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Explore Queer Love & Life at London Art Fair 2024 - FAD Magazine

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FAD Magazine covers contemporary art – News, Exhibitions and Interviews reported on from London

Woolf’s ‘Longest Love Letter’ Sparks Inspiration at London Art Fair 2024

Photography, Mark Cocksedge -London Art Fair 2024

When Virginia Woolf sat down to write Orlando, she wasn’t writing it with an abstract readership in mind. Really, she was thinking only of one person: her lover, Vita Sackville-West. We just got to be able to read it. 

In what feels like whimsical fanfiction for Vita (in the most delightful way possible) — Woolf tells the story of a time-travelling aristocratic poet hurtling through 400 years of history, and changing sex along the way. What stays the same though is Orlando’s restless, painterly, (and often painful) pursuit of love. 

Curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley. Photo: Gina Soden – London Art Fair 2024

This 1928 novel is the inspiration of choice at this year’s Platform at London Art Fair (17-21 January) curated by Gemma Rolls-Bentley, titled A Million Candles, Illuminating Queer Love and Life. Which, this year is in partnership with Charleston (the modernist home of painters Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant; Charleston also served as an escape for a revolving cast of writers and intellectuals. You’ll notice the pink exhibition walls when you walk in — this is a reference to Charleston’s originally painted pink door).  

Bringing together David Hockney’s series of etchings inspired by queer poetry of Constantine Cavafy, as well as a wide spread of works by contemporary artists like Olivia Sterling, Zach Toppin, James Dearlove, Ghada Kunji — A Million Candles really asks us to consider multitudes of queer love, and it’s rich, saturated ancestry. 

‘It was just something very validating to learn about Virgina Woolf’s passionate lesbian love affair. I think there’s something about the act of capturing and considering somebody through your art — through writing, through painting; it’s such a powerful way to demonstrate love. And then for that to be shared with other people — it feels like such a privilege but also feels really important to be able to get identification and to see your desires mirrored through art and culture,’

Gemma tells me. 

The title, A Million Candles, a line from the text — is one of the many references of this kind of fiery yearning that Orlando feels. Love, to them, is like ‘blazing candles’, like ‘people were throwing fireworks inside’ of them. Their love interest too, Woolf writes, ‘looked as if he was burning with his own radiance, from a lamp lit within.’  

Zach Toppin, Stuck (2021) Photo: Charlotte Rickards

The exhibition includes Zach Toppin’s piece, Stuck, a still life of fretted and floriated golden candlesticks, James Dearlove’s fireworks in Invoking the Elders (after Michals), or Nooka Shepherd’s candle-flanked tarot etchings — which are just a few of the works that make some very unsubtle nods to the theme of blazing queer love. 

’In my experience’,

Gemma adds,

‘there is something so special and unique about queer love, but specifically the way that lesbians love that is so intense. Throughout history’ Gemma continues, ‘we don’t hear about queer people nearly as much as we should, either because their stories weren’t recorded, or they’ve been suppressed.’ 

Olivia Sterling, Sorry to use that word, 2024. Acrylic on canvas. 180 x 120 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Guts Gallery

So it’s one of the key ideas of the show is this idea of queer love prevailing in these clandestine spaces. In Sorry to Use That Word by Olivia Sterling, Gemma sees the painting possessing ‘this kind of implied queerness, in the secrecy of this under the table kiss; there’s alcohol — which is something that comes up quite a lot within the queer and trans community, there’s such a strong history of queer socialising being in night time venues.’ 

David Hockney’s Etching. This one is called ‘In Despair’ 1966-67, Photo: Charlotte Rickards

In David Hockney’s series of etchings in the show — illustrations for fourteen poems from C.P. Cavafy — tells a similar story of queer love in repressed spaces. Hockney managed to track down a copy of the Greek queer poet Cavafy at his local Bradford library during his summer off from art school (it wasn’t on the shelf, he had to request it in). These poems of sensual and intimate desire between men proved instrumental in Hockney’s ease in expressing his own sexuality in these series of etchings, like in Two Boys Aged 23 or 24, there’s this contended ease of intimacy between the two of them, which feels all the more so with his light, sparse use of line work. The etchings hold a particular significance given the year they were published, was the year the UK parliament finally decriminalised homosexuality in 1967. 

James Dearlove’s painting: ‘Reclining Man with Peonies’ 2021 Photo: Charlotte Rickards

Walking along the show, in a strange coincidence, contemporary artist James Dearlove explained that during his childhood, he would go into his parents’ room where there was a book including these exact C.P. Cavafy etchings by Hockney which he would leaf through privately. One of the only visual references, he said, where he saw his queerness validated. His works, particularly romantic and floral, like Figures in a Room with Tulips on display, do feel like they reflect this Hockney-esque ease of queer intimacy. 

‘Lonesome in Rat Bohemia’ by Sophie Vallance Cantor, 2024 Photo: Charlotte Rickards

Nearby, a copy of Rat Bohemia, by Sarah Schulman is in the hands of a mythical figure in Sophie Vallance Cantor’s painting on show, Lonesome in Rat Bohemia, 2024. It’s a 1995 novel about gay men and lesbians who are forced to find new spaces to exist in New York City after being abandoned by their families. This idea in the book, of being able to reinvent yourself, and finding ease, and validation in queer spaces, communities, and in queer history — and how all the multitudes of queer love comes from this, is a core consideration of this exhibition. 

London Art Fair runs through to -21st January at Business Design Centre, 52 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 0QH. Platform is partnered with Queer Britain, Queer Circle and Museum of Transology. 

Book tickets HERE get 20% discount with code: FAD20

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