It’s a Monday afternoon in the middle of London Fashion Week, and artist and curator Paul Kindersley, with his mop of orange hair, turquoise eyebrows and towering heels, has me crouching down to look at the colourful ornamental garland above the side door to Claridge's, opposite, through a circle painted by illustrator Helen Bullock on Belmacz’ glass shopfront. “Claridge's is quite gaudy really, when you look at it like this, isn’t it?” he says, delighted. “I think we go together quite well.”
He’s right, of course – there’s a hint of the garish to the colourful wreath on the Claridge’s shield, but it seems perfectly appropriate because of how British an establishment the hotel is – and the idiosyncrasy makes it a perfectly adequate extension to Belmacz’s new exhibition, The Conformist. Taking place in jewellery designer Julia Muggenburg’s store and gallery, Belmacz, the exhibition, which takes its name from the Bertolucci film, is a small but mighty and utterly unabashed celebration of nonconformity in the British Isles, spanning painting, art, fashion, performance and music.
The show’s focus, a cacophony of ideas about high and low culture, is rooted in the figure of Emma, Lady Hamilton, the kind of woman who could only have existed in the madness of the Romantic late-18th century. Mistress to Lord Nelson and muse to painter George Romney, she inspired a performance piece by Kindersley, a short film of which plays a part of the exhibit, and acts as the force underpinning the multitude of ideas running throughout it. “Something about her captured me – she was a muse to so many people,” Kindersley says. “She did her own life – so many different parts of it were tragic and exciting – and she reinvented herself completely. She seemed so relevant, so punk.” She was also, he adds excitedly, a performance artist of her own kind. “She did these pieces called her Attitudes – she used to come down the stairs in these tableaux vivantes, dressed quite riskily or completely nude, but because she was meant to be a great muse people would come and look at her. She was one of the greatest British performance artists.”
As such, a small portrait of her marks the entrance to the exhibition, crowned by a Stephen Jones creation bearing flowers and straw, which looks, appropriately, not unlike one’s hat might after an afternoon spent rolling around in a meadow. Elsewhere a T-shirt created by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood holds up the punk presence; Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s sinister Punch and Judy-esque puppets watch out from the wall; a cheeky and arresting Julie Verhoeven film plays out from a TV screen suspended from the ceiling; while downstairs, a spread of David Parkinson’s sensuous, gritty photographs challenge the viewer to conflate sex with advertising.
Leigh Bowery is a proud and definitive presence, from his kirby grip jacket which hangs from the ceiling, against a mirrored wall “because he’s in heaven: he’s our eagle and our angel,” – to the display cabinet downstairs which places another of his pieces alongside a Judy Blame keychain, and an early Vivienne Westwood crown. Emerging Irish designer Richard Malone, who deftly fashions unusual, sculptural silhouettes from sustainable fabrics, will play a powerful role in the show too. “As we work our way through, someone in the gallery will be always be wearing Richard, because we thought it would be quite depressing to put his clothes on a hanger,” Muggenburg says. Kindersley is, at the time, wearing a blue cotton workman’s shirt of his, appliqued with an apple and a pear in brightly coloured threads, and it seems to fit seamlessly with its surroundings. “The cut-outs are deliberately, beautifully non-couture, but they are couture – this has been made in very few numbers,” she continues. “You can put your pens in here and take your grocer’s order here. At the moment, Richard captures that idea of saying ‘I don’t have any money, but I’m making fashion, and I’m making it to make a difference.”
Needless to say, it’s a riotous display – a clamouring of ideas, media, and references – and yet in the serene cocoon of Belmacz, with the glimmer of Muggenburg’s own handmade jewellery designs in the corner of every display, it becomes an oddly harmonious collection. “There’s charm, there’s banality, there’s a little bit of character,” she says, referencing a sculpture by Jennifer Caroline Campbell, though it could be said of the show more holistically too. It’s British nonconformity at its very best, and strange and varied as it is, it works.
The Conformist runs until April 16, 2016 at Belmacz, London.