Southwark Park Galleries: Lydia Blakeley 'The High Life' (until 4 September 2022)
For several years now, Lydia Blakeley has been a firm fixture in London's art scene, and increasingly now further afield. It is hard not to be drawn to her work; there is a cutesy, girlie, nostalgic air to it, with dark wit and cynical undertones that knock us all back down to earth. With familiar visual and social tropes in her paintings and sculptures, Blakeley's work produces a bizarrely friendly atmosphere wherever it is shown, and it certainly stands out in, for example, crowded group exhibitions. There is less human presence in 'The High Life', her largest solo in the UK to date, and it's a very loud omission; sun loungers that are certainly not for sitting paired with paintings of empty, yet beautiful, spaces, certainly have a narrative to speak of.
Most works in the show are from this year, which is impressive given the level of detail in all of the artist's distinctive paintings. That being said, I had seen an older iteration of the sun lounger series some years ago, so was happy to see more of them at the Southwark Park Galleries space. That's another thing about Blakeley's work, not only is it incredibly distinctive, but there is a warm familiarity that extends beyond the stylistic and into real symbolism of an artwork's potential to evoke emotion and affect in its audience. There are very few artists succeeding at this continually and seamlessly.
This time round, works in the sun lounger series are paired with a unique Thermos box, filled with cactus plants and gemstones. Thermos boxes are another little nod to the intricacies of British culture, evoking memories of packed lunches at the beach of a seaside town, where there is more often than not a witchy gem and paraphernalia shop nearby, packed with stones such as those used by Blakeley in the show: rose quartz, amethyst, turquoise, fuchsia and orange and green calcite.
Of course, there is a timely element to this body of work; it would be remiss to think that, with the artist's skill for honing in on emotional value, the punch of the last few years has been overlooked. Here, we find that the central point of departure is "the digital realm of escapism during a period of crisis", a time where the whole world was socialising, working and expressing their anxieties almost exclusively online. The rush to get back a "new normal" feels very sinister in hindsight, given the significant human cost of the pandemic, and this sentiment is not lost in 'The High Life'. We find ourselves questioning what it is that we were yearning for so much, and why it feels like it is a part of our lives that has stained our habits and behaviours, perhaps for the rest of our lives; if anyone is unchanged since the lockdowns, they are surely either delusional or ignorant. The joy of Blakeley's works is that although they have a very feminine, cute aesthetic, they also push the viewer to examine these ideas via the medium of popular culture imagery.