Jodie Whalen, Declaration of Love, 2016. Installation The Lock-Up 2019. Courtesy: the artist and The Lock Up, Newcastle
Curator Courtney Novak says that even after five years on the job, she still gets petrified when she turns up to work each day. Novak works at The Lock-Up, which was originally the Newcastle Police Station from 1861 until its closure in 1982, before being turned into an independent multidisciplinary contemporary arts space.
‘I don’t believe in ghosts but there’s a heaviness here,’ she told ArtsHub. In an attempt to shift the energy, Novak decided to curate an exhibition on one of life’s more buoyant topics – love.
Taking her cue from graffiti scrawled in one of the heritage-listed cells – I love you Melissa – Novak conscripted five artists to respond to the slogan, apparently written by “Kevin”, as a kind of cathartic rumination on the site’s dark past.
The role of history is a further curatorial touchpoint for Novak. Key to the exhibition is a work by Jodie Whalen, Declaration of Love, 2016, where the artist sings a series of cover songs about love in a red dress; the former cell it is displayed is transformed to a suffocating saccharine shrine of red glitter and hallmark glamour.
The piece is the final part to a body of work that began at The Lock-Up in 2014 as Between Husband and Wife for the exhibition Enduring Parallels, where Whalen and her artist husband Heath Franco, as dual performers, scribed their devotions of love and then recited them hour-upon-hour in a durational work. At what point does sentiment topple into cliché and then frustration?
‘It was not long after we opened and it was a very hard hitting exhibition, and we realised we were on the right track,’ Novak told ArtsHub. The piece by Whalen was developed and represented in This Love is Huge at Campbelltown Arts Centre (2015), and has returned to Newcastle where it was seeded aptly for this show.
It is presented with a desk, in an adjacent room, where viewers are invited to share their own declarations of love.
That sense of cycle, devotion and declaration is also played out by emerging Newcastle local, Caitlin Dempsey who’s video self-portrait speaks to the breakdown of communication in relationships, but with a light and humorous touch.
Novak explained: ‘In the winter of 2016 Caitlin Dempsey jumped in to the freezing ocean baths to cleanse herself of a lover. Twelve months later, she used the same location to retrospectively examine the emotions she experienced the year before by singing to that person, underwater.’
Dempsey attempts to sing love songs underwater, barely able to deliver a string of words, before the compulsion of self-preservation kicks in.
Caitlin Dempsey Trying to sing a love song underwater 2017 (video still); single channel video 1:42 minutes; courtesy the artist
Novak has superbly curated a show that plays out that tension between darkness and humour; it’s like that tickle which is so seducing but can so quickly become annoying.
Another Novocastrian, Lucas Grogan also hits that place in his work, presented here with a suite of paintings characteristically rendered in a reduced palette of blue and white, dosed up on witty text and catch cries for attention.
Known for being irreverent and to the minute on pulse with contemporary vernacular, Grogan's sense of humour has permeated his fastidiously patterned, highly graphic artworks – they are both personal and totally adoptable as our own 'thought bubbles'.
Marikit Santiago similarly strikes a balance between grunge and irreverence with a nod to tradition. Known for usurping religious icons with portraits of her Filipino family, her work for I love you Melissa, takes a spin on her own tear between the traditions of marriage and the kitsch wedding market.
Using packaging tape and toilet paper she adorns her wedding dress and plays of the Tagalog word Mahal, meaning both beloved and dear (as in expensive).
Marikit Santiago Mahal 2018, Installation view The Lock-Up 2019; photo ArtsHub
Less in the same funky, fun tone as the other works, Jumaadi’s installation of faux wayang (shadow puppet characters) are nevertheless totally loved-up. The are presented with a video work, Diary of Dust (2018), and both speak to Jumaadi’s long embedded narrative home and familial love in his work.
By placing it within a jail cell is a poignant reminder of the kind of rupture that 'being locked up' has on family, and if anything harks back to the heartfelt tag left for Melissa.
Novak concluded of her exhibition: ‘It’s like a mixed tape for me’. I love Melissa is exactly that sentiment – the mixed tape you would make for a lover, slightly sappy, 100% heartfelt, and a little bit embarrassing as we wear our rawest emotions on our sleeve.
It is a totally fabulous exhibition that is light but erudite, and is in touch with human emotion and a contemporary pulse.
The Lock-Up heritage listed graffiti; photo ArtsHub
4 stars ★★★★
I love you Melissa
1 June – 21 July
Featuring artists: Caitlin Dempsey, Lucas Grogan, Jumaadi, Marikit Santiago and Jodie Whalen.