What Happened to Helen Mirren? Artist Dawn Mellor returns actress to Southend

By Culture24 Reporter | 25 February 2013

Exhibition preview: Dawn Mellor – What Happened to Helen?, Focal Point Gallery, Southend, until March 30 2013

A photo of a subverted painting of a female actress standing in front of a colourful window
Dawn Mellor, Claire as Madame as Queen Elizabeth II (2012). Oil and oil stick on canvas© Courtesy Dawn Mellor / Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea
Helen Mirren’s decision to describe Southend in slightly surly terms a few years ago – her “armpit of Britain” remarks to an American interviewer gained instant infamy back in Essex – are rich pickings for Dawn Mellor, an artist whose take on celebrity culture has seen her fill galleries with the imprints of stalkers and film stars.

This is Mellor’s first solo exhibition specifically for a regional gallery, and it positions the class system as a kind of costume drama, as well as playing on the confusing visual identities of Mirren, an actress wont to summon her Russian heritage and working class background.

The images channel domination, subjugation and control from her staged roles in The Queen, Caligula and Prime Suspect, and the outside wall of Focal Point is full of small black and white paintings of Mirren as a schoolgirl, immersing herself in the counter-culture of the 1960s in between her first attempts at acting.

Mellor’s role is partly a performative one: despite never actually appearing in her works, she imagines herself as a delusional fan, and paints each character – from the androgynous DCI Jane Tennison to gangster’s molls and maids – from that perspective.

Mirren may not be returning to Southend to take part, but anyone still enraged by her observations on the town will see a different side to a star in this off-message homage.

  • Open 9am-7pm (5pm Saturday, closed Sunday). Admission free.
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