Leo Costelloe at Neven Gallery

Imagine the archetypal wedding vignette, and what is the first thing that comes to mind? The fairytale, with the naïve, usually virginal beauty of a young princess who knows not of her worth and value as an individual, beyond the leverage that traditional good looks might afford, or perhaps it's the soap opera wedding, teeming with tension, uncertainty, betrayals, the air thick with a jilting impending. Maybe you have been to a wonderful wedding recently, which made a point of being different; "we're not like every other couple!", despite the legal receipts begging to differ. Maybe it's the looming statistic of 42% of marriages in the UK ending in divorce. Marriage is something that seems to be rising in popularity amidst the crumbling of most other social conventions; according to the New York Times, 2022 saw the highest number of weddings since 1984 (1). That may have been a slight anomaly, given that we were coming out of two years of lockdowns, but unlike the falling birth rate, marriages are still taking place, even with couples who seem to live alternative lifestyles choosing to tie the knot. 

Installation view: Leo Costelloe, Bridal Shop Mannequin 1 (Finsbury Park), 2024. Restored 1930s doll, 1960s wedding dress, veil, synthetic wig, faux flower bouquet, 150cm x 145cm x 30cm. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.

Now that women, by and large, are not being essentially bought from their father and sold to their husband, it doesn't need the most cynical person to cast a critical eye over the institution of heterosexual marriage, what it is really about in the twenty-first century, and why, in a secular world, people are still doing it in droves. "Social media" seems to be my answer to everything, but one cannot help but wonder if weddings, and indeed gender reveals (I won't get myself started on that topic, don't worry) would have quite so many clout-chasing, motif-rinsing features, were it not for the opportunity to tell all your friends, acquaintances, and former crushes that you've ticked off this major life milestone.

In East London's Neven Gallery, artist Leo Costelloe's solo show, Special Day, focuses on the aesthetics of the white wedding, in all its delicate glory. My first encounter of Costelloe's work was on a highly similar theme, so this continuity was a satisfying trip for me. It was Valentine's Day 2022 when I headed to Ridley Road Project Space in Dalston. I inexplicably had the day off work and made the trip especially to see the show. The sculptural work was full of romantic imagery, in a way that wasn't alienating as outward displays of affection can often be. One particular piece still stands out in my memory, over two years later: a real sponge cake, tiered as a wedding version would be, with a type of polyfoam around the outside, resembling icing, and crucially rendering the cake toxic, inedible. A contrast, or at least friction, emerges, between the objects that illustrate the promise of romance and a layer of inhuman, unpalatable truth cosplaying as a delicious treat.

Installation view: Leo Costelloe, Special Day, Neven Gallery, London. 5 April - 18 May 2024. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.

Back to Spring 2024, and Neven Gallery has been painted a gleaming white, which not only draws the eye straight to the artworks, but sets the scene seamlessly for the wedding aesthetic. The artist's interest in carefully curated feminine archetypes is well conveyed in the space. The centrepiece, if you will, is Bridal Shop Mannequin 1 (Finsbury Park), which is comprised of a 1930s doll with a 1960s wedding dress. While her torso is in proportion, our bride is at a low level, so it is a concerted effort to meet her gaze and assess the entire piece, not to mention the impressively flourished dress. In putting in this effort, we find that the bride's face is demon-like; a harsh reminder that the veneer presented at a wedding is most likely not vaguely symbolic of bride, groom, nor relationship. Perhaps the most interesting story to create from the piece is its curation, as the bridge looks out onto the busy traffic of Cambridge Heath Road. All the action is taking place outside, and yet the bride is confined to her momentarily beautiful, but limited and sterile environment (the exhibition cannot last forever, after all). 

Embellishing the centrepiece are several sculptural works by Costelloe, each very lovingly crafted and constructed. Their display in sets of two is a visual nod to the act of matrimony, most notably the two wig pieces, Romantic Tendrils and Bouncy Curls, which are in fact fairly amusing in units of two. The thought of placing two wigs on one head, short of a reveal a la Roxy Andrews, is clownish and excessive much like the traditions of beauty and, somehow, humility that are on parade when one gets married. 

Installation view: Leo Costelloe, Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (and a silver sixpence), 2024. Sterling silver, satin ribbon, lace garter, Akoya pearl, glass, mother of pearl, silver sixpence, satin and diamanté flowers, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.

Like all good contemporary art, Special Day raises more questions than it answers, but the viewer certainly comes away thinking about these codes of femininity, especially with the spectacle that comes with the white wedding dress, and the collection of ornate, bespoke sculptures taking the form of cutlery: Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (and a silver sixpence). The wall-based pieces, which have instantly been stripped of their utility value by being showcased in this way, are another nod to the figure of the housewife. With wages and work precarious for all genders, and home ownership being something of a pipe dream, the role of the housewife is an anachronistic one even if women did desire such a vocation. The theme of desire runs through the whole exhibition, and although Neven Gallery is modest in size, the line of questioning around what we desire and tracing its lineage and ontology is something that is hard to shake long after experiencing the work.  

(1) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/fashion/weddings/wedding-boom-year.html 

Special Day, a solo exhibition by Leo Costelloe. 5 April - 18 May 2024. Neven Gallery, London.

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