Mythos Speculum, Secci Gallery, Milan, IT, 2023

Group Show | 14 September - 11 November 2023

In 2018 Greek artist Theo Triantafyllidis, in need of an online avatar (those semi-pseudonymous, self-appointed self-portraits through which we identify amongst internet communities), adopted the appearance of an ork. Guided by his own interest in Monster Theory – the concept that pop-cultural fascination with fictional beasts, brutes, freaks and fiends represents a pervasive societal unease and promotes scaremongering or segregation – as well as an ambition to advance the already-in-progress queered disidentification of the fantasy species, Triantafyllidis’ ork alter-ego presents themselves as a bikini-clad butch-femme with bulging biceps, blue hair and tusk-like teef. Long-villainized within certain subcultures, thought by some due to their encoded racial stereotypes and discriminatory depictions, in recent years the ork aesthetic has begun to be reviewed and revised. Coopted by those who empathise with the experience of being ‘othered’, their increased popularity and visibility within online communities has encouraged video-game developers and film or television writers to further develop their background and depth as a species. This recent reevaluation is further foregrounded in the artist’s 2022 work ‘Ork Haus’. Part Metaverse simulation satire, part improvisational purgatorial performance, a family of those green ghoulies exist within a Sims-esque autonomous ecosystem, a virtual reality vacuum impervious to outside influence. Restricted to their computer-generated confines, with such mandatory mundanity eerily reminiscent of the recent pandemic-induced lockdowns, we are invited to voyeuristically witness the adaption of the family unit to near-constant cohabitation, as they (w)ork from home and undertake those repetitive tasks even technology cannot rid us of – eat, sleep, excrete, repeat.

In an age when we increasingly live out our lives online such aforementioned avatars, as well as personalised profiles and filtered photographs, have quickly become a tool through which we can explore, establish and express our own identity. A certain 21st-century metamorphosis enabled algorithms, game engines and artificial intelligence. In contrast, Adam Bilardi prefers a more direct, almost romantic, self-reflection, facing down his own dreamt-up doppelganger in paintings of muscular, homogenised masculinity. Two near-identical figures with full lips, perfectly plucked eyebrows and chiselled jawlines arm wrestle, shake hands, touch tongues and whisper in each other’s ears. Neither friend nor foe, moonlit and mood-lit by dappled dusk or dawn light, casting sharp shadows across their striking symmetrical features.

They appear to engage in a confidential combative competition of some sort, indeed indicated by the Parisian painter’s illustrative titles – ‘Make or Break’, ‘We Played, We Lost’ or ‘It’s Just a Game’. How do you talk to yourself in the mirror? Within Bilardi’s cinematic scenes, carefully cropped and centrally constructed, those cloned counterparts display an immediate intimacy with one another, yet retain the stunted standoffishness of strangers. Embattled impersonations of oneself and one’s own internal interpretations. Symbols of self-defeat or self-discipline​​. Emblems of emotional repression to whom everything becomes a wager, a war, an arm wrestle.

During his time in art education, a young Bilardi was discouraged from depicting such inner emotions, from approaching such portrayals of idealised passion or pain. And so he substituted man for man’s best friend. Since, dogs have recurred throughout his paintings in place of their human companions, further stand-ins allowing the artist to sneak in self-expression and examine that interconnectedness. Dogs, with their legendary loyalty and ascribed empathy, are conventional candidates for anthropomorphic or metamorphic interpretation. For instance, the eponymous Dogmother of Tamil folktale – who birthed and raised human pups – is preserved for prosperity astride one of Anousha Payne’s ‘Vessels for Fulfilment’. Payne, of dual Indian and Irish heritage, often turns to such South Asian mythology or corresponding Celtic lore as a means of comprehending and constructing identity. Entrenched through oral tradition, the storytellers and act of telling become as important as the tales themselves. And so, the artist’s own sculptures appear able to shape-shift between aesthetic art objects and the conventional functional forms they borrow from, ritualistic or religious providers of sustenance and nourishment. Foregrounding that folkloric fluidity between humanity, flora and fauna, they entertain the ideals of animism –  the notion that everything, even that which is inherently inanimate, is imbued with an underlying spiritual essence and embedded agency. Payne, therefore, not only progresses that longstanding lineage of repeated recital, rendering them momentarily material, but also reimagines such myths for modern times. Golden jewellery invariably dangles from the vessel’s myriad visages, illuminating outdated hierarchies that designate an object’s importance in accordance with an imagined or invented value. Elsewhere, performative hands are posed and poised reflective of gestures found in Bharatanatyam, classical choreography common to Southern India that expresses religious and spiritual concerns through subtle footwork, facial expressions, hand gestures and body language.

Another of Payne’s ‘Vessels for Fulfilment’ features three human heads flanking its central carafe. Reminiscent of an Iron Age Corleck head, a Celtic tricephalic devotional symbol or statue denoting the trinity, for the artist each head is an homage to the matriarchal trinity within her own family tree. Luisa Me – themselves a dicephalous artist duo with a nom de plume purloined from an Italian colloquialism translated as ‘him with me’ – regularly turn to religious iconography and art historical allegories to examine the dualities of identity that acutely arise within an artistic practice. Existing in a somewhat suspended reality defined by the comparisons and contradictions between their sundrenched upbringing in coastal Pesaro and the post-industrial surroundings of their South London studio, their ongoing pursuit of artistic equilibrium has previously been expressed through introspective self-portraits. Two figures in near-constant physical contact, pushing, pulling and leaning on each other for literal – and we can imagine metaphorical – support. Each takes it in turn to support the weight of the then-weaker party. Recently, however, they have begun to explore more architectural anthropomorphism in order to express their dual identity. Here, chimney stacks in their customary chequered, autumnal outfits converse with one another, while faded sun-bleached beach-bound parasols stand like stoic sentinels of the surf and the swell, their triangular tips forming forced expressions. Both are totemic in appearance and rampantly proliferant, as if in ceremonial observance of some outside occurrence. Icons of the liminal changes inherent to a seasonal lifestyle, yet unwilling or unable to fully embrace either continuance. The parasol provides shade from the unrelenting summer heat, the chimney a flue for the winter-warming fire below.

Hector Campbell