Too Much Too Young: Jolyon Fenwick at
Shapero Rare Books
Taking centre stage at Jolyon Fenwick’s latest solo exhibition at Shapero Rare Books on Bond Street is a new piece by Fenwick. Titled The Good Versus Evil Table Football Elevens Wait to be Presented to Her Majesty (2021), it is Fenwick’s tribute to the Queen’s fortitude in attending nearly every event, big or small. The local football team includes members from the Child Catcher of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Roman Emperor Caligula to Santa Claus and the Mother Teresa. The Queen has certainly met at least a few of the figures, but never under quite such circumstances.
Fenwick’s series ‘Compositions with Beetles & Butterflies’ line the walls, drawing the eye immediately. Rather fittingly ‘Live Fast Die Young’ hangs behind the drinks table. But as many of Fenwick’s creations remind us, these riotous butterflies with their racy life mottos represent a very real facet of their existence. The majority of the beetles and butterflies that Fenwick uses have a lifespan of only a few weeks at most.
Nevertheless, even in death, these creatures can bring beauty – if properly preserved. The patterns Fenwick makes with them range in inspiration from military battle tactics to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, famous for its cycle of paintings by Giotto, to pop albums by Madonna and Elvis.
The importance, and precarity of preservation is a theme which runs through another of Fenwick’s series. Reverting to Type is quite possibly my favourite of the works on show. Tucked in at the back, away from the almost overwhelming boldness of some of the compositions with beetles and butterflies, six hand-printed typepress prints are nestled together. They reward a more intimate viewing, as the grid of letters, when read carefully, reveals itself to read a passage, rather than the wordsearching worldessness that it initially appears to be. These passages remind the reader that, for example in A Redemptive Reality, for all our efforts, often our greatest final impression upon the world will be in the letters the stonemason carves into our graves.
This sombre tribute to the importance of print faces a rather lighter series, but one that is no less literary in focus. Fenwick’s sculpture series Virus Classics pays tribute to the designs by Coralie Bickford-Smith for The Penguin English Library while poking fun at some of our more optimistic ideas during lockdown, with titles like ‘Anna Coronina’, whose cover features the Russian Imperial eagle mid-splutter and ‘At Least Two Metres from Madding Crowd’. As the UK starts to learn what ‘living with Covid’ will entail, Fenwick’s sculptures will, it is likely, remain timely.
A Decline in Mental Health takes an equally colourful, and subtly ominous approach to societal and social developments over the last few years. The cubic organisation of the marbles on the boards highlight the occasional gap, as a few ‘lost marbles’ roll around at the bottom of the frames. For a concept many artists have played with, few have managed to say so much with so little. It is one of his pieces which rewards a closer look. Carved into the panelling are brain stems, and short comments which range from the evocative (“To be honest, she’s probably happier than us”) to the more bathetic (“Verity had always been deeply moved by humanist funerals”).
Overall, Fenwick’s Too Much Too Young is an exhibition that benefits from being viewed up close as much as it does from far enough back to see the whole image (which can be quite large, as in the case of his compositions). While many of the works feature serious themes, the beauty and the levity of their presentation means they will never overwhelm. Fenwick is an artist who sees the fun in his own creations.
Too Much Too Young by Jolyon Fenwick runs at Shapero Rare Books from 23 February to 18 March. For more information, visit:
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