Arts review: Emily Sparkes, Havill & Travis

Words: John Kennedy

Havill & Travis’ wildcard derring-do reputation for showcasing disparate, eclectic art genres from cross-generational practitioners gathers apace.  They wind down 2015 with a pithy spit in the trompe l’oeil startling debut show from one of Birmingham’s most exciting young artists, Emily Sparkes.

And what a name!  Emily’s oeuvre is a seductively insinuating Nuevo rebirthing of tableaux vivants, aka “living pictures”.  Described variously (and sometimes precariously in the exhibition notes!) as “originating from the Age of Enlightenment, the tableau vivant is an artsy charade of sorts, leading to an entanglement of performance and painting.”  Of course…

Exotic, quixotic and beguilingly intoxicating, Ms Sparkes’ arresting opus magnum, oil on canvas Freaks, is magnificently huge, consuming much of one side of the gallery’s modest walls.  Imagine a fin-de-siècle fading Neapolitan salon.  Talc-wrinkled visage ghosts of discarded courtesans come and go, longing for their long lost gigolos.  Before them sits a muscular black patrician male with “Freak” tattooed on his inner forearm, languidly stretching towards a subjugated, semi-naked young man who seems to shield himself, or both, from either evocative advances or mutual accusations.  There is an ambiguous, homoerotic frisson – meanwhile, a subdued Roman sculpted bust frowns between them with embarrassed discretion.  He has problems enough of his own explaining that slivery silver scarf reflecting a posy of violets.  Weird scenes unwind inside Ms Sparkes’ bold mind.  There is a strangely inviting darkness on the edge of town watching Emily play.  Think of The Doors’ second album Strange Days and that seedy cul-de-sac tableau of the enigmatic juggling circus troupe.

We asked Dave Travis, co-curator at Havill & Travis, what first caught his fancy with Emily Sparkes’ work.  “I could enthuse about the technical skill, classical references and impact of the paintings, but I find art is similar to music, and every now and again you see something that jumps out at you from the thousands of art and images that you see.  I go to the Margaret Street degree shows most years and Emily’s work stood out, even amongst the incredibly high standard of work that they produce there.  I feel that Emily is at the very beginning of a long and extremely successful life as an artist.  I can hardly wait to see her next creation!”

Neo-romanticism? Phasmid/para-reality?  Take your imaginations on a moonlight drive through her parallax Portmeirion.  A fantasia to hold your fortunes prisoner in a cornucopia of redolent wit and enticing innuendo.

The Emily Sparkes exhibition runs at Havill & Travis, Harborne until December 19.  For more information, visit


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