Decadent decay congregates with a host of ill-fated illuminations and a taxidermy fox; in curator lee sharrock’s new show ‘Contemporary Vanitas’ on now at Lights of Soho
Ever felt a deep seated emptiness inside? Looking for a neon narcotic to brighten the darkness?… Vibrant Vanitas play amongst electric curiosities, neon butterflies, skulls, and of all else… diamond dust in Lights of Soho’s latest exhibition and tribute to the ethereal hollow lurking under our skin. The deeply dark and romantic show curated by Saatchi & Saatchi’s own Lee Sharrock and LOS founder Hamish Jenkinson invites 16 contemporary artists to reinterpret and modernise the classic Dutch ‘Vanitas’ paintings and memento mori symbols of death, materialism, spirituality, earthly pleasure, and temptations all set among the buzzing neon backdrop of the soho spot.
I snuck a few moments with Lee Sharrock to chat about what we can expect about from the show, her fascination with the macabre, and how ‘Contemporary Vanitas’ all came together.
Tell me a bit about Contemporary Vanita’s ?
LEE SHARROCK: There are 16 contemporary artists in the exhibition; Alexander James, Alt-Ego, Derrick Santini, Hannah Matthews, Jeroen Gordijn, Jimmy Galvin, Kalliopi Lemos, Lauren Baker, Nancy Fouts, Paul Broomfield, Pure Evil, Rebecca Mason, Sara Pope, Soozy Lipsey, Tom Lewis and Toni Gallagher. I gave the artists a brief of the title of the show ‘Contemporary Vanitas’, essentially asking them to reinterpret 16th & 17th ‘Vanitas’ paintings for the 21st Century. So expect typical memento mori symbols such as skulls, butterflies, flowers and candles as well as more abstract interpretations.
Was it a difficult project curating the pieces and artists you wanted to be included in the show?
I had several artists in mind when I was visualising the exhibition. I’ve worked with many of the artists before and knew that their work would fit well with the Vanitas theme. For example Kalliopi Lemos’s ‘Ravens and Crows’ sculpture was something I had seen in her studio, and as ravens are symbols of death, they fitted well with the morality part of the Vanitas theme
What about new and or exclusive pieces?
A lot of the artists created new work especially for the exhibition, which was very exciting; Jimmy Galvin made a neon, disco ball and skull sculpture titled ‘Death Disco’. Toni Gallagher has created two new light boxes featuring x-rayed animals.
Dutch artist Jeroen Gordijn, whose work I discovered on Instagram has made a bell jar containing a moving neon butterfly, Alt-ego has created a new skull piece with light-reflecting diamond dust, and Devon artist Paul Broomfield also made a stunning new piece – a cabinet containing a skull and taxidermy parrot and an antique mirror.
What is it about Memento Mori/macabre art that fascinates you?
I wanted to be an artist when I was younger, and took a foundation course before doing a degree in Art History and Italian at UCL and the University of Bologna. I loved still life paintings as a student, when I discovered ‘Vanitas’ paintings of the 16th & 17th century. So fast forward to 2016 and I thought it would be interesting to see how contemporary artists would respond to the theme, especially since the memento mori symbol of the skull in particular is enduringly popular as a symbol in contemporary art – Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull still being the most famous example.
Is there one piece in the show that stands out, that’s more daring than others?
Each piece and artists is so unique, I can’t name one particular favourite. Although we have several pieces by Nancy Fouts whose work I love, and who was featured in the “There’s a Good Girl” exhibition I co-curated at Saatchi & Saatchi.
Of course as Contemporary Vanita’s is set at Lights of Soho, neon plays a pretty important part …..
Yes, each piece had to have some element of light. So there are many neons, and also light reflective diamond dust, mirrored installations and candle light. There is neon with taxidermy such as Hannah Matthews peaceful fox curled up on a neon halo shape, and there are text-based neons from Lauren Baker and Rebecca Mason, as well as Tom Lewis’s unique neons with fake flower arrangements.
If you had a personal favourite, or if you were to own a piece from the show which one would it be?
I love Soozy Lipsey’s bell jar ‘The Feast’ which is something I could imagine in Tim Burton’s house, with it’s miniature dolls house chandelier and surrealist eyes and tongue. I’ve been a fan of Pure Evil’s work for a long time as well and am excited to have his ‘Angels Never Die’ triptych of portraits in the exhibition which each have a neon halo – I wouldn’t mind the Marlene Dietrich on my wall!
Now – 18 June
Free | Open to Public before 6pm
Words by Tracy Kawalik and Lee Sharrock
Photos by Tracy Kawalik