“Renee So: Bellarmines and Bootlegs” at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
Drawing upon international histories of sculpture, Renee So’s playful, cartoon-like and typically drunken characters populate the Henry Moore Institute’s main galleries in spring 2019.
Born in Hong Kong, raised in Australia and now living and working in London, So makes ceramic sculptures and machine-knitted textiles. The exhibition will include works from 2012 to the present.
So’s extensive research into the histories of European and Assyrian sculpture, along with an enthusiasm for theatre costume, cartoons, advertising design and popular souvenirs, has resulted in a unique take on portraiture. Her trans-historical points of reference combine into heavily stylised, magical and mythical images in both her sculptures and what the artist calls ‘knitted paintings’. Featuring a central protagonist, a bearded and inebriated man accompanied by an array of props – pipes, cigarettes, boots, hats and drinking vessels – So’s work assimilates histories of representation in sculpture and beyond.
Typically glazed in matt black or made in dull clay and left unglazed, So’s sculptures appear as black stone or metal. Both these and her ‘paintings’ draw heavily upon Neo-Assyrian and Classical sculpture but also primitive pan-cultural pottery and fertility idols. A number of ceramic tile pieces, also included in the exhibition, are inspired by Neo-Assyrian stone carved reliefs and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. Yet it is the Bellarmine jug that has been So’s most significant influence.
Produced throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but especially in the Rhineland, the Bellarmine was a decorative stoneware vessel used for food, wine and the transporting of goods. While many variations existed, more often than not they featured representations of a bearded man, a descendant of the medieval wild man figure of European folklore. They were mockingly named after the Italian Cardinal and saint, Roberto Bellarmino (1542-1621) who opposed the Protestant church and condemned the drinking of alcohol.
Informing much of her work, So’s homage to the Bellarmine straddles aesthetic and social concerns. Manipulating modes of representation from antiquity to abstraction, the male figure becomes increasingly fragmented in different works until details – the beard, a glass, a boot – are so transformed that they themselves become the subject. The trajectory of material culture is also implied: Bellarmines were exported globally, latterly as tourist knick-knacks, but were first brought to Britain in 1500. Discovered all over the world in sites of archaeological interest, they now tell a particular history of European travel, trade and colonial passage.
at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds
until 2 June 2019