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Artist Spotlight – Elio Mercer

“I think artwork in any space can be super important in how you experience the space” Elio Mercer tells me. If you’ve popped into Balans No.60 lately, you’ll recognise his work. Soft, playful, and striking, Elio’s prints of masculine bodies brighten the iconic Soho venue. “In Your Arms 1”, a 1×1 metre print, captures two almost identical masculine figures, one wrapping an arm around the other. The other work, the “Swimmer” series shows a masculine form floating gracefully, muscular yet light.

Displayed in Balans, far from the sterility of a white cube gallery, Elio’s work feels familiar. It made me aware of my own form and the forms around me. Sitting in the restaurant, my relationship with the prints could be informal and relaxed (we even had lunch together).

Elio, who currently lives in Copenhagen, tells me that his personal journey with queerness and his transition has been integral to the development of his artistic practice. “My initial musings working within the fantasy of one’s body, and the embodiment of masculinity have always found themselves popping up [in my art].” These musings began as an introspective practice, “manifesting in (sort of) self-portraits, and fitting myself into masculine portrayals.”

This focus, he tells me, naturally developed along with his transition. Now, he is more focused on the interaction of masculine bodies and how they are perceived. In art, he notes, two men together often bring about a reading of queerness, while in society, it is the opposite.

Soho itself embodies this tension. For Elio, and many others in London and beyond, the neighbourhood has been influential to his queer journey, still standing as one of the most open and celebratory spaces for the LBGTQ+ community. And yet it is nestled in-between the corporate hum of the City, the grandiose of Westminster, and the chaos of Oxford Street — all spaces dominated by a very different kind of masculinity. Looking at Elio’s work in No.60, I found respite from these sides of London; instead, it invited me to see masculinity through a lens of intimacy and connection.

Queer art can elevate a space, and Elio’s work emanates a soft warmth that spills out onto Old Compton Street. But more spaces need to elevate queer art. As LGBTQ+ venues across London shut their doors (over half have closed between 2006 and 2022), exhibitions like the one in Balans are increasingly important. Like many others in the community, Elio is concerned by this trend. He is currently researching material embodiments of queer space, in particular queer bars, “maybe in an attempt to manifest more of them back into existence. They are so needed!”

When I asked how he hopes people perceive his work, Elio mused “I tend to find that there is a positive response to my works from the queer community, as I think there is both a resonance in representation of queerness and more nuance in the reading,” then he added, “I would be interested to see how a wider audience reads the works, and what is read into the imagery. As maybe that’s sort of the point?”

Elio’s artworks “In your Arms 1”, “Swimmer 1”, and “Swimmer 2” are part of a wider exhibition currently on at Balans curated by London-based art agency Artiq to spotlight young queer artists. Next time you’re at Balans, whether it’s for Sunday brunch or a Friday night cocktail, take a moment to let Elio’s art absorb you. How do you read it? And how do you think it changes the space?

Writer: Portia Kentish portiakentish@gmail.com

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