Cob Gallery is proud to present Joe Sweeney’s third solo show, Vacancy: a ‘show of exhaustion’ that offers a subversive take on the theory and practice of masculinity in contemporary society, bodied forth through the juxtaposed visual languages of the urban British scape and the American wasteland.
Partly inspired by time spent in the Mojave Desert in 2018, Vacancy celebrates and critiques the ways in which British ideas of ‘macho’ are suffused by the distant mythology of the American frontier. Deftly drawing out moments of absurdity in this combination, Sweeney pitches feelings of uncanny familiarity to maximum volume.
By imagining our own culture as a set of ruins or remains, Sweeney assembles a set of ephemera emblematic of the lonely ‘last men’ of this civilisation, or the frontiersmen of another. The mood is perfectly matched to a society that can’t seem to decide if it’s being serious or not: whether the Magnificent… Magnificent Desolation all around (the title of Vacancy’s centrepiece video projection) is the real deal or just some superbly atmospheric set-dressing. Set to the music of the moon landings, Sweeney’s video opens up another metaphorical avenue to explore notions of male isolation.
Often conjuring the suggestion of eerie human absence in a ‘seat’s still warm’ fashion, Vacancy imagines us at the moment straight after the button has been pressed. Yet Sweeney somehow manages to retain a thread of playfulness and wit to stops things from getting too morbid.
Vacancy toys with the British taste for nostalgia in a way that has become a mainstay of Sweeney’s aesthetic, offering a sideways take on the idea of a culture whose ‘waste’, considered in various ways, has become one of its most valuable exports. The artist’s use of newspaper print in the Palimpsest series functions as a pithy commentary on the relentless tide of recycled media copy washing through Britain in the Brexit era, while also suggesting the idea of our own society being post-apocalyptically reconstructed. Live, Laugh, Love, a set of cast aluminium candle-lit wall sconces modelled on torn cardboard, provides the set-dressing for such moments of reflection, the trace of the artist’s hand in their construction offering a tantalising hint of their absentee maker’s tactility.
The clash between these interwoven but seemingly discordant worlds links up with Sweeney’s continuing fascination with the idea of human solitude. In works like Imperially Leathered and Come to where the flavor is, come to Marlboro country, Sweeney sends up the ‘lone ranger’ model of masculine identity while also reflecting on the ambiguous ways in which our socialised, urbanised lives often draw on an idealised image of isolation and self-sufficiency. Like a displaced replica of a 90s telephone box perched on the stones of Dungeness (the physical component of Sweeney’s celebrated recent intervention, +44 Leave a Message for Europe), Vacancy wonders if the wilderness is what we really want.