I think a lot about bodies, and the absurdity of trying to control that which cannot be controlled. It is absurd but I still do it. In Kathy Acker’s 1993 essay Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body, she writes: “by trying to control my body… and time and time again failing to do so, I am able to meet that which cannot be finally controlled and known: the body”. The searing of muscle is maybe the closest we ever get to being entirely within ourselves, with the exception of orgasm.
“Is the equation between destruction and growth also a formula for art?”– Kathy Acker
Orgasm is la petite mort of utter aliveness. Exercise breaks us down to make us stronger. Acker speaks of the convergence of meaning and essence found in the gym; the transcendence of language. In Leon Scott-Engel’s debut show with Pipeline, ‘Handle With Care’, canvases portray both bodies in physical exertion and bodies in embrace. Although informed by manifestations of hypermasculinity, the works surpass the gendered subject. They speak of the body’s implication in human fragility, which– although it is important to acknowledge the accentuated and unique challenges which marginalised bodies face– is surely one of the most universal things.
Meaning + essence (bodies) = form + content (art). Scott-Engel’s work blurs these boundaries. The most explicit example of this is Swole (2023), a monolithic linen punchbag whose surface is scattered with dense purplish bruises. Confronted with something so skin-like, it is difficult not to react viscerally. Rose Tinted (2023) is formed of sparring-pads, typically used to withstand impact during kickboxing training sessions. The artist contrasts the violence of their context with nebulous, glowing scenes of tenderness. After all, the ‘oneness’ of self experienced when connected to one’s own body (the gym) and connected to another (affection) perhaps aren’t so different. Why must these two attributes– strength and tenderness– exist in isolation? Acker spoke of patriarchy as the genesis for bodily alienation and, thus, alienation from self. She spoke of the multiplicity and fragility of identity.
The show’s standout work slumps against a far wall, curved inwards upon itself. Scott-Engel builds these shaped canvases himself, an arduous process which quite literally imbues them with physical intimacy. In this case it is particularly suited, as Trace (2023) depicts a mattress. Trace’s surface reveals a large ochre stain– a bodily remnant– which forms the outline of figures intertwined. At first I see two, later three. The effect is ghostly, and the whisper of abjection present in the work is integral to its poignancy. Body fluids, and surfaces shaped by the weight of lives are reminders of our own shared mortality.
The setting of Scott-Engel’s canvases is implicated in their reception: Vanitas (2023), an outwardly curved work depicting a man facing his mirror image, requires the viewer’s concentration in order to place themselves at the correct point of perspective. The vanitas of the 17th century Dutch genre was a meditation on the transience of life. Scott-Engel’s Vanitas is concerned with selfhood. Figuration is warped and it is unclear which man is real and which is reflection. A Borges quote which I like: “I’m not sure I exist, actually”.
All of this is not to take away from the issues of machismo confronted here. I spoke to Scott-Engel ahead of his show, when he told me that his introduction to boxing, as a young boy, had been by way of ‘emotional self-defence’; as something to make him more of a ‘man’. It is true: exercise isn’t as simple as the ‘meeting of the body’ which Acker describes. The physical has always been intertwined with a complex web of social causes and consequences. We can place blame on patriarchy. Scott-Engel’s work is instead a meditation on the nuance of identity, positing the body as a site of selfhood. You are both strong and tender, it says.