27 February – 28 March 2009
White Cube Hoxton Square presented ‘The Descent’, the first exhibition with the gallery by the British artist Rachel Kneebone. Working in white porcelain, Kneebone intricately modelled her largest sculpture to date, pushing her technical mastery of the medium beyond anything she has previously achieved.
There is a theatricality in Kneebone’s work which, as curator Vincent Honoré has commented, serves as ‘a strategy that enables her to use and displace the traditional concept of the avant-garde art work as the integrated, autonomous and privileged locus of aesthetic knowledge’. Nowhere is this theatricality more apparent than in The Descent, an epic staging of her extraordinary vision, a bacchanalia of hybrid figures falling into an abyss.
For Kneebone, The Descent explores fear in ‘an attempt to access the state through making an equivalent in beauty’. In the process of developing this idea, she drew upon a number of influences, from the spiritual journeys imagined by Dante in The Divine Comedy (c.1308-1321) and the father and son of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006), to the menacing performance of Robert Mitchum as the maniacal preacher in the film The Night of the Hunter (1955). Art historical sources include the drama of Poussin’s The Deluge (1660-1664), Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) through to Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866).
The Descent’s structure loosely echoes the tiers of Dante’s Inferno. Kneebone stretches her narrative around the internal curvilinear walls of the sculpture, thereby inviting the viewer to navigate around it as one would a medieval carving, a plaster cast frieze or an inverted triumphal column. The introductory rubric, in this case the figures peering over the edge, sets a tone of peril mixed with heightened sexuality, as they contemplate what lies before them.
Drawing on Bataille’s vision of an organic excess or fusion between the erotic and the sacred, tumbling figures cascade toward a giant orifice at the pit of The Descent, there to be reborn, or sucked into their final demise. In the upper circles, figures lie forlorn or crawl along the edges while some, reflecting Dante’s description of the damned as ‘connoisseurs of gluttony, greed and promiscuity’, squat against the ledge to devour and excrete. Below these Kneebone describes her ‘Fuselian nightmare – a beast violating any natural order of form, a gland-tipped vine with horse legs’. These chaotic hybrids issue forth plant-like tendrils with limbs that create a pulsating backdrop against which the experience of isolated descent is played out.
Rachel Kneebone was born in 1973 in Oxfordshire; she lives and works in London. Recent exhibitions include ‘Arrivals 2004’ selected by Majorie Allthorpe-Guyton, Arts Council, London, ‘The Way We Work’ at Camden Arts Centre, London (2005), Madder Rose Gallery, London (2006), ‘Mario Testino at home’, Yvon Lambert, New York (2007), ‘An Archaeology.’ Project Space 176, London (2007) and ‘Summer Exhibition’, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2008). In 2005, Kneebone was nominated for the MaxMara Art Prize and in the same year she was commissioned by Mario Testino to make work for his ‘Diana, Princess of Wales’ exhibition at Kensington Palace.