The opening of Bellarmines and Bootlegs by Renee So at the Henry Moore Institute was certainly an eye-opening experience, in more ways than one. Not only was her work a fascinating insight into how bold and innovative techniques can so be so clearly interwoven with historical inspirations, but the night opened a particularly revealing window into the lives of the middle classes in Leeds.
The exhibition itself was made up of two core sections, one of which exhibited original work by Renee So and the other the pieces that had inspired her work. Her own work was made up of sculptures and machine knitted portraits, built around a central protagonist and usually invoking imagery linked to alcohol in some way.
The original works that inspired her art were ornately decorated jugs from the 16th and 17th century, called bellarmines. These would be used for a variety of things, and their particular function would often be reflected by the decorations on them. The ones on display at this exhibition were used primarily for decanting wine, and were as beautiful as they were enlightening – there’s something deeply humanising about history when we appreciate it through the medium of glorified wine bottles.
One of So’s pieces in particular struck me, both for its beauty and its symbolism. Whilst much of the exhibition was quite whimsical or lighthearted, this image seemed somehow more sinister. Instead of the generally happy looking, if vaguely defined, protagonist present in the other images, this one appeared to be sagging into spilled wine.
All of the pieces were very impressive in their own right, and the consistent application of the theme and protagonist made the exhibition feel like more of a coherent set than these things tend to.
Clearly, the attendees had been told in advance of the boozey theme. The gallery was packed to the rafters with the smartly dressed Leeds avante garde, who were being plyed with more wine than I’d ever seen at a free entry event. What’s more, the roving waiters and waitresses refilling glasses as the ostensible art aficionados engaged in sparkling conversation about the Leeds art scene created an atmosphere of quiet decadence. In short, it was surprisingly similar to how I imagined the opening night of an art exhibition to look.
The upside of this, aside from the free wine, was that I had the run of the actual exhibition as very few other people seemed interested in it. As well as learning about the magnificent work of Renee So, I discovered why these opening nights are so popular. Opening night or not, though, this exhibition is certainly worth checking out.
Renee So: Bellarmines and Bootlegs occupies Galleries 1, 2, 3 and 4 and will run until the 2nd of June.