Down the Rabbit Hole with Jan Gatewood

The artist’s solo show at Rose Easton in London features Br’er Rabbit, who rummages through cultural ruins in search of something new

BY Sam Moore in Exhibition Reviews | 30 JAN 24

The 14 mixed-media works on paper in Jan Gatewood’s first UK solo show, ‘Group Relations’, all feature rabbits at war with something. In Hattie McDaniel’s Powerful Lucky Rabbit’s Foot (all works 2023), a bunny bursts through a tattered poster for the film Gone with the Wind (1939), its facial expression somewhere between elation and agony. The presence and activities of these detailed protagonists, alongside the works’ many references – including to musician Prince and Uncle Ruckus from the US animated sitcom The Boondocks (2005–14) – indicate that the artist is contending with the weight of the past.

Jan Gatewood
Jan Gatewood, Hattie McDaniel’s Powerful Lucky Rabbit’s Foot, 2023, graphite, coloured pencil, glue, salt, fabric dye, bleach, oil pastel and oil stick on paper, 68 × 88 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Rose Easton, London; photograph: Jack Elliot Edwards 

Gatewood’s animal protagonists often recall Br’er Rabbit, a character from African American and Caribbean folklore who embodies the playful trickster archetype commonly associated with rabbits, the best-known example of which is Bugs Bunny from Looney Tunes (1930–ongoing). The use of Br’er Rabbit also references the controversial Disney film Song of the South (1946), which was criticized for its racist portrayal of plantation life. In placing his leporine avatars atop these archival images, Gatewood rummages through the ruins of history, looking to build something new from what remains. Several motifs exemplify this idea, whether it’s the weeping rabbit amidst a hellish backdrop in I Am a Cliché You’ve Seen Before. Thank You Poly Styrene (a nod to the late lead singer of X-Ray Spex) or the carefully rendered text of The Observer and Part of the Observation: ‘In order to properly replicate what exists now, it is also necessary to depict what is to come.’ 

Jan Gatewood
Jan Gatewood, ‘Group Relations’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Rose Easton, London; photograph: Jack Elliot Edwards 

The tension between the rabbits and the histories in which they find themselves creates a dynamism within the images. In Children of the Projects. The Sequel (Merlin Carpenter 2002/3), for instance, one of the stark, sketched lines that branches from a child’s face seems to trip up and trap a rabbit, turning ideas about fraught cultural history and representation into a tangible and visceral gesture.

A sense of unravelling emerges when Gatewood’s characters appear to vandalize their domain. In What’s Your Stance on Interracial Relationships?, the rabbit rebels against the paper by seeming to cause a tear in the surface, highlighting the tensions inherent in the work: between past and present, destruction and (re)creation. Gatewood’s approach offers the viewer various entry points via diverse references from television shows to art history. By focusing on the act of looking – highlighted, for instance, in his use of reflective surfaces – the artist implicates audiences in the historical representation of Black people in culture and invites us to consider how to handle this material today.

Jan Gatewood
Jan Gatewood, I Am a Cliché You’ve Seen Before. Thank You Poly Styrene, 2023, graphite, coloured pencil, glue, salt, fabric dye, bleach, oil pastel and oil stick on paper, 68 × 88 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Rose Easton, London; photograph: Jack Elliot Edwards

In ‘Group Relations’, Gatewood presents images – of animals, memories, cultural artefacts – that refuse simple definition. All the work is done on paper, and Gatewood doesn’t use a brush, refuting a painterly label. However, his citational approach gives the feeling of eclectic collages. Willingness to Try suggests that we might: ‘Rearrange the self as an act of humility.’ Taken in the context of thorny cultural memory, this line carries the idea that we might benefit from somehow altering ourselves in the name of ‘good representation’; here, humility comes as an act of thanks for being given a seat at the table. To Gatewood’s credit, his work does not grapple with this process of rearrangement to simplistic ends. Rather, he creates a vision of the self in flux, changing shape depending on what strange and problematic aspect of history it encounters.

Jan Gatewood’s ‘Group Relations’ is at Rose Easton, London, until 2 March

Main image: Jan Gatewood, How Ya Like Me Now? The Sequel (detail), 2023, graphite, coloured pencil, glue, salt, fabric dye, bleach, oil pastel and oil stick on paper, 68 × 88 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Rose Easton, London; photograph: Jack Elliot Edwards

Sam Moore is a writer and editor. They are one of the co-curators of TISSUE, a trans reading series based in London.

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