The first thing that needs to be known, if reproductions are all there is to go by, is that Renee So’s two-dimensional works are knitted. These are not flat, static drawings but aerated designs with a warp and weft, tension and drift. The knit declares itself like a wry quip, emitting a frisson of wit from what might otherwise seem voguishly referential. Recurring motifs – beards, boaters, pantaloons, pipes – recall the panache of the fin-de-siècle man of qualities. But are these sleek, substantial figures flâneurs or anarchists, claqueurs or noteworthies? The knitted worlds they inhabit are blank, but not without causality: actions have consequences, shadows fall and gravity pulls, though intentionality remains enigmatic, the laws of physics tilted.
The common drive for logic can, however, weave many stories from such irrational dangling threads. The principle figure in Promenading (2010) seems to cast an impossible shadow in another time and place, or perhaps this is a visualization of the complex tempo-spatial translation performed during the act of reminiscence. Further embranglement occurs when the centre of the figure’s beard becomes a point of rotation, spawning a second, upside-down face. This vertical Janus, or perhaps first cousin of the picture playing card, reappears throughout So’s work; a psychological reading might cast him as pathologically duplicitous or afflicted with unremitting self-awareness.
Besides these internal traumas, though, something ghastly has been visited upon the body in Drunken Bellarmine (2012). Here the figure has been chopped in two to reveal, in transverse section, a double trunk which falls from a striped plinth – or is it a truncated neoclassical column? – into a puddle of claret. This double doubling, of the face and the trunk, provides tentative explanations and a peculiar corroboration: perhaps these are grafted doppelgängers, biological heretics, bifurcating dualists or mitotic mutuals.
It’s difficult to decide whether So intentionally stirs a dash of Roman statuary into the brew with her ceramic Bellarmine busts, or if this is associative thinking in freefall. Bellarmine X (2012) – with his birch plywood boater too flatly horizontal for comfort and a metallic glaze that looks damply fluid – is the manifestation of maybe two or three half-formed puns left hanging in the imagination. It sits atop its plinth with the glibness of a character about to leave the stage after delivering a single absurd line. So’s reference point for these characters is, in fact, the ceramic jars made for wine and ale storage in Renaissance Rhineland, colloquially named after Cardinal Bellarmine, who blocked Galileo’s publication of his radical heliocentric hypotheses, arguably setting science back a couple of centuries. Curiously, these portly bottles, bearing a grim bearded face, became the receptacle of choice for secreting spells spun from iron nails, human hair and urine in the hearths and thresholds of English houses. Besides their squab form then, they bring to the table a topsy-turvy history of ordained and outlawed ritual, the boozy as well as the temperate, and knowledges that have fought for precedence, all of which So abstracts into classical scenes straining with unfeasibility.
Abstraction is an enduring form of comedy, given that the nub of slapstick is the rudimentary taking the place of the nuanced. And ambiguity is core to the pun: something that may be one thing or another has humour permanently up its sleeve. But what of the charm of the knitted Captain (2010) or Grey Sleeved Man (2012), where, respectively, beard becomes clothing and clothing becomes semaphore? Charm, or the power to attract or delight, is a curious quality that we attribute as if magically bestowed upon the ‘authentic’ bearer – but then again we know it can be turned on and off, like a utility, by the cynical possessor. The charmingly funny abstracted image, then, is in turns self-conscious and unself-conscious. It flickers between a knowing state and obliviousness, and between the two principle magics: the real and potent superstitious magic and the stage-managed theatrics of the secular magician.