One might expect the affective resonance of a former prison to be mostly negative. When we think of men, women, and young people being kept in an institution’s concrete cells, we think of loneliness, of oppression, of fear. In a subversive and moving retort to these expectations, The Lock-Up’s current group show curated by Courtney Novak takes the harshness of the space’s cement walls as an opportunity to explore the reparative feelings and connections that persist in our lives despite – or because of – the most trying circumstances.

‘I LOVE YOU MELISSA’ — titled after a segment of text scrawled on the wall of one of the space’s cells — considers how companionship and care exist in a world that often seems inhospitable to these soft and fragile things. As such, the show acknowledges the failings and difficulties that necessarily accompany our experiences of love. However, as an essential counterpoint, it turns attention emphatically to the idea of love as a means of redemption from shortcoming or simple human finitude: a means of making whole.

Much of the work here is autobiographical. Newcastle-based Lucas Grogan’s BEDROOM SERIES, for instance, uses book spines and text messages to trace the misfires of love and longing in contemporary relationships. Highly patterned and hypnotic, Grogan’s work hints obliquely at stories of troubled connections and affairs. It shows people reaching for footholds of connection and acceptance amongst the ever-shifting landscapes of sexuality, identity, and humanity. Caitlin Dempsey, also based in Newcastle, creates a wistful ode to lost love in Under water love songs (2016). Working from a background in psychology, Dempsey uses performance to place her personal experience within theoretical frameworks, contextualising the stories of her own life and loves within broader ideas about the nonsense and unknowability of human hearts.

A love of place, and of family, guides other works in the show. This seems particularly pertinent, perhaps, in a building so bound up in both the history Australian colonialism and many local stories of separation from family and home. An artist who works between Australian and Indonesia, Jumaadi produces paintings and drawings which appear as dreamscapes, showing people drifting through time and place in an aesthetic that draws from the Indonesian theatre tradition of Wayang Kulit. Weaving together different places, memories, characters, and moments in history, the artist’s work imagines a macrocosmic structure of connections that persist through shifting contexts.

Marikit Santiago’s work collapses the categories of the personal and the political, exploring how experiences of motherhood and marriage sit within broader historical constructs, including colonialism and organised faith. Replacing icons from classical Western art history with images of her husband and children, Santiago asks where the highest divinity in our daily lives is truly manifest.

Perhaps the most resolutely reparative work in the show, Jodie Whalen’s Declaration of Love gives us precisely what we are too cynical to expect: a statement of love and timeless devotion from the artist to her husband. In this video work, Whalen sings a selection of cover songs, each linked to a significant moment in the story of her relationship with her partner. Encompassing experiences of longing, hatred, lust, sadness, and — let us not forget — togetherness, the work seems to posit love as both the root of humanity’s deepest flaws, and the condition of our highest grace.

‘I LOVE YOU MELISSA’ calls to mind a line from Lynne Tillman’s suite of short stories, Hold Me. In one vignette, a character says to her lover ‘I don’t want falling in love, I don’t want it. If it runs me, it runs everything.’ In this show, as in Tillman’s story, love is pictured as the gravitational centre of our human lives, catalysing most of the bad things, and most of the good things, that we do. Perhaps the sentiment feels naive, but surely that is much of the idea: if love – in its pestilence and perfection – can exist in a lock-up, it will find its way in pretty well anywhere.

1 June – 28 July 2019
The Lock-Up, Newcastle


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