Transition Gallery

Gilding the Lily at the Transition Gallery in Hackney explores themes of embellishment to highlight aspects of each artist’s approach to artistic practice, as well as to promote a dialogue about the “decorative” and surface-quality that emerges between the works. The exhibition encompasses a broad range of practices, from grand-scale fabrication of imagery through works of sculpture and painting, to smaller more distilled doodles, interventions and piecework, which results in a visual and sensory feast.

Laura White’s magnified decorative ribbon/bow motif ‘For Living, for Loving, for Loathing’, itself an agent of embellishment, stands alone as a grand presence – its metallic surface vibrating with reflection. Stuart Mayes’ arrangement of “hand polished anonymous second-hand aluminium ring form cake tins” (‘Glory’) similarly raises the status of motifs from everyday life through placement and nostalgic attention to surface.

“To gild refined gold…” (from the Shakespeare quote which prefaces the exhibition text) is a phrase which fittingly describes the opulence evident in Will Tuck’s ‘Subway to Venus’, a sugary exercise in manufactured idealism. Not only are his figures depicted in airbrushed perfection, but the glass-like resin encasement of the whole image adds sugar on top of sugar, to the point of putrefaction. In contrast Richard Livingston’s quietly unsettling and understated painting of repeated silhouette-like baby motifs strives for a balance between figurative/narrative reading and aesthetic arrangement of form.

Two further painters in the show are Nicola Williams and Jessica Holmes, whose works present abjectly beautiful surfaces disrupted through wilful damage and decay. Nicola Williams’ paintings are literally slashed through their brightly coloured childrens TV wipe-clean surface, echoing the blurred dichotomy in her subject source-matter ranging from innocent narrative to sensationalist news imagery. Similarly disturbing, the dominantly decorative surface of Jessica Holmes’ ‘Hours or Even Days of Warning’ communicates a kind of domestic unease. Out of the corner of your eye something taints the image, a danger lurks beneath the apparently benign surface.

Max Hymes’ plinth-mounted sculpture ‘Prince of Pleasure’ represents the playful/innocent intentions behind the connecting theme of the show, visibly evident in the craft-referencing materials he uses, literally embellishing the surface through repetition, pattern and bright colour. In this context, Paul Westcombe’s aggressively twee doodles of stream of consciousness imagery gain a weight of traditional crafts and quiet activity, drawing attention to the fine skill of his drawing style, and the different techniques which he uses to impress these drawings onto the throw-away objects’ surfaces of the works.

The enduring impression of this grouping of eight artists brought together through a theme of embellishment is the alchemic possibilities of their respective strategies: whether they succeed in presenting surfaces independent of their subject matter, allowing both to be read together, or whether the act of “gilding the lily” undermines their intentions, or further still becomes superfluous. But this is also dependent on the expectations of the reader of each work, whether the narrative/source material is sought out, or if the material richness on display here quenches appetites alone. However the final reading of a work should lie, in surface or in internal meaning, this show at least demonstrates that there is a dark side to every gilded surface.