View of “Marvin Gaye Chetwynd,” 2014.

View of “Marvin Gaye Chetwynd,” 2014.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

Sadie Coles HQ | Balfour Mews

View of “Marvin Gaye Chetwynd,” 2014.

This past winter, London was noticeably flush with terrific exhibitions by women artists working with collage and montage: Hannah Höch’s tiny cut-up miracles at the Whitechapel Gallery, Hito Steyerl’s spliced videos rocking the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Trisha Baga’s sprawling 3-D moving-image installations at the Zabludowicz Collection. A further addition to this collage overload came in the form of Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s room-size installation Canterbury Tales, 2014. The whole ground-floor gallery—every last inch of the four walls, the floor, and a flimsy paper hut erected at the center—was plastered in a riot of black-and-white paper collages, loosely based on Chaucer’s stories.

Using photocopied material, the artist (formerly Spartacus Chetwynd, and before that Lali Chetwynd) combined snippets of Gothic buildings, twenty-first-century faces, equestrian sculpture, and zoological illustrations (of rabbits, birds, bats), plus a smattering of monkey’s faces, human breasts, and hummingbirds. This giant 3-D collage felt architectural, often built up from tall “columns” of layered imagery. The gallery’s steel beams—entirely covered in weightless paper—bore photocopied images of elaborate stone pillars and functioned almost like trompe l’oeil architectural detailing. Other vertical pileups of cutout images comprised, among other things, the full-body sculpture of an elongated stone friar, a marble cathedral portal, butterfly wings, and some sort of geological formation. Elsewhere, a man seemed to wear a stained-glass cap and collar. The artist was able to combine contradictory weights and textures while creating the desired medievalist and irreverent mood, the whole accomplished with enormous confidence.

Clement Greenberg admired modernist collage for its “liquidation of sculptural shading” and full embrace of flatness; Chetwynd’s collages seem, in contrast, devoted to shade and contour—whether deeply shadowed medieval carvings or an array of shapely derrières. The 2-D lifelessness of the paper and its potential to be strangely animated were at play throughout: Ivy-like tapestry patterns and geometric bas-relief fantasy animals were chopped up and forced into a kind of parade, reinforcing the road-trippy pilgrimage theme of the Tales.

Downstairs, the installation was accompanied by a selection of recent works from the painterly “Bat Opera” series, begun in 2004, along with the books documenting the two works, Some Canterbury Tales (2014) and Bat Opera (2014). Like Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in 1972 made a film based on Chaucer’s tales, Chetwynd seems fascinated by medieval Christianity, with its bawdiness and devilish temptations intact—before Protestantism came along and spoiled the party. Just as in her earlier, elaborately costumed performances, the artist relishes any opportunity to explore exaggerated facial expressions—grimaces, frowns, grins—seemingly drawn from the most far-flung sources, whether medieval carvings, silent movies, or today’s hammed-up selfies. Pasolini developed the political message of the original Canterbury Tales—itself so much about social hierarchy—in his classless depiction of the naked human body; Chetwynd too embraces the book’s political undercurrent, making use of cheap and readily available materials, performers, and subjects. And like her contemporaries Steyerl and Baga, Chetwynd seems to affirm that the most accurate artistic depiction of life in the digital age is never literally to be found online, but in material representations of the Internet’s image-heavy combination of text, narcissism, non sequiturs, history, pain, and pleasure. For all these artists, our cut-and-paste culture still always holds, at its center, a frail and desiring human body.

Gilda Williams