Years before I first met Lindsey Mendick, I knew more intimate details of her life than I did those of my oldest friends. I knew about her past relationships: open and clandestine; coercive and crushing. I knew about sex with her exes, how she felt about her body, and theirs. I knew about her partner, the artist Guy Oliver, and her vampire fantasies (a card of Guy-as-a-vampire making love to Mendick is stuck to my fridge). I knew she suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome, and that it made her hirsute (which she hated) and possibly infertile (about which she was ambivalent).
I knew all this because of her art, which is ruthlessly, brutally honest about topics other people swerve even on a cabernet-lubricated girls’ night in. People react strongly to her work. Since moving to Margate during the pandemic, Mendick has become close to Tracey Emin, which figures. There’s a shared sensibility: if you’re going to mine personal experience, why hold back? (Except, Mendick will try to persuade me later, she does hold back.)
Off With Her Head, her latest show, explores the vilification of powerful women, from Medusa to Meghan Markle. It opens with Anne Boleyn, lifesize, kneeling in prayer ahead of her execution, with video of Mendick’s face superimposed as she confesses her “sins”: a lipstick sample stolen; cold pasta eaten from the bin; bags for life unscanned at the checkout. There’s heavy stuff, too: binging and purging, and the obsessive thought disorder that periodically floods Mendick’s brain with horrific visions.
Navigating the exhibition at Carl Freedman’s gallery in Margate, I spot Mendick’s mermaid-blue bob as she searches for me between possessed vases, demon cats and gruesome pub fixtures. She greets me with a hug. We’re deposited in a cool office room by gallery director Robert Diament – a friend of Mendick – who offers us choc-ices.
Did she consciously decide to open up her life to her art or is that just how she is? “I feel like the honesty is quite protective,” Mendick says, as we settle into opposite corners of a giant sofa. “If everyone feels you’re being honest about one thing then you can keep the real darkness at bay.”
Those bad thoughts she shares as she recounts her sins? They’re a sanitised version. The reality, she tells me, is far worse.
Her confessional turning point was the 2019 show The Ex Files – a love letter to the corporate environments she worked in as a younger woman. Mendick built an office with cottage-cheese-print wallpaper, decorated it with sculptures of glazed doughnuts and kinky leather furniture, and shared the story of her past relationships in ceramic sticky notes on the walls (“You choosing me made me feel like I existed”; “You were surprisingly kind and effortlessly cruel”; “I don’t have to forgive you”). As she puts it: “I burned all my relationships in the kiln.” She didn’t expect them to be read, but they were. It turned out that sharing intimate details of her life and receiving affirmation for it was “quite addictive”.
Mendick’s corporate years started when she was struggling with her mental health: her dad found a role for her at his office. Her family still looms large: her mum was a children’s clothes designer for places such as Woolworths, C&A and British Home Stores. The artist designed custom fabric and wallpaper with her mum for Off With Her Head, a floral pattern decorated with scolds’ bridles.
Mendick credits her mum with introducing her to sculpture, albeit via the unusual medium of cake. Among her mother’s fondant-iced masterpieces, she remembers one made for a neighbour turning 18: “She made him in the bath, with a beer.” Her sister also started making cakes: the love they garnered did not escape Mendick’s notice. “So when my friends were turning 18, I started making them,” she tells me. “I was the worst at it out of the three of us.” She has since realised fondant icing is much trickier than clay: “The stickiness, the sugar, the way that it starts melting, and one colour bleeds into another. Clay is a piece of piss compared to that.”
Some of Mendick’s sculpture plays with the conventions of traditional ceramics. There are ornate glazed vases ripped from within by claws, skeleton hands or octopus tentacles. Toby jugs shaped like her severed head. Figurines of smoking, red-eyed rodents. She also reimagines homely objects. In Hairy on the Inside, the show about polycystic ovary syndrome, she modelled classic kids’ toys (among them Mr Potato Head and Sylvanian Families) beset by bulging cysts and werewolf snouts. Ceramic sculpture is her primary medium, but it is presented within a fully realised world. For Hairy on the Inside, she built an ob/gyn waiting room populated by anxious werewolves. For Off With Her Head, she has made a pub, with custom beer mats and a pole-dancing platform.
Drama is integral. Mendick wants you to gasp at the big reveal, like a homeowner shown their master bedroom on an interior design show. She wants to overwhelm you with detail, camp and pop culture references. Her “more, more, more” sensibility is a product of the “bawdy culture” she grew up in, she thinks. “As a child of the 90s, there was so much over the top reaction: Euro 96, Princess Diana dying, the Spice Girls, fandom. Everything was huge, everyone showed emotions. Everything was about the party: from Live & Kicking to TFI Friday.”
As we talk, I’m frequently aware that she’s teetering between wanting to please and wanting not to care. Mendick has the courage to be outspoken, outrageous, full-on, but she is tormented with self-doubt and anxiety. The overwhelming installations she constructs derive from this cycle: “I’m conscious of taking up people’s time, and I feel guilt about that,” she says. So in return, “I want you to see how much time I’ve put in, that it means the world to me, that I’m not blasé: it’s part of my soul and what I believe in.”
The relationship with Oliver has been transformative, personally and artistically. They share a dog – Telly the pug – and a not-for-profit gallery called Quench. Oliver’s film-making skills have brought video into Mendick’s work. For Hairy on the Inside, he filmed her mouth and chin in closeup as she drank a glass of red wine. This was at the end of lockdown: she’d been unable to access hair-removal treatment. As she described bullying, insecurity and her mixed feelings about the pressure to be body positive, she drew viewers’ attention to the red wine catching in the hair on her top lip.
The list of confessions in Off With Her Head concludes with Mendick sharing petty annoyances with Oliver, before explaining how awkward it felt to say that with him behind the camera. At one point she says: “I hate him so much, like when he walks really slowly into a restaurant, or corrects a word when he knows the word that I actually meant.” I am astounded by the way they navigate this as a couple. The complexities of their relationship are explored in Mendick’s upcoming work Till Death Do Us Part, made for the Hayward Gallery’s autumn show Strange Clay. There, rodents fight battles across various domestic interiors: if our home is our castle, says Mendick “those castles are our domain where we create the laws”. They are also the sites of concealed battles and arguments.
The warped lens of social media places Mendick in the inner circle of a tight Margate scene that centres on Tracey Emin, together with gallerist Carl Freedman (a curator important to the rise of the YBAs), Robert Diament and Russell Tovey. Also in the orbit are Mendick’s close friend Rebecca Lucy Taylor (AKA singer-songwriter Self Esteem) and the younger artists who pass through Quench gallery. This pally cluster performs like an extended family, populating one another’s podcasts and Instagram feeds. Taylor and Mendick bubbled during the pandemic, sharing tracks and artworks as the former worked towards a new album and the latter an exhibition.
Emin has been a huge influence, as an artist, and now as a friend. “Everything changed when she came into my life,” says Mendick, for whom the line between friendship and fandom is endearingly blurred. The periodic vilification Emin has endured makes the artist something of a patron saint for Off With Her Head. “Cancel culture is just the newest incarnation of tabloids and the public shaming of women: it’s always been there.” Emin features in the show in a ceramic diorama, naked among her paintings.
Less immediately visible in the show, but evident throughout our conversation, is how women interiorise this threat of vilification, and the pressure to be quiet, compliant and pleasing. This is the battle within: the conditioning Mendick fights, even as she appears to tell all.