on Lindsey Mendick
The boys at school used to say: ‘Never trust something that can bleed once a month and never die.’ We are used to hearing it. Any woman disrupting the cadence of ‘same-old same old’ by being exceptional seems consigned to the destiny of fabled monsters – burning, exile, disfiguration. As artist Lindsey Mendick notes, women have to do surprisingly little to be cast out or wind up with ill fates.
Directly challenging this, Mendick plainly offers herself up as martyr in the mixed media installation The Sinner (2022), which begins her three-part exhibition at Carl Freedman Gallery ‘Off With Her Head’. In this particular work, a mannequin kneeling in obeisance with hands clasped is animated by a projection of Mendick’s face. With Mendick’s characteristic candour, the artist frankly reels off shameful incidences, her every line starting with: ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned....’ The exhibition opens with moments from her edifying past – the time she drunkenly pissed the bed; the time(s) she lied about having cystitis to get out of work; the time she ate cold pasta out of the bin; the time she dressed as a serial killer for Halloween, which she’s deleted all photographic evidence of for fear of being cancelled. The act of confession is upturned as Mendick absolves herself through her transparency; the one-on-one confessional booth of the priest is instead usurped by the one-to-many power of the artist, and the consecrated realm of autonomy Mendick makes of the gallery. No longer is the economy of redemption tethered to the privatised domain of the religious institution, and it is anyway not Mendick’s interest to apologise for these so-called misdeeds.
We depart the first room, leaving behind the artist who continues her looped confession, but are led astray by clay figures. Lest we forget, Mendick’s primary medium for long now has been clay. Clay is the stuff that it is said Adam was born of, for Eve was just his supernumery bone. The creationist myth invokes the age-old binarisms of superior/inferior, essential/inessential, which make marked differences in our status and states of being even today. Preposterous as it is that we continue to live out injustices of religious myth, or be condemned by puritanical outlooks, the divide persists in many more areas than I care to name. The irony of the artist’s maybe unconscious, maybe strategic, use of clay to fashion transgressive scenes of womanhood is therefore not lost on me. As feminist discourse will avow, woman continues to fight the side of the underdog, the degenerate, the miserly and forgotten – for she too still revels in the Otherness that has plagued her since the beginning of creation, a tale as insipid and old as time. The hard fired clay stills the liquid dream of myth as it is realised by the artist’s hand. However, on this occasion, clay is not the birth material of Adam but instead subverted for the under-recognised story of Eve.
I Drink To You Elizabeth (2022), Ceramic, faux feather and LEDs, 20 x 58 x 42 cm
We are still standing at the entrance of an impressively rendered makeshift pub, when red-eyed, ruffle-clad pussycats frolicking around its back alleys lead us off course. Tabloid trash featuring incendiary headlines surrounds them, complementing their playful poses and lit cigarettes; all of which unambiguously points to the artist’s preoccupation with the shame-culture that follows women. And the ceramic cats – indomitable familiars of the witch – gesture towards the witch-hunt that is our modern-day tabloid-frenzied, sensation-driven media circus. Following the bushy, faux-feathered tailed creatures around the back of the pub structure, one finds small dioramas built into the interiors of wine crates. Momentarily ‘outside’ the dark brood of the previous room, we review a history of woman’s struggle incarnate in the tableaus, from a sultry, streaked-blonde Christina Aguilera in a boxing ring; to the trial of prostitute and transgender woman Mary Jones; to Judith beheading Holofernes; to Margate’s own Tracey Emin crouched on the floor amidst her paintings. For how immersive the entirety of the exhibition is, the back alleys of the pub negotiate a space for reflective pause, the miniatures behaving like storyboarded doll houses that feel as far away as they do possessable and near.
Enter the pub; a horror show that reminisces the artist’s childhood memories of the Jack the Ripper experience at the London Dungeon. The pub’s antechamber serves numerous indigestible terrors which are lubricated by the fantastical – an exaggerative grotesquery which cartoonishly cloaks abject tragedies that might otherwise be rejected by instinct. Tissue boxes bear the words NESCITUR IGNESCITUR (‘unknown it burns’), a phrase which appears in painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s 1871 rendition of the myth of Pandora’s box. The parallelisms of Pandora’s box, feminine mystery, and the hysteric’s rolling tears coalesce in the tissue box sculpture. Behaving like an encrypted way-marker, it warns of things that cannot be undone: cross this threshold and you will not return from those realisations you shall have here. Further details like characterful ceramic mice, or decorative Sheela Ni Gig vases adoring the walls, aid the transition from antechamber to the hellish bowels of the pub – an inner sanctum where we are confronted the rambunctious Mendick herself.
I Drink To You Pandora (Cockroach Invasion) (2022), Ceramic and tissue box, 33 x 20 x 15 cm
‘I’ve been desperate, needy, slutty, jealous, selfish […] a cesspool of fuck-ups,’ a film of the artist regales in this third chamber. And as we watch, we cannot but admit the significant role that the public has played in the trial and humiliation of women. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Mendick has chosen the pub(lic house) as a setting, replete with three dancing poles which – together with fire-patterned drapery – bring to mind the witches’ stakes. While in the first room we were privy to an act of confession, here we are drawn into an act of witness. The witnessing, in this context, involves a concomitant exchange, one that involves our investment in that which is seen, and divestment on the part of the artist who is considered by us. Alas, such is the politics of the often-aloof art viewer who judges or critiques and seems allowed to leave totally unscathed. However, the artist’s obtrusive presentness (a martyrdom, as I suggested before) reminds us that we are in fact not dealing with abstractions and hypotheticals, but women are material as they are real, and ones that cannot be relegated to the fictive space of myth. The oscillation between mythological referent and present-day affair makes salient this point; Mendick takes issue not only with the treatment of women today but the long lineage of women of bygone pasts who are treated as mere stories, stories from which we still refuse to learn. The best thing about Mendick’s show is probably the impossibility of leaving unscathed – inflamed by desire, outrage, indignance, we depart with that irreverent sensation of burning.
I Drink To You Tracey (2022), Mixed media, 20 x 44 x 31 cm