Luella Bartley at Kristin Hjellegjerde

To quote Madonna, "you only see what your eyes want to see", and at Kristin Hjellegjerde's London Bridge gallery space, currently hosting new mixed media pieces by fashion designer Luella Bartley, I couldn't help but feel an unleashed understanding around the complexity of bodies. In the impressive and deeply satisfying first-floor, sunlit space with distinct penthouse vibes, Bartley's works show clear inspiration from Egon Schiele and Tracey Emin to suggest the complicated, and often messy, ways we feel about our bodies.

Installation view: Luella Bartley, Intimate Spaces, 1 - 22 July 2023. Kristin Hjellegjerde, London. Image courtesy of the gallery.

There are a couple of visual cues which seem in conflict with the semantics of the work in question, not least the title of the exhibition. Intimate Spaces is very of-the-moment; since lockdown lifted, there seems to be a huge amount of discourse involving the word 'intimacy', what it means in the (post-)digital age, how we feel about, and in, our bodies, etc. Other than, perhaps, the innate nature of intimacy that comes with the showcasing of the nude form, there doesn't seem to be much intimacy on display at Kristin Hjellegjerde. The space, whilst airy and delightful, feels open but rather professional. It is not your average white cube space, but it's not far off. Of course, this is to be expected, but I wonder what the works would look like in a setting more akin to the artist's background in fashion design: a disused catwalk runway, perhaps? In Bartley's paintings of a woman's body, which we learn is indeed the same woman throughout, we are rarely shown any distinguishing features. Paintings of women without heads have always irked me; both emotionally and physically, I struggle to see how intimacy can be claimed when the subject matter's body is so devoid of its own humanity, individuality, and completeness. 

This being said, there is a certain charm to the paintings. Their vulnerability in being hunched, with loose lines and splashes of flesh colour, are still relatable despite the lack of face. An ongoing tension expressed through gestures in the body are palpable, and the viewer is left trying to figure out the non-verbal language of the sitter. Their life and character beyond their bodily form is one that is tempting to ponder on, especially given the life drawing style of the work. 

Installation view: Luella Bartley, Intimate Spaces, 1 - 22 July 2023. Kristin Hjellegjerde, London. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Referring again to that first line of Frozen by Madonna, I see a great deal of pain in this work, although it doesn't feel like it has come from Bartley herself. Is this something I am trying to locate in order to feel closer to the work? I identify with the squirming, the desire to hold one's own body, to conceal certain parts of it. Kristin Hjellegjerde's space is filled with these paintings, which are all visually similar to behold; eleven are pencil-paint mixed media works, with another three photographic prints. The sheer volume of works, emerging at every angle, is reminiscent of the ways in which women are relentlessly confronted with their own reflection. Our image is our brand, our vehicle through which we exist in the world and within society. Under capitalism, new fandangled products (which are truly perplexing and almost hilarious when one can take a step back and ask: what the hell is Vitamin CG and why do I need to put it on my face?) are constantly being rolled out to ensure that women are always throwing money into their appearance, as neither a means nor an end. Is it possible to authentically celebrate women using an image of one woman in this way? I'm not entirely sure, but the awkwardness and lack of a distinct narrative in the images are certainly intriguing and compelling. 

Installation view: Luella Bartley, Intimate Spaces, 1 - 22 July 2023. Kristin Hjellegjerde, London. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Intimate Spaces, a solo exhibition by Luella Bartley. 1 - 22 July 2023. Kristin Hjellegjerde, London.

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