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In jest

Ilana Savdie

In jest

8 July – 11 September 2022


8 July – 11 September 2022


White Cube Bermondsey

144 – 152 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3TQ

White Cube is pleased to present ‘In jest’, an exhibition by Ilana Savdie. Her first solo show in London, it features new large-scale paintings and drawings which explore performance and excess as modes of dissent and resistance.

Expanding on the carnaval tradition of her native Colombia, a subject she has worked with in the past, in this group of paintings Savdie introduces theatrical themes relating to the circus through the repeating motifs of a curtain, a hoof, a ball, a hoop (sometimes becoming a hole or portal), and in the suggestion of stretching, hanging and reaching bodies. Savdie’s fascination with performance is focused on destabilising agents and excessive modes of behaviour, and her visceral, dream-scape paintings celebrate the jester, the trickster, the parasite, the witch and the clown. As Savdie describes it: ‘They are always protesting, always resisting, always questioning power, and they are doing it through a grotesque exaggeration of themselves, their bodies, their failure to be legible, their needs and desires, their oppression, their social norms, their language, it is a mockery of all of it. They mock binaries, especially the idea of good and evil.’

Using fluid, layered, and discursive forms that dance across the canvas, her compositional arrangements are a riot of parasitic, disassembled bodies, ungrounded and endlessly evolving. A display of superabundance and enumeration, entrails, orifices, tissue, muscles, ribs, bones and joints are fused with less decipherable forms that might be some kind of basic organic matter. Worms, slugs, parasites or amoeba are shape shifting entities that destabilise the pictorial status quo, creating disarray and dissolution. Proportions and relative sizes do not adhere to their norms, so that everything appears equal in importance, heightening this structural undoing of the composition.

Drawing on the idea of the genuine or any fundamental authenticity at the heart of performance, Savdie sees role-play as a powerful force that opens a space of belonging for those at the margins of society, and equally, as a mechanism for self-discovery. Themes of perversion, inversion and contamination are celebrated through hybrid, physical matter that amalgamates forms, colours and textures in a single, horizontal plane. From the realistic to the cartoon-like, Savdie’s painterly language fuses into a kind of biomorphic caricature through procedures that range from thin pale washes to passages of thick impasto, from expressive brushwork to smooth, machine-like areas of paint.

A frenzy of incidence, of jostling, intersecting forms, is contrasted with large blank sections of paint and beeswax that create viscous pools of colour with a skin-like surface, pitted and rippled and defined by ridges. Savdie’s palette is distinctive, dominated by hues of searing hot pink, sun yellow, lime green, red, green and deep purple. Describing their effect as both euphoric and grotesque, Savdie uses colour to seduce and repel, and directly associates them with modes of dressing up, including drag and ‘queer’ space. ‘I respond to colour, spaces of ambiguity, the uncanny’, Savdie has said. ‘I’m using language that permeates queer conversation.’

In works such as Feast of Fools (2022) Savdie refers to the clown’s garish, ritualised performance of failure and humiliation. A figure who unpicks modes of authority with humorous abnegation of the self, the clown’s subjective power– like other carnival performers– taps into the social unconscious, gathering ‘disparate strands of culture, science, historical epoch, technology and philosophy in a way that helps expose an underlying ontology.’ Linked to a wider understanding of society, failure for Savdie is celebratory, a way to reject a pragmatic utopia and refuse social norms. In her paintings, failure to succeed is beneficial, and the frustrations of the body a delight. ‘I like to think about performance as a focus on the transformative potential, rather than the fact, of something’, she says. ‘I think of the body and the spaces we inhabit as stages. I think of the things we consume as performances. If we engage with the world as a series of performances, it gives us a way to dismantle anything that feels too binary or too extreme.’

Ilana Savdie (b. 1986, raised in Barranquilla, Colombia) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. In 2008 she received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, USA, and in 2018 she received her MFA from Yale University, New Haven, USA. Her work has been exhibited in numerous international exhibitions, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2021); Kunstraum Potsdam, Germany (2021); Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp (2019); and the B3 Biennial, Frankfurt (2017). In November 2022 she will become one of the inaugural Artists-in-Residence at Horizon Art Foundation, Los Angeles.

In the Gallery: Ilana Savdie

Ilana Savdie discusses the works on show in her exhibition, 'In jest'. Explaining how she carries this spirit of carnaval performance into her working process, Savdie explores the challenge of making different applications of paint coexist and speak to each other.

Installation views


Louise Giovanelli, Danica Lundy, Ilana Savdie with Hettie Judah

On the occasion of their concurrent exhibitions ‘As If, Almost’, ‘Stop Bath’ and ‘In jest’ at White Cube Bermondsey in 2022, Louise Giovanelli, Danica Lundy and Ilana Savdie talk to art critic and author Hettie Judah about the mechanics of image-making.

Ilana Savdie

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