ON JAMIE CREWE, LOVE & SOLIDARITY

Greta Sharp, March 2020

Grand Union (Birmingham) and Humber Street Gallery (Hull) have co-commissioned two sister exhibitions of new work by Jamie Crewe. Using Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, Crewe has used various mediums, including video, sculpture and print, to explore notions around kinship that arise from this influential queer novel.

Love & Solidarity: Jamie Crewe, Grand Union 2020. Image by Patrick Dandy.

On a day trip to Birmingham I decided to visit Grand Union. Situated in the industrial area of Digbeth, in a building complex called ‘Minerva Works’ (petition to change it to Minerva Werks) is one half of Jamie Crewe’s solo show Love & Solidarity (the other half being Solidarity & Love at Hulls’ Humber Street gallery).

I was immediately greeted by a gallery worker who gave me a tip on where the best place to sit was (next to the heater, which I was very grateful for as I had been walking in the rain); I sat down to watch two films play alongside one another on separate screens of different sizes. The shorter film, "The Ideal Bar” – “Le Narcisse” – “Alec’s”, depicts a story of two queer characters meeting in a club. One of the characters’ mouths something but we cannot hear what they say. Instead, a reverberating audio track plays over the entire film, simulating club music. It cuts to footage of a toy dog lying on grass, and the second film, which has been silent all this time, cuts over this with voices talking. “Morton” – “Beedles” – “An Abyss” roams over hands placing petals and other natural elements on clay well dressings, which look like ceramic boards and historically have been displayed in certain Derbyshire villages every summer. It is mostly silent, but a voice over is played intermittently, discussing various topics, as if there are only parts of the conversation we are allowed access to. One of these discussions is on how micro-aggressions are common in workplaces dominated by women. I reflect on how I can be passive aggressive out of fear of being deemed too ‘bossy’, after years of being told off for always being the kid that told everyone how to play the game. If only we could let the go of the fear of being perceived as a ‘bossy bitch’, then we might be able to improve our communication. I appreciate the connection made between micro-aggressions and craft work, which we know is typically a ‘female’ identifying labour, but in Crewe’s film it is transformed into labour as a form of initiating discussion between the voices in the film.

Love & Solidarity: Jamie Crewe, Grand Union 2020. Images by Patrick Dandy.

I usually don’t like to read the press release to start with and prefer to look at the works first to gain a contextual understanding. But after reading it, I realise this exhibition is based on Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, which tells a queer love story about Stephen Gordon, described in the press release as a masculine lover of women, who wants to be a country gentleman like her father. It is revealed that some critics of the novel argue that Stephen is best understood as a trans man. The book was pioneering for queer and lesbian women in the 20th century.

 

Parts of this story have been cut up into a publication on display called Womanhood. It is bright red and there must be 50 of them lined up on a free-standing shelf that sits diagonally across the gallery space, intersecting a large orange curtain that looks like something you would find in a theatre. I start to read through the story and, much like in the film, we get snippets of the decline of the relationship between Stephen and Alec. These chunks of text are accompanied by hand-written notes that are like diary entries to an ex-lover. They are cathartic expressions of anger and grief about the relationships demise:

“I feel I know you more, in fact, with the clarity of distance – with the clarity of these disgusting words which you have seen fit to share with me.”

There is a truth in the statement that we often only know someone’s true nature once the relationship has broken down. That it is in seeing someone’s flaws we get to truly know them.

Love & Solidarity: Jamie Crewe, Grand Union 2020. Image by Patrick Dandy.

The publication Womanhood, much like the two films on display, parallels two separate narratives that intersect and weave in and out of one another. They allow for individual readings of the works, as you can read the separate ‘stories’ one at a time, or alongside one another, whilst the films cut into each other as visuals and speech synch up and quickly dissipate back into their own individual worlds.

On the other side of the curtain, I am presented with the back of a freestanding wall, with a tail nailed into the side of it. Maybe it is just me, but I immediately think of a tailed butt-plug for pet play, and wonder whether anyone else thinks of this reference. And pin the tail on the donkey. I think that it must have something to do with the dog (which I have now realised was a fox after reading the press release). Animal references fill a lot of queer and alternative spaces, especially ones that involve sex, something that is presented as a possibility when two characters meet in “The Ideal Bar” – “Le Narcisse” – “Alec’s”. The other side of the wall is painted bright orange, even brighter than the curtains, with ceramics on the wall, much like the ones in “Morton” – “Beedles” – “An Abyss”. I soon realise that the ceramics on display are in fact the exact ceramics from the film, half here and half in Humber Street Gallery. They are hidden away from our immediate gaze when we enter the gallery, leaving us to first confront them from a singular perspective through the film.
 

Love & Solidarity: Jamie Crewe, Grand Union 2020. Images by Patrick Dandy.

Whilst I have not read The Well of Loneliness, Love & Solidarity seems to function as an archival exploration into the meaning and importance of the novel, especially for trans and lesbian women. I enjoy how Crewe weaves the narrative of the book into the artworks, which then acts as a structure for the exhibition as well as the inspiration, allowing for a more accurate representation of influential British writers, who, at present, we would not have the chance to learn about in formal education. I also wonder about the partner exhibition at Humber Street Gallery and the snippets of the story that await me there. 

© 2020 by Assemblage Magazine.

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