Isabella Hill revels in the surreal, macabre and joyously colourful works of Oriele Steiner, Caroline Wong and Hera Gedikoglu at Art City Works and Purslane’s online exhibition, Saturnalia.
Exhibiting until 31st January 2022, Saturnalia is a Winter Fundraising Exhibition on the online arts platform Art City Works, in collaboration with Purslane. 20% of all sales go towards the charity Shelter, who fight for all whose lives are blighted by the loss of their home. The show’s title is inspired by the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was celebrated each year in mid-December in honour of the god Saturn. This festival saw a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms.
Many of the rites and traditions associated with Saturnalia have influenced the contemporary European rituals for celebrating Christmas. As a result, this title encapsulates the theme for this December fundraiser which comprises a diverse roster of artists, working across a variety of mediums.
Oriele Steiner is an artist whose work I was already acquainted with before this exhibition, having followed her for some time already. What often strikes me with her work is the surreal nature of her figures – often depicted mid-action and holding disjointed poses. In ‘Zone In, Zone Out’, a female figure sits cross-legged against a background of darkness with a cigarette in one hand and a keyring in the other. Her head is perpendicular to the rest of her body, as if having been placed after its creation as opposed to being part of the whole. Caught in this moment, the viewer wonders whether the scene is whimsical in its use of bright colours, or disturbing because of the disjointed head and cigarette. The answer is both. The artist blends these two effects, which she considers to be the main component of her works and a product of her British sense of humour. This results in an intriguing play on the complexities of life, as the figure appears to ‘zone out’ mid action when staring deeply at the objects in her hands. Will the cigarette ash fall on her exposed foot before she ‘zones in’? We as viewers are unsure, however, we’re willing to keep watching as if it might.
In contrast to Steiner’s surrealist depictions of women, Caroline Wong’s series of hungry women, which pepper this exhibition, emphasise the beauty of excess. The artist likens creating to eating, in which she becomes consumed by the moment of pleasure and detatches herself from the outside world. As such, her figures are caught in the exact heightened moment of pleasure when feasting on the food before them. In ‘Hungry Woman 2’, the complementary tones of orange and blue create beautiful and bright layers of depth that imitate the layers of flavour within the food. Food is such a grand part of East Asian culture, having brought families together with recipes that have spanned generations. However, women are more often depicted as the cooks and are rarely shown eating these meals. It’s refreshing and exciting to see, therefore, Wong’s take on a pushback against tradition, paving the way for new forms of representation.
Unlike the bright work of intertwined figures by Amélie Peace or the darkened figures depicted by Anna Ilsley in her work ‘Night Out’, Hira Gedikoglu’s quasi-animalistic figures play and interact on the paper in a disturbing yet fascinating way. Having been inspired by Renaissance and Ottoman paintings, as well as medieval manuscripts and her own photos of Istanbul, her unique characters present an exploration of the fantastical that fascinated these epochs and still continue to fascinate contemporary artists today. In her work ‘Deli dans 6’ (2021), we are presented with two animalistic figures that hold hands and face each other, dancing and prancing in unison. With dog-like heads, the shades of bold green and yellow create textured layers of fur upon fur covering their bodies. Whilst their upper-bodies are proportionally thick, their spindly legs make it appear as if they are weightless, floating as they dance. Although there is innate beauty in this movement, their protruding tongues and frightening faces almost invoke a sense of disgust in the viewer, and yet we are still enraptured. One could imagine these figures in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, dancing around one of the many circles of hell in an attempt to instil fear in the poor poet as he continues to search for his beloved Beatrice. The red glowing orb in the centre of these monsters’ outstretched arms reinforces elements of evil and foreboding at the heart of this composition.
Saturnalia unites work that encompasses a range of styles and colour palettes, but is drawn together through the artists’ unique interpretations of figuration in art. Whether it be through bright and surreal portrayals of women or playfully dark monsters that capture our gaze, Saturnalia’s artists and works promote the excess, desire and devilry associated with this ancient festival.
Saturnalia by Art City Works is on until 31 January 2022. Click here to view the exhibition and for more information.
Feature image is a detail from Amélie Peace’s ‘Which Mask’, courtesy of Art City Works.