On ViewSim Smith
November 20 – December 18, 2021
A couple is lying in bed. A woman, with her arms raised and left knee bent, leans languorously on the man behind her, who buries his face in a pillow. Bright light from the open curtains falls over the peaks and valleys of their bodies. We feel awkward as we stumble into their private sphere. But are we voyeurs or invaders? The feeling prevails through Wild Horses, Sim Smith gallery’s exhibition of paintings and photographs in southeast London, which focuses upon the subject of couples in various guises. A myriad of relationships forms over the gallery walls, each with its own history and timbre.
At times these duos are lovers, friends, and siblings, and at others, they are almost doppelgängers. In Yanmei Jiang’s haunting Me and Me 020 (2016), a man and a woman blur into a single tangle of limbs and cascading hair. The effect is eerie, as if the identity of the individual has been lost to the couple. Jiang and her partner Wenjun Chen began to photograph one another when they met in 2007, but it was not until 2014 that the natural, effortless photos of a couple in love became more purposeful. The wider series is like a time capsule for their creative life together—brushing teeth, combing hair, pouring tea.
Mayan Toledano’s sultry photograph of two people locking lips, Gia and Ang (2016), equally invites a double-take. With their shared alabaster skin and bleached hair, Toledano’s two models could be twins as they share a defiant, yet sweet kiss. Israeli-born and New York-based Toledano, who has shot for the likes of Chanel and Gucci, explores gender identity and empathy within relationships through her work. A very different kiss transpires in Jurga Ramonaite’s Love Series I (2020), in which a couple’s faces are hidden, and their arms remain innocently by their sides. We find British artist Florence Peake and her companion Catherine entwined in their own corporeal moment in a shimmering work on paper made after one of Peake’s typically irreverent performances.
In her essay commissioned for the show, Nancy Dewe Mathews draws a parallel between Wild Horses and the touch we have been missing these past few years, squinting at our computer screens. But these couples are not always in the mood for touching. The nudity of Aviya Wyse’s enigmatic couple, posed in front of a wooden cabin, is performative but not necessarily sensual. Born in Israel, Wyse began her career by photographing the women close to her after the death of her mother, and in recent years her archives of bodies have seen her named one of the 100 most inspiring artists of 2018 by Vogue. In her spellbinding photograph at Sim Smith, Untitled (2014), Wyse draws the viewer into an inscrutable moment of psychological tension. Lola and Scarlett (2016) by the rising British painter Chantal Joffe also leaves us wanting to know more about the two sisters shown, marooned in some verdant landscape. Bar Alon’s serene couple resting beneath the velvety surface of the Red Sea whispers of some other secret meaning. The heads and torsos of Tom & Gome (2019) are revealed, but the rest of their bodies are hidden from prying eyes.
The title of this exhibition comes from the eponymous 1971 hit by the Rolling Stones (“Wild Horses/Couldn’t drag me away…”). So it goes that Keith Richards was inspired by the longing he felt for his newborn son Marlon while on the road. Mick Jagger went on to fill the verses with aching lyrics about his imploding relationship with Marianne Faithfull. Quite how this mess of relationships surrounding the Rolling Stones links to Sim Smith is oblique at best. Perhaps Joffe’s standoffish duo are surrogates for Richards and Jagger? In any case, it explains the inclusion of Aneta Kajzer’s Pony Twins (2021), in which two sets of horses’ legs appear from an orange haze, like the gartered limbs of two can-can dancers. The characters of Berlin-based Kajzer are formed by her instinctual, sweeping gestures of paint that she likens to the forging of images from clouds.
Kate Groobey’s watercolor offering, Hey, We’re Making It (2021), provides further jollity. Two pink figures in narrow-brimmed hats are pushed unceremoniously across the page by two giant hands. Stand-ins for Groobey and her girlfriend Jina Khayer, they poke fun at the patriarchy with a certain wry sense of British humor that recalls Rose Wylie’s cartoonish imagery and Carry On films. Groobey is known to bring these characters to life through performances in which she dons wigs, costumes, and props in front of elaborate paper backdrops. With a similar aesthetic, Emma Kohlmann transports us almost to the sensual Tahitian woodcuts of Paul Gauguin through her bold figures in fiery orange and blue in acrylic on linen.
Somehow, through the medley of mediums and approaches on display at Sim Smith, a mesmeric atmosphere emerges. There are breadcrumbs of stories here, fragments that could almost be pieced together to make up the history of a single couple. Truly captivating are the female and queer voices that speak through these works, describing what it means to exist within each relationship with quiet, beautiful tenderness.