Entering this exhibition, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a trade fare, with its sparsely populated space and temporary walls, their feet showing, dividing the works. First impressions, we are often told, count, but they can sometimes be misleading, with further engagement revealing surprising riches beyond the immediate façade. And so it is here, as the surprisingly seductive art works inexorably contradict the show’s somewhat austere initial appearance.

How I Naturally Improved is the exhibition concluding Camille Yvert’s Sculpture Town Artist In Residence 2018-2019 (STAIR) at Harlow’s Gibberd Gallery. Now in its third year, this scheme targets early-career sculptors and, having seen all three exhibitions, I can thoroughly endorse it as a key addition to the national provision of support for sculpture, taking on the mantle of championing contemporary sculptural practice. 

Paris born Camille Yvert studied at the Royal College of Art and describes her practice as one that “uses futile and precarious structures” in which “fragmented systems of desire are re-negotiated to observe the alienation of the body within transient architecture”. The first work I encounter is I Believe In You So You Can, an elongated bronze chain necklace cascading from the ceiling and pooling on the floor, with the titular maxim I Believe In You cut out in fake tortoiseshell, hanging at eye level. I’m reminded of blogger tropes and fridge magnet platitudes that yearn to impart positivity, not to mention the current cultural need for making visible our collective support for, well, everyone! 

Surface, texture and scent are a palpable part of Yvert’s work. Take the array of materials, or should I say ingredients, listed for the piece Un Beau Soleil Interieur – Sculpture To Balance Your Emotions: Jesmonite, amber, fibreglass Ashwagandha tablets, coffee and coco body scrub, turmeric, argan oil, grapefruit, jasmine mist, wood and leather coated with body oil. Though this potpourri might suggest a luxury day pass at a posh hotel spa, the sculpture is not concerned with glamour – the front section of a cast body in jaundice yellow with a midriff of spare flesh hardly epitomises orthodox ideas of corporeal beauty. The torso sits on a leatherette pad with a wooden trough to its side, which contains oil simultaneously referencing massage and basting. 

Bronzage is a ‘bronzed’ scooter seat sitting in its own shallow lido of oil. This is the money shot. It widens the exhibition, alluding to Bronze Age sculpture and Greek gods. It also brings to mind the scooters hired on holiday, a seat with space for two, potential holiday romance, the strap for the pillion rider to hold onto when squeezing up with the driver. It is hermaphrodite both as both object and symbol. Tanned and viscous, it’s a sexy seat and emits prowess in its part body/limb, part upholstery permutation. Like a bronzed, beached Adonis, the scooter seat offers a strong, sensual invitation to touch it and sit on its soft, oleaginous and undulating surface. Its saddle-like shape is no different in sensory activation to the erotic pull of the horse saddle, a symbol often exploited in literature. The sculpture effectively sits in the gallery like a naked body on a sun lounger.

There is charisma in this work as the viewer is bounced between the fake and real; the dream and the mundane; pleasure and repulsion. It’s a leatherette world, the faux luxury that most mortals are involved with – the ready meal version of attractiveness, not the beauty of airbrushed adverts but the local reality – real bodies trying to emulate the perceived beauty in glamour; bodies that are lurid, lived-in, weathered. 

The notion of striving and ambition through personal beauty manifests more overtly in the work Unlock Your Full Potential, which is a collection of ceramic and false nail appendages that are neither fingers nor trotters but allude to both while carrying the luxury and colour of giant king prawns. This is high maintenance grandeur.

Elsewhere, a wall coated with 50 SPF sun protection lotion, titled Are You At Your Best?, lets in a chink of reality and thoughts of the intense upkeep regimen required to maintain a bronzed body. This protective carapace also serves to remind that makeup is a kind of camouflage, a skin laid upon on a skin. The lotion is thinly and overtly applied in sweeping and circular motions – it’s not thick, ‘drag your nails through’ pancake foundation, nor is it the sponge applied dabbing of a true aficionado of the base layer. This piece lacks the care and commitment of the genuine make up artist, as it is rendered neither with exaggeration nor subtlety; indeed, the work’s strength is in its allusion, again, to the maintenance required in retaining a ‘perfect’ body. The universal longing shared equally by beauty queens and body builders is a fulltime undertaking, a matter of constant hard work and daily burden.

Another wall in the exhibition presents a grid of sunrises, which also comprise the front covers of an accompanying publication, also called Bronzage. These beautifully produced booklets hang like holiday brochures from the wall. They are pleasing and alluring and their repetition provokes thoughts of the long yearned-for annual vacation or the package holiday promise of the ultimate sunset.

This work introduces the artist’s own publishing house, Offline Press, manifesting in a table of pamphlets, zines and books. Each publication proffers a complexity of different information, images, formats and articulations of sculptural practices and processes. Also found here are student zines, the result of an engagement/outreach project with local undergraduates that is part of the residency brief. The zines are as precisely and carefully considered as the Offline Press publications and dwell on the complexity of ingrained consumerism, body bias and the illusive, fickle nature of desire.

This is an exhibition that you take away with you; the works seep into your consciousness and when later I passed gyms, nail bars and tanning salons, it made me question what exactly we are striving for in such places. Beauty? Escapism? Health? Conformity? What does health look like? All the works reveal the mundanity of our everyday search for perfection, the repetitive upkeep of our personal veneers and the perilous mismatch between Instagram life and no-filter reality. It is clear through this solo exhibition that Yvert has a strong artistic vernacular and is certainly a young artist to take note of. This oeuvre whispers aspiration yet reveals failure, delusion and lack of individuality in the health and beauty industry. The deceit of the commoditisation of advertised dreams and bought-into ideas about the ideal body are inherent in this exhibition as it stares down the frayed edges of a unified illusion.

Louise Clarke

I Believe In You So You Can TooCammille Yvert (Tortoise shell, bronze chain) Image: Corey Bartle-Sanderson

There will be an artist led tour at 2pm on Saturday 14 December 2019. The gallery will open at 1pm with free refreshments.

Camille Yvert

STAIR: Sculpture Town Artist In Residence 2018-2019

Gibberd Gallery, Civic Centre, The Water Gardens, Harlow, CM20 1WG

16.11.2019 to 11.01.2020

The exhibition will tour in 2020 to Filet Filet.

Sculpture tour with Camille Yvert via Eventbrite