The work of Glasgow-based artist Jamie Crewe feels a lot like a telenovela, Spanish for ‘soap opera’ (it literally translates as ‘TV novel’). One could even allude to the concept of the culebron—a colloquial Southernism, both in the European-Spanish context and in parts of South America—as a fitting quality of the artist’s most recent body of work. Culebra means ‘long snake’, and the name refers to the television series’ often elongated and convoluted dramatic plot.
In the way that the telenovela’s protagonist’s experiences function as forms of modern allegory—morally, socially or politically inclined—Crewe’s solo exhibition at Tramway, Pastoral Drama, similarly pulls from ancient myths as backdrops and placeholders for matters at great personal stake. In this exhibition, the artist taps into the story of Eurydice and Orpheus (as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 8 AD) and a 17th century operatic interlude based on the same tale (titled Eumelio and subtitled dramma pastorale, by Agostino Agazzari, 1606 AD) for the exhibition’s main narrative arc. In these plots, acts of sight create deceitful and painful situations that bring demise—even death—to their characters.
The installation is constructed around a set of orange-brown wall partitions that together form a spiral-like arrangement where separate elements—comprising text, drawings and video—are partly invisible to one another. Upon entering the space, on both sides of a protruding wall, one is faced with ‘Terms’, a text written in the first person that moves between declaration and contract; it describes Crewe’s request not to be seen, understood or referred to as a man. The artist is transgender, and their address and treatment as any gendered reference other than this one is described in the text as painful and undesired. The tone is urgent and the matter non-negotiable; failure to follow suit will result in the artist’s deliberate withdrawal.
Invoked by the spirits of their gendered and phenomenological past, Crewe appears in ‘Pastoral Drama’—a two-channel animated video played on hanging screens—as simultaneously absent and present. The artist has modelled the protagonists, Eumelio and Eurydice, on themself; both take their facial features to create female and male versions of the artist’s appearance at 21-years-old. All characters in this half-hour film are embodied in beautifully intricate drawings and precise plasticine bodies. There is a sense of god-like joy in the artist’s efforts to render their subjects realistically as well as to grant them the full freedom afforded by their surroundings. It is here that Pastoral Drama captures the senses with masterful effect: we are drawn into this world with lush colours, clever props, multi-textured and dynamic landscapes, and the depth of feeling afforded by a soundtrack of lever harp and viola.
Within such aesthetic pleasure unfolds a dramatic and non-spoken plot, wherein both Eurydice and Eumelio end up in the inferno of Hades, only for heroic characters to later attempt their rescue. The genre of both narratives, though greatly similar in content, shifts dramatically from romantic melodrama to an all-male adventure trip: while Eumelio is rescued by his guardian Apollo after being deceived by demons passing as Vices, Eurydice—after being bitten by a snake—is eternally doomed to death when her husband Orpheus breaks the only rule given to him on his quest to rescue her from the underworld: that of not looking back at her at any point on their way out. Fuelled by impatience or desire or doubt, Orpheus breaks his promise and Eurydice disappears, the screen turning pitch black. Eumelio’s narrative continues with celebration and male camaraderie, but not for long. Here Crewe inserts an improvised tale of tribulation and misfortune and, in the end, neither the male or female characters make it out unscratched.
From inside the gallery looking out onto the main street are ‘25 Abductresses’, a series of individual drawings printed on bright fluorescent paper that together with a cloudy brown paint compose murals, covering the entire surface of two large windows. Abductresses, we are told, are demons, or furies; beings of vengeance. These human-like creatures—bird hybrids—are here to be observed by an outside gaze. As such, they become open targets for recognition and misrecognition, admiration and repulsion, understanding and hostility. Throughout the exhibition, regardless of the elicited responses to their ambiguous being, their presence is unreservedly aggressive, and wholly unapologetic.
Crewe’s play between autobiography and myth, or better, their use of myth as a means to deal with biography (and thus the toil of mind and body) is, in itself, an important way in which this exhibition gestures towards queer visibility; here, the artist hides in plain sight. In the context of a fraught social and political moment, where trans bodies are still greatly determined by the policies and semantics enacted by governments and state actors, and where erasure is not only a risk but a reality close to many, Crewe’s Pastoral Drama insists on the right to be looked at on one’s own terms. If the telenovela provides hyper-real narratives as a way of fabricating an economy of emotional gain for its audiences, Crewe’s reconfiguration of Eurydice and Eumelio’s stories allows for voices to speak that may otherwise be outcast to the periphery.
Eliel Jones is a writer and curator based in London.