RADCLYFFE HALL

JAMIE CREWE: DEFIXIONES

24 May – 23 June 2024; Opening 23 May 2024, 6-8pm

 

 

Defixiones is an exhibition of new work by Jamie Crewe. It includes oil paintings on wooden panels, inscribed lead sheets, and an aeolian harp.

The Latin word defixiones describes what are known in English as ‘curse tablets’: inscribed sheets of lead, made in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, which asked supernatural forces to work on the author’s behalf. Folded up, pierced with nails, and deposited in graves or wells, curse tablets were deployed by those who could not – or did not want to – access the conventional powers of their society. They asked for gain, the manipulation of others, the sabotage of rivals, intervention against wrongdoing, and revenge.

Crewe’s oil paintings show vivid faces. They are sketched without careful transcription; their features are warped by taste and mistake. Blemishes form. Other likenesses occasionally bleed through (a TV therapist, or a friend from adolescence lost to schism, for example). These figures are built from layers of delicate brushwork and erasure: the texture of a blushing cheek might reveal tiny swirls of pigment; the gleam of an oily nose might be a point of white gesso primer rubbed and stripped with solvent. They often wear Crewe’s clothes and accessories.

Each painting is marked with a ‘barbarous name’, since overpainted: ‘BEREBESCU’, ‘HUESSEMIGADÔN’, ‘BÔRPHORBABARBORBABARPHORBORBAIÊ’, etc. These names are also their titles. Barbarous names were used in curse tablets as words that carried no shared definition. Despite the appearance of gibberish, these words allegedly derived from languages considered foreign. Translation, if possible, was discouraged. As personal appeals to remote deities, the power of barbarous names was in their sound and shape, not sense.

Below Crewe’s paintings – wadded between the floorboards of Radclyffe Hall, stuffed under gaps in the skirting, or curled up in mouse-holes – are inscribed sheets of lead. These are titled for their location: ‘Newark Drive defixio no. 1’, ‘no. 2’, and so on. Sealed by wrapping, furling, folding, and piercing with nails, their content is mostly unavailable to viewers. They may contain repeated phrases, listed grievances, practical drawings, improvised languages, or pleas for justice. They are cold, soft, and poisonous.

The gallery is scored by Wet harp, an aeolian harp constructed by Rostern Instruments. An aeolian harp is a strung resonating box designed to be played by the motion of the air. Aeolus was the ruler of the winds in ancient Greek myth. He moved through such instruments, producing tones that no human hand could make. Built in red-stained yew, Wet harp is mounted into the open window of Radclyffe Hall and is activated by passing breezes to play variations of a pointed chord.

How might the materials of a person, a culture, or a language be wrenched into the service of another purpose? How might an effect on the world be attempted by those who stand outside, or sometimes against, the ‘legitimate’ corporate structures of society? Such people—the disempowered, the oppressed, the shamefaced, the malicious, the transgressive, the exploited, or the humbled—make indirect channels towards power, both publicly and privately. They find expressions for desires or protests which cannot bear the light of day. The works in Defixiones gouge out space for such expressions, and consider the force of a face, a word, a secret.


This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Tim Knights.