Renee So’s exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute is made up of stoneware sculptures, machine knitted images and tiled, mosaic pieces, which detail aspects of a fictitious character she calls Bellarmine. Her character’s namesake is a domestic jug used in the Rhineland area of West Germany, in the 16th and 17th centuries, to transport beer or wine to the table. So discovered the Bellarmine, embossed with a bearded face, in the V&A. Throughout the exhibition, Bellarmine is a flaneur, presiding over gallery visitors with his personal paraphernalia (namely, a hat, pipe and cane).
A collection of sculptural pieces are totem-tops on plinths: Bellarmine’s face; a container for his cosmopolitan; a fertility statue (with an extra leg). There are 8 in total, forming a semi-circle of artefacts from this mystery life.
The knitted pieces comprise of flat colour divided by a fine, drawn line, which mimics the engraving on the stoneware pieces. They show Bellarmine whole and in parts. Drunken Bellarmine, 2012, is chopped at the torso, rendered legless, his lower half like two sushi rolls. In Sunset, 2016, Bellarmine’s face is found again in his boots, where the shape of his features become a satisfying repeat pattern; the outline of his beard is the edge of a cloud or bouncy, rolling hills in a cartoon landscape. Each of these ‘knitted paintings’ (So’s terminology) could be a wordless, comic book scene. There is an angularity, warmth and simplicity to the style of these that remind me of something conjured up on Microsoft Paint.
The pipe smoke in tiled mosaic piece, Relaxation, 2019, is a shiny, empty, thought bubble in a muted, matt world. Another tiled portrait, Guitar, 2019, depicts Bellarmine with a boot for a head, which could be half an anvil; Bellarmine is topsy turvy, footloose, lead-headed.
Bellarmine X, 2012, is a perfect 3-D portrait which can be viewed from all sides, his face gold, glossy and mottled in texture and his hat, supremely smooth, a birch plywood boater. I want to sit on it or rest my cup on it and restore Bellarmine to domestic service. In his beard of shiny bobbles, I am reflected many times, a tiny me curved into each ball. Each ball could be a cell; I am just a bunch of cells, after all.
In Promenading, 2010, Bellarmine’s face (beard included) is reflected vertically, a playing card. We are reflected in Bellarmine, all of us. Are we with Bellarmine or against him? Where are we on the Bellarmine scale? Bellarmine is a regular Joe Public, a nobody, but here he is everybody. Like the jug he descends from, he is full of beer.
Bellarmine is also a vehicle for the craft skills of his inventor. I like how there are visible seams in the knitted works and holes and cracks in some of the ceramic sculptures, evidence of the artists’ hand and her process, which simultaneously support the myth of these items as having a history, as if So dug them up, as if they existed before her.
All drawings are © Lizzie Donegan