Jonathan Baldock’s latest exhibition, titled “Touch Wood,” is an extraordinary sensory experience that promises to captivate visitors at The Weston Gallery. Drawing inspiration from medieval sculpture, sacred geometry, the seasons, and folk motifs, Baldock has created a joyous and immersive environment that combines colour, texture, scent, sound, and humour.

Known for his distinctive sculptural installations, Baldock skillfully weaves together storytelling, enigmatic characters, and sensory elements to create intriguing and thought-provoking artworks. His creations offer a unique blend of sensory appeal and a subtle sense of unease as if stepping into an unfamiliar ritual. Mythology, folklore, and paganism serve as central themes in his work, allowing Baldock to reimagine queer and working-class histories, explore hidden narratives, and construct alternative realities.

For the “Touch Wood” exhibition at The Weston Gallery, Baldock has crafted an entirely new body of work. The show features textile sculptures, ceramic sculptures, and an evocative soundscape composed by musician Luke Barton.

Through song and sampled audio, the soundscape unites the exhibition’s themes, providing a harmonious backdrop to the artworks. Baldock’s overarching imagery takes inspiration from the fifteenth-century misericords and carved wooden figures found in Wakefield Cathedral’s quire. Misericords, concealed beneath folding seats, allowed churchgoers a discreet place to rest while reciting prayers. These hidden carvings granted the craftsmen artistic freedom, resulting in depictions of nature’s abundance and mythical creatures, rather than overtly religious iconography.

In response to these medieval characters, Baldock presents large-scale textile sculptures at the exhibition. Among them are a phoenix, a Green Man, and a humorous ‘tumbler’ figure. The ‘tumbler’ bends at the waist, playfully peering through his legs while exposing his buttocks, embodying the bawdy imagery prevalent during medieval times, even within churches.

These ancient sculptures resonate with Baldock on multiple levels. As an artist, he appreciates the joy the craftsmen found in expressing themselves freely. Being from a working-class background, he identifies with the non-authoritarian voice of the craftsperson. Furthermore, as a queer individual, Baldock sees the misericords as surviving symbols of subversion, hidden in plain sight.

His own textile sculptures introduce vibrant colours, textures, and embellishments, inviting touch and even providing a seating opportunity, mirroring the function of the misericords while transforming them into proudly displayed works of art. The interplay between concealment and visibility holds significant meaning for many LGBTQIA+ individuals, as secrecy can often equate to safety within heteronormative contexts.

Baldock’s deep-rooted connection to nature, stemming from his family’s history of hop-gathering and gardening, shines through in the exhibition. At the center of The Weston Gallery, visitors will encounter four textile panels representing each season. Arranged in a circle, these panels create a jewel-like space, capturing the natural rhythms of a year, from the soft pastel shades of spring to the rusty tones of autumn. Sacred geometry, reflecting the interconnectedness of all living things, inspires the embroidered designs adorning each panel. Additional textile hangings throughout the gallery evoke ecclesiastical architecture while celebrating the changing seasons of the Earth.

A distinct feature of the exhibition is the presence of casts representing the artist’s own face, body parts, as well as those of his mother and partner. These casts take the form of flower heads and fragmented appendages, emerging from or attached to ceramic vessels. By incorporating these personal elements, Baldock explores themes of human relationships, queer love, and the preservation of connections.

Some of the ceramics draw inspiration from carvings found in Wakefield Cathedral, with one work resembling a Green Man with Janus-like faces looking backwards and forward. Through the depiction of his face on one side of a flower and his mother’s on the other, Baldock links them together, symbolising a moment in time as the threshold of the past and the future. The exhibition space also resonates with sound, as a carefully crafted composition blends together Gregorian chants, medieval and folk songs, and recordings of plants growing and birdsong.

The exhibition’s title, “Touch Wood,” carries multiple layers of meaning, infused with innuendo and significance. Materially, it refers to the medieval carved figures that form the basis of the artist’s inspiration. Superstition and belief systems also play a part, as the phrase and associated action symbolise a desire for future events to proceed favourably without being jinxed by evil forces. While the exact origin of this concept remains uncertain, it may trace back to an ancient pagan belief that spirits dwell within trees, and by touching them, we invoke their protective power. Baldock incorporates this superstitious gesture through symbols reminiscent of medieval graffiti protection marks found in churches, believed to ward off the “evil eye.”

Baldock’s artistic process reflects a blend of past trades and crafts, emphasising the intersection between art and craft. Drawing on skills passed down through generations, he incorporates clay and natural fibers, aligning his work with the earth and avoiding nostalgic tendencies. His focus lies in the act of creating, the fusion of intellect and manual labour, and the exploration of traditional and self-taught techniques that require time and devotion.

Sarah Coulson, Senior Curator at The Weston Gallery, expresses her enthusiasm for Baldock’s work, stating, “I’m excited to see how Jonathan is skillfully weaving together influences from various eras and spheres, interpreting them through a contemporary, queer lens. The connection to the carvings in Wakefield Cathedral celebrates the local history of sculpture and makers, while his appreciation for the natural world and the rhythm of the seasons resonates with the landscape at The Weston Gallery. Jonathan is a dynamic, thoughtful, and playful artist whose installations bring joy while also presenting thought-provoking challenges.”

“Touch Wood” promises to be an immersive and multisensory exhibition, transporting visitors into a realm where history, nature, and queer perspectives intertwine. Jonathan Baldock’s masterful combination of art, craft, and storytelling invites audiences to embark on a journey of discovery and contemplation within the walls of The Weston Gallery.

The exhibition will be open to the public starting next month and will run until the end of the year. Visitors are encouraged to immerse themselves in the captivating world of “Touch Wood” and explore the rich narratives and vibrant symbolism brought to life by Jonathan Baldock.