Lights of Soho, London’s leading light art gallery, is hosting Contemporary Vanitas, an exhibition revolving around themes of mortality and vanity.
Curated by Lights of Soho founder and curator Hamish Jenkinson and Lee Sharrock, the show revives the vanitas genre – a genre that flourished in the Netherlands in the late 16th, early 17th century as a metaphor for the meaninglessness of earthly life and transient nature of earthly goods and pursuits – through the work of sixteen contemporary artists. Featuring memento mori, celebrity portraits and neon art, Contemporary Vanitas serves as a commentary on the vainglory and self-admiration running rampant in our society.
Lee Sharrock has kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions.
Hello Lee, I would like to ask you a few questions about Contemporary Vanitas. How did the exhibition come to be?
I have been a fan of Lights of Soho Gallery since it opened, and had talked with one of its founders, Hamish Jenkinson, about the possibility of curating an exhibition there. I came up with the theme of Contemporary Vanitas and proposed it to Hamish and his gallery Manager Louis Brown. After working on the theme and proposing a selection of artists whose work I thought would fit, they greenlit the exhibition and I was thrilled to be given the space for a month!
As the title suggests, the show revolves around themes of vanity and mortality; where does your interest in the vanitas genre stem from?
I studied Art History at UCL and the University of Bologna, and before that did a foundation course in fine art. As a student I wasn’t really interested in contemporary art. I was more interested in 16th Century Spanish art and Renaissance chapels, and I loved the vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th century, and Dutch still life paintings. So with this exhibition at Lights of Soho my concept was to invite contemporary artists to exhibit their own interpretations of the vanitas theme. Vanitas paintings were full of memento mori motifs such as skulls, flowers, butterflies and candles, which were artistic reminders of mortality, and other symbols of life and death. My Contemporary Vanitas exhibition features contemporary versions of memento mori symbols.
Speaking of vanitas, how vain and narcissistic is our today’s society, in your view?
The Latin noun vanitas means “emptiness”, and our society now is undoubtedly narcissistic and celebrity-obsessed. Especially with the rise of social media, the selfie and our constant need to post images of ourselves and the minutiae of our lives.
Contemporary Vanitas features sixteen artists; can you give us an insight into the artworks on display?
Many of the artists have created new work especially for the exhibition, which is really exciting. Jimmy Galvin has used the vanitas symbol of the skull and juxtaposed it with a Disco Ball in Death Disco; Paul Broomfield has created an antique looking mirrored cabinet with a human skull and taxidermy parrot, translating the feeling of 16th and 17th century vanitas paintings into 3D; Toni Gallagher is exhibiting a beautiful x-ray print resembling a crucifix; Kalliopi Lemos’s Uplit sculpture features Ravens and crows – symbols of death; Alt-Ego has created a skull with light-reflecting diamond dust; and there are 4 pieces by Nancy Fouts including a witty neon Jesus Exit sign, and an ethereal portrait illuminated by a candle.
I’m excited to be exhibiting 3 new portraits by Pure Evil wearing Neon Halos, titled ’Angels Never Die’ and featuring Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn and Sharon Tate.
Lauren Baker is exhibiting a circular neon piece and a new skull neon titled ’Transcendence’, and there are 2 beautiful neon pieces by Rebecca Mason - one text based and one skull illuminated with red neon. Dutch Artist Jeroen Gordijn is exhibiting 2 pieces including a neon butterfly in a bell jar. I discovered his work on Instagram and am thrilled that he is coming from Holland to install his work. Soozy Lipsey, an artist whose work I came across at the other art fair a couple of years ago, is showing a surreal bell jar titled ’The Feast’ complete with miniature chandelier and cutlery. I also love the taxidermy fox with neon piece by young artist Hannah Matthews and Alexander James’s haunting veiled skull. We’re mixing in a pop aesthetic with the more traditional Vanitas symbols in the form of Sara Pope’s luscious neon lips, and neon flower sculptures by Tom Lewis.
Forgive my curiosity, do you have a favourite work from the exhibition?
There is a wide variety of styles and talent in the exhibition, and I can’t pick out only one favourite. There are different interpretations of light art in the form of neons, sculpture, lenticular, taxidermy with neon, mirrors and light reflecting diamond dust. I love the variety and the varied interpretations of the theme.
Is this the first time you have worked with Hamish Jenkinson from Lights of Soho? How was the experience?
Hamish is a good friend who I met when he was curating the Old Vic Tunnels and put on some incredible exhibitions there, and I went to some amazing artist evenings he arranged at the Old Vic. We co-hosted a party at Lights of Soho last year, for some artists and friends, and we thought it would be a great idea to collaborate on an exhibition.
What’s next for you? Do you have new collaborations or projects in the pipeline?
I’m working on some exciting projects at Saatchi & Saatchi where I’m director of Global Creative PR, including the upcoming New Directors’ Showcase at Cannes Lions Festival. And I’m thinking of a theme for my next exhibition.
Contemporary Vanitas will be running until 18th June at Lights of Soho, 35 Brewer Street, London, W1F 0RX
Words by Jacopo Nuvolari @jacopo982