Harley Weir’s always challenged whatever normal means. Since graduating from Central Saint Martins with a BA in Fine Art in 2010, the subversive artist’s work has leaned into her deep fascination in youth culture – the beauty, the romance, the heartbreak of it all – while flip-reversing the female gaze, thanks to her close-up relationships with her many subjects.
Weir’s work has also long extended to mixed-media art forms, having been exhibited at Cob Gallery, TJ Boulting and Soft Opening, amongst many others. Often merging with her photographic work, Weir’s mixed-media pieces are anarchic in their expressive mark-making, manipulating intimate imagery and trashing it all with riotous ink splatters.
Last Saturday, Weir’s latest show, Sins of a daughter, opened in Peckham’s Hannah Barry Gallery, which has recently seen fellow London-based artists like Danny Fox, Kingsley Ifill and George Rouy exhibit in the past year.
Made up of two rooms, Sins manoeuvres between the delicate, the rapturous and an ominous undertone of trepidation through its looming portraiture and fixation on the human body. Using previously unseen work from Weir’s extensive personal photo archive and newer pieces from the past three years, Sins sort of acts like a bubbling cauldron of fear, desire, sex, angst and anxiety, with quick bursts of ecstasy in the most unexpected of places. Intimate shots of vaginas are coloured brightly in peach and pinks – feminine in their approach, but manipulated through blatant defacement, in double exposure and scans.
And it’s contrasted by genuinely haunting imagery, such as a naked woman walking through a dark wood, branches poking at her pale skin. Directly opposite, the jarring stares of two school girls in uniform with their faces painted in crackly white watch over – wickedly cool, if not slightly unnerving.
It’s an emotionally-charged exhibition, as Weir’s themes of youth culture meander through waves of rebellion and discovery. And like French essayist and philosopher Roland Barthes’ theory on photographic “punctum”, which she references in the show notes, Weir’s turn is like an electric shock. The bodies on show, whether tangled, close-up or stark naked, feel talismanic at times, brought to life through the artist’s use of bodily fluids in the work itself. And waste, unknown chemicals and the unpredictable effects of toners, fixers and developing agents, merge with the inks, paints and photographs, unsettling the eye while relinquishing any need for perfection.
Weir’s latest work prescribes a new idea of beauty. It’s complicated, even nightmarish at times, but wholly authentic. As the artist has long challenged modern ideals, like society’s obsession with the fountains of youth, Weir speaks to all the anxiety-ridden kids out there, drawing them in through a legitimate love and respect for the human body in all conditions. When you look at Sins of a daughter through that perspective, it becomes a rebellious middle-finger to contemporary beauty standards – and all the more liberating in the process.