Dream (2019), one of a series of paintings by Düsseldorf-based artist Lenz Geerk. Sleepless, as the name suggests, is the result of its creator’s insomnia, and is one of two exhibitions at the newly-launched Mamoth contemporary gallery in Bloomsbury. Geerk’s work fills the ground level space, with ten paintings in total. They suggest a generous nature – while his subjects may rest, the artist must work.

Viewing Sleepless incites a sense of calm acceptance, the kind that occurs when a dream changes course midway through. Backgrounds recede as dreams do, leaving only the ghosts of landscape. Skin looks soft, clay-like. Bedding is equally touchable. Perhaps such intimacy risks intrusion – though if our gaze disturbs, the subjects do not show it. Geerk agrees that the exhibition is ‘not a painful, traumatic interpretation of insomnia’ and, certainly, the subjects’ vulnerability does not seem to trouble them; they are preoccupied only with their, or Geerk’s, waking dreams.

Dreaming and sleeping, those most private of activities, might be at the heart of his exhibition, but the artist allows for further intimacy with his depiction of the human body. It has been said that Geerk’s work hints at influences such as Picasso and Schiele; but there is also something of Modigliani’s earthy portraiture (though Geerk, who favours a dry, matte look, paints in acrylics rather than oils). Nudes are sensitively wrought; androgyny is occasionally present. The artist plays with gender, but gently.

In Little Death (2019), a reclining male nude is visited by an enormous moth. The nude appears to greet the apparition with more interest than concern; perhaps this ‘little death’ is not unwelcome but sensual (as its meaning in French suggests). Psychology, though, suffuses Geerk’s paintings. Subconscious fears that link the states of sleeping and dying are evident in Hotel (2019), in which an androgynous figure lies half-covered by a chalky sheet. As if patiently awaiting their recumbent effigy, the figure’s hands are clasped. Their eyes are open, if barely.

‘Little death’, acrylic on canvas, 2019. © Lenz Geerk, AP
‘hotel’, acrylic on canvas, 2019. © Lenz Geerk, AP

Sleepless is Lenz Geerk’s first solo exhibition in the UK, following recent international successes. Danny Lamb, one of the curators at MAMOTH, liaised with Geerk on behalf of the gallery to propose an exhibition, a good fit for artist and institution alike. The concept-focused gallery opened their doors to the public on the 27th February 2020.

Mamoth is a listed building, typical of Georgian Bloomsbury, offering two exhibition spaces. Alongside Sleepless, five international artists presently exhibit in the basement. They hail collectively from the US, Canada, Italy and Slovakia, and have exhibited worldwide. The group show If on A Winter’s Night A Traveller is not a direct response to Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name, but it is certainly in-keeping with the author’s question of perspective: ‘Today each of you is the object of the other’s reading, one reads in the other the unwritten story.’ So it is, as the exhibition demonstrates, with the artist, their work, and you. Each is the object of the other’s looking.

Amongst the presenting artists are Anthony Cudahy and Alessandro Fogo. A disjointed reality bridges their work. The eponymous subjects of Cudahy’s Three Dogs (2019) are positioned to the back of a central, human figure, who could either be oblivious to their presence or at ease with it. Cudahy paints in oil and acrylic, and If on A Winter’s Night A Traveller hosts three of his works. His are the colours of a kind reverie – purples and greens, muddied gold. Meanwhile, in Fogo’s cobalt Bruciaspiriti (2020), a cat-like figure spies the profile of another creature at the window. A pair of hands hover above a cabinet, bright amid whirls of smoke. The scene is part-fable, part-familiarity; and there are traces of Leonora Carrington. It appears in oil on linen.

In these times of global instability and fake news, with pandemics threatening and opinion dividing, it is perhaps not surprising that magical realism holds appeal. Amid the alternate realities being exhibited is Jenna Gribbon’s work Small Music Venue Wrestlers (2019), which offers the viewer a sense of playfulness and joy. Two female nudes are locked in motion under the light of a disco ball; the front-facing subject laughs against a background of vivid greens. There appears to be more friendship than fetish here, though Gribbon’s works regularly celebrate sexuality. Meanwhile, the figures in another oil-on-canvas, namely Stanislava Kovalcikova’s After the Rain (2019), are similarly concerned with notions of intimacy. The two couples play at reversal; one pair are seated and clothed, the other stand nude. The fingertips of the standing female meet in apparent self-consciousness, while her male partner places his on her belly. A gap in the gold-decked wall behind them sees an individual female enter the space, with another luminescent figure in her wake. Questions of racial and sexual identity can be read into the piece; it extends the scale of awareness that underpins this group show. Both Kovalcikova and Gribbon exhibit two works apiece in the exhibition.

Dominique Fung’s lone entry is one of voluptuous surrealism. In Inside All of Humanity (2020), amber oils glisten, hands grasp a decapitated bird head, and bodily shapes recline. Here is a dreamscape that dizzies. Does the viewer wish to know what lies at the top of the artist’s staircase? Her choice of title suggests they already have the answer. As is the case in Calvino’s novel, it is you who is on display.

Viewers searching for resolution may be disappointed, but that is not the aim of the narratives that hang on Mamoth’s walls. In them, dreaming provides an escape, but sleep has banished the seeker: reality is cut up; it is rearranged, found and layered; it is darkened or made joyful. Not dissimilar, then, to our own uncertain existence – but these works offer us more than echoes. They offer understanding, too.

Words by Charlotte Newman.

For more information on the exhibitions, visit the Mamoth Contemporary website.


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