View of “Jamie Crewe,” 2020. From left: “Morton”—“Beedles”—“An abyss”, 2020; “The Ideal Bar”—“Le Narcisse”—“Alec’s”, 2020. Photo: Jules Lister.

View of “Jamie Crewe,” 2020. From left: “Morton”—“Beedles”—“An abyss”, 2020; “The Ideal Bar”—“Le Narcisse”—“Alec’s”, 2020. Photo: Jules Lister.

Jamie Crewe

In 2017, the Northern England city of Hull received UK City of Culture status. Ensuing investment transformed Humber Street, one of the city’s old warehousing thoroughfares, into what could be described as a twenty-first-century fantasy of a Victorian cobbled harbor area quite distinct from the banal surrounding cityscape. A similar mild discord was evident in Jamie Crewe’s exhibition “Solidarity & Love,” which focused on contemporary folk culture and nonbinary identity.

The show was divided into two spaces—a darkened video room and a daylit space containing sculpture and print—with works in both areas referring to Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness. The book’s main character is Stephen Gordon, an upper-class woman named as a man by a father who’d expected a son. Stephen refers to herself as an “invert,” using an early-twentieth-century term whose sense splits the difference between the categories of “homosexual” and “transgender.” The artist clearly interprets Stephen as a kind of seer or visionary predicting the acceptance of her identity as natural in a transformed future society.

Although it included sculpture, a publication, and a series of fragmented ceramics, the show centered on two videos, the brief “The Ideal Bar”—“Le Narcisse”—“Alec’s”, and the thirty-minute projection “Morton”—“Beedles”—“An abyss”, both 2020. Based on Hall’s book, both works competed with one another for attention, with the monitor presenting the former in front and to the side of the projection screen. “The Ideal Bar”—“Beedles”—“An abyss” pictures a dramatized exchange between two young nonbinary characters in a Glasgow nightclub—a glittering scenario inspired by a sequence in which Stephen encounters a repellent reflection of herself in a Parisian gay bar—and a quick bizarre shot of a sculpture of a dying fox made by Crewe. “Morton” —“Beedles”—“An abyss” depicts the collaborative making of a work of rural folk art by Crewe’s friends and family, a group the artist dubs Radclyffe Hall. The piece is a “well dressing,” coming from a tradition from the Peak District, where Crewe was raised. The ritual involves placing materials such as flower petals into clay on boards as decorations for wells and springs. In this case, the patterns are meant to invoke local stories.

Deep paradoxes surround the representation in “Morton” of local social mores. The tradition comes across as a queered continuation of a Victorian Christian revival of a pagan practice, embodying the entanglement of a relatively unrestrained ancient culture with a more restrictive Christian one in a polarized present. In essence, if Victorian morality was “evil,” as Oscar Wilde put it in “The Critic as Artist” (1891), and puritanism inhibits desire, beauty, and true sociability, “Morton” comments on the continued restrictions of contemporary moralism, in part through the conversations among the members of the Radclyffe Hall group about local instances of intolerance.

A recurring image in both the novel and the exhibition was that of the fox. In “Morton” one speaker described his horror at witnessing hunts, seen as demonstrations of class standing, while a fabric sculpture of the animal glimpsed in “The Ideal Bar” was shown on a plinth nearby. A shelving system holding zines featuring cut-up quotes from Hall’s novel bisected both galleries to provide a redemptive transition from dark to light. On the illuminated side, in bright sunlight, was a Day-Glo-orange wall holding fragments of raw communication on clay slabs containing text from the well dressing, including quotes from gay activists.

With the run of “Solidarity & Love” having been twice interrupted by Covid-19 (the show closed before lockdown and reopened in the fall, only to close again amid a Tier 3 lockdown), and with a sister exhibition taking place at the artist-run space Grand Union in Birmingham, UK, time has impacted the reading of this torn project. As action around equality in all forms comes into sharp focus alongside an increasing desire for contact during social distancing, this show now reads as an urgent call for a renewed human approach to art and life. In my view, exhibitions such as this one, staged in small precarious spaces in the UK’s working-class heartland and replete with personal tics and revelatory stutters, have lately been telling our most intimate and prescient human stories.