The first thing that struck me in Eddie Peake’s solo show at Southard Reid was a black and white photo of a beautifully pert male bottom, peeking through a window in the structure Peake had built within the gallery space, which allowed partial views of the works hung on the walls behind. Although it was only an image, it looked so real I had an urge to squeeze it. Given that the show was titled ‘The Loving Clutches of My Hands’ it was easy to convince myself this was the appropriate response.
The flesh-coloured walls of the young London-based artist’s room-within-a-room were plastered smooth. In the middle stood a lumpen beige sculpture, There is No Such Thing as an Equivalent (all works 2011): slightly phallic and bulbous – with wonky lumps and bumps, like an ill-formed Barbara Hepworth – its colour mimicked that of the plaster. The space’s corners and walls didn’t correlate with those of the buildings; nothing was quite aligned.
Peake’s room was one with multiple views: alongside the aforementioned bottom was a rainbowed placard that read ‘EDDIE PEAKE THING’ and a board with a smiley face on it, all part of the work Transsexual. Through one of the three windows opposite you could see a photo of the legs of a man/boy sticking out from beneath a panel painted with orange, blue and pale green squares. Beside this, a large version of the bottom spanned two windows – letting the viewer see more, but perhaps not as much as they would like – accompanied by a pale pink board that cheekily stated ‘P.S’, next to another of a painted palm tree. To the right was his face: eyes turned coyly downwards, he looked as if he was about to flutter his eyelashes, a picture of young, androgynous perfection, standing next to another sign reading ‘Eddie Peake’ (all part of Jungle). Beside this was a doorway leading nowhere, but poking my head around lead me to see the final image of him: here his face and naked upper body were fully exposed. Beside him was a board which read, ‘The Loving Clutches of My Hands’.
The blankness of the beige structure contrasted sharply with the works hung on the existing walls of the gallery outside, creating another world within what would normally be a very ordinary Victorian room, on an upper floor of a terrace in Soho. It felt like a Modernist version of a temple or theatre: tiny in size and minimal in character, but somehow ridiculously monumental as a gesture. The contrast between the interior space and the exterior works was disorientating; the views out of this ‘stage-set’ were onto a hipper, younger and more fractured world. One part without the other part would have been redundant; the exhibition’s success lay in how one world made you view the other.
Peake’s choice to make himself present was also intriguing: an act of narcissism, a signature, a parody of the genius of the male artist – or all three? The exhibition text (written by his sister Clover Peake) was refreshing – a change from the usual gallery explanations that cite every reference the artist has ever considered – but also added a confusing layer to the work. Paragraphs of typical press release language were interspersed with passages that described a sexual encounter: ‘Icicles melt in the sunlight of your touch. Touch me again – you’ll be aloof and I’ll be strong and powerful and sexy.’ The erotic intimacy of this – coupled with the fact that it was written by the artist’s sister – felt taboo in the context of the claustrophobic space and peek-a-boo presence of the man/boy.
Peake’s work could be described as achingly cool; alongside making object-based works, he also stages performances and recently took part in a live television project broadcast by the artist-run space Auto Italia South East. But his play on the language of art today, and on the voyeurism that fuels contemporary life, is smart and exudes a joyful sense of parody. Whether we are in a bar, at an opening or on the Internet, we all want to look – we just don’t always want to be caught looking. Now Google ‘Eddie Peake’ and see what pops up.