The show’s title derives from Samuel Beckett’s 1961 play Happy Days in which husband and wife Willie and Winnie are destined to eke out their days in slow decline. As Winnie says, ‘I used to perspire freely…now hardly at all.’ It is just one of Wendy Elia’s many plunderings of both high art and popular culture – film stills, news photos, iconic paintings, and imagined scenarios – all digested and re-presented in the same painterly language that blurs fact and fiction.
The works’ small scale is deceptive because their themes are epic. What emerges is a catalogue of abuses: rape, domestic violence, colonialism, beheadings, war-mongering, nuclear destruction… The juxtaposition of images creates new meanings and connections that seem to transcend socio-cultural differences. Isis’s killings and their destruction of cultural heritage sites find a precedent in Delacroix’s rendition of Byron’s poem ‘Death of the Sardanapulus’ ‘whose delegated cruelty surpasses/ The worst acts of one energetic master.’ The institutional corruption that led to the loss of 145 lives at sea, explored in Géricault’s masterly ‘Raft of the Medusa’ (1818-19) here reproduced by Elia, is set alongside her painting of the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower – a disaster caused by government and council cost-cutting. Similarly, a painting of the gang rape scene from film The Accused (1988) is placed beside the documentary image of two Indian girls found hanging from a mango tree in Uttar Pradesh. Our appetite for rape culture, it seems, (in both its meanings – as physical abuse and as abduction) exists in art at least since the Ancients.
The danger of the proliferation and repetition of such images, Elia implies, is that we have internalised and normalised their violence. As Beckett’s heroine would say, ‘The heat is much greater, the perspiration much less. That is what I find so wonderful. The way man adapts himself to changing conditions.’ What can we do to protect ourselves though, when, like poor Winnie, even the parasol we put up to shield ourselves from the burning sun, catches fire? The fact that Elia’s Winnie, half-buried in the sand, sinking ever deeper into her predicament without knowing how she came to be in it in the first place, is a self-portrait only re-states the function of the artist. She may not have all the answers but she can at least ask the right questions.
Art Historian, Lecturer and Author - Hotel Alphabet
Please visit Wendy Elia's website to find out more and to see details of the opening event and talk.