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The austere soaring chamber of Dilston Gallery in the former Clare College Mission Church in Southwark Park is one of London’s most spectacular spaces. Built in 1911 it was the first poured concrete building in the UK and was described at the time as “the finest modern church in south London”—although the barn-like building, with its stark lofty interior, has more in common with the early Italian Romanesque than the 20th century-Modernist.

Since being taken over by Southwark Park Galleries in the early 1980s, Dilston has provided some of my most memorable art experiences, whether transformed into a shimmering green chamber of living grass by Ackroyd & Harvey, haunted by the prowling presence of the late Brian Catling or filled with a cavorting throng of Anne Ryan’s fantastical coloured sculptures.

Florence Peake’s FACTUAL ACTUAL, installation view at Southwark Park Galleries, London (2023). Performers: Temitope Ajose; Iris Yi Po Chan; Katye Coe; Eve Stainton; Rosalie Wahlfrid; Natifah White.

Now this evocative place is being magnificently animated by Florence Peake in Factual Actual, a multi-layered, performative, queer gesamtkunstwerk, which plays with and off the ritualistic connotations of its surroundings to literally grapple with the history of painting. Seven enormous unstretched canvases painted by Peake dangle from the beams of the vaulted ceiling before being sporadically raised and lowered by six performers using pulleys and ropes. Winched up and down and hooked and unhooked, Peake’s giant vivid paintings of tumbling multi-gendered figures are further animated by being dragged, crumpled, propped and used to cover, hide and house both performers and sometimes audience members. No longer passive objects to be gazed upon, the canvases become active participants in the piece, swooshing along the shiny white floor, getting down and dirty with the dancers, engulfing the audience and even having their surfaces scratched to form an aural backdrop to the action.

Factual Actual had its first incarnation in the heart of London’s National Gallery, where the close proximity of all those Old Masters gave an extra charge to Peake’s gender fluid canvas-action. In the bare dramatic setting of Dilston, the piece has now been extended and developed and the art-history ante upped even further. Up on a raised stage-like chancel where the altar would have been, one of the dancers crouches on her hands and knees. She rolls down her paint-splattered boiler suit to the waist and another performer vigorously covers her upper body with paint. As the cold paint splatters onto her bare flesh, a microphone is thrust in her face for her to read aloud from handwritten, random fragments of canonical art-historical texts extolling the usual white male pantheon of Cézanne, Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Pollock et al. These are being busily transcribed by another performer from a stack of art books and catalogues, including several from the National Gallery.

Sensuous slathering

The symbolism of what’s taking place might seem basic, but like all of us, Peake has a complicated relationship with these grand painterly traditions. Messages therefore become increasingly mixed as the paint application veers between savage gesture, sensuous slathering and slapstick humour. Is this body being anointed, violated, pleasured or ridiculed? Or all of the above? As the prone dancer calls the shots and barks out orders to her text-suppliers, it becomes less clear who is dominating whom.

Florence Peake’s FACTUAL ACTUAL, installation view at Southwark Park Galleries, London (2023). Performer: Rosalie Wahlfrid

Throughout Factual Actual’s two-hour run, the boundaries between painting, performance, body and material melt and merge across the emotional spectrum. At one point a dancer appears with head and body encased in scale-like armoured plates of vividly painted canvas. This disquieting paint deity seems both malevolent and tragicomic as, weighed down and blinded by this encrustation of impastoed medallions, which Peake has described as externalised “lumps of grief as condensed matter”, they navigate a tortuously slow route around the edges of the space. Then are we meant to ridicule or pity another character that blunders and stumbles down the length of the building, entangled in painting stretchers whose canvases have been torn off?

Portrait of Florence Peake

There are more conversations with the live work unfolding across town in a solo show of Peake’s new paintings, sculpture, installations and works on paper at Richard Saltoun gallery, aptly titled Enactment. Here unstretched canvases form large sculptural installations while a pair of gaunt angular figures in wood and plaster recline in contemplation before a number of the painterly medallions which have now migrated from being part of a dancer’s costume to be mounted on the wall as works in their own right.

Yet again, in the fluid, shape-shifting world of Florence Peake, categories dissolve, nothing is fixed or finite and everything and anything is possible.

Florence Peake: Factual Actual, Southwark Park Galleries, London until 2 July and then touring to Fruitmarket, Edinburgh October 2023 and Towner Eastbourne in early 2024; Florence Peake Enactment – Richard Saltoun Gallery, 30 May- 15 July

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