There’s a lot to enjoy in the summer exhibition at Tate St Ives, some of which I’ll quite likely write about later, but the work that really made me smile was one of Linder’s collages. I was already enjoying looking at this work and at the way the series of small collages shared a space with sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, but my enjoyment of Joining Valley wasn’t really about the work at all. It was one of those moments when something you haven’t thought about in years is suddenly brought back to mind by a chance encounter with an image on a gallery wall.
The Spotlight section of Frieze Masters offered a fascinating reminder of the art that was being made in the 1960s and ’70s and, in particular, of the women artists whose work is gradually gaining greater recognition. It’s not just women artists whose work doesn’t really become known until much later of course, but I don’t think it’d be hard to make the case that it happens disproportionately to women (one would hope that this is no longer the case, but that’s something that only time will tell). Of Birgit Jürgenssen’s work, shown by Galerie Hubert Winter, it’s a small sculpture that has stayed freshest in my mind.
Pregnancy Shoe is a strange object; there is a similarity of approach perhaps with Louise Bourgeois’ use of fabric – and thus the shared approach of using materials and processes often seen as ‘feminine’ to make feminist work that comments on women’s place in society – and with the surreal nature of the work. Though the show appears to be pregnant, it’s unclear quite what it will actually give birth to.
Mel Brimfield, Vincent (Portrait with Fur Hat and Bandaged Ear), 2012
Mel Brimfield makes art about art in a very different way to others that I’ve written about here before (the reworkings of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress by David Hockney and Yinka Shonibare or Gregory Crewdson’s remained Edward Hopper picture, for instance). As with Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Brimfield’s work is performative but there’s a humour in the work that feels more connected to Nina Katchadourian’s Self-portrait as Sir Ernest Shackleton though in Brimfield’s work the performances are collaborations between artist and performer. The resulting works – photographs, videos and sculpture – reference not only the artists Brimfield is looking at but also our ideas about art and the way the artists have been represented in films. Brimfield’s exhibition Between Genius and Desire at Ceri Hand Gallery Project Space – the gallery’s first show in London – gave me a lot to both think and smile about.
Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document (detail: vests, from Introduction), 1973-79
Like Susan Hiller, Mary Kelly documented her pregnant belly as art but it is the work she made after the birth of her childfor which she is better known. Post-Partum Document made between 1973 and ’79, the first years of her son’s life, is an extensive document of the mother and child relationship and of the nature of motherhood. The work is in six sections and contains over a hundred items of documentation from the vests shown above to diary notes, graphs and other data and artefacts such as stained nappy liners. The work is driven by the process of making it and clearly parts of that process aren’t pleasant.
To an extent the work of both Jenny Saville and Judy Chicago is seen as feminist in part because it reclaims the female nude for women artists. So far so good, but why then do I take issue with Chicago’s approach – or at any rate to The Dinner Party – while finding Saville’s work challenging and relevant? In part of course it’s to do with the earnest nature, and perhaps hippy thinking, of 1970s feminism. So do I have the same response to other work from that era? Well, yes and no.
Susan Hiller’s Ten Months takes the artist’s pregnancy as it’s subject matter. Hiller photographed her growing belly throughout and arranged the photographs in 10 grids, read from left to right and stepping down the wall, each one corresponding to a lunar month. So far, so hippy. Along with the images, each grid has a text taken from Hiller’s journal. The text for each month is brief and the editing process brings the work back on track for me.
The reputation of the 1970s isn’t great. If you type ‘1970s the decade’ into its search box, Google helpfully suggests the additions ‘that taste forgot’ and ‘style forgot’. Thanks for that. In fairness, in all sorts of ways it was a pretty rubbish decade. But it was also a decade in which some pretty great art was made and one in which women used art as a political weapon as never before. Probably. I’m sure there are plenty of earlier examples, but there was a pretty significant connection between female artists and the emerging women’s movement. Feminist artists like Mary Kelly, Martha Rosler, Judy Chicago and others made work that challenged previous modes of representation and sought to celebrate women and the female body on their own terms. Inevitably, the results weren’t always pretty.
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It was the chicken in Ron Mueck’s show at Hauser and Wirth that made me think of Jenny Saville. I realise that probably sounds crazy but the chicken skin put me in mind of Saville’s Shift, a vast painting (something like 3.3m x 3.3m, so able to dominate the space even in a sizeable gallery) showing a row of women squashed up against each other. It’s a painting I haven’t seen in many years but of all Saville’s work – and she’s a painter I like a lot – it’s the piece that’s always had the strongest hold over me. It’s partly that Jenny Saville paints flesh really well and partly that I like the way she makes me think about body image and the way we’re conditioned to see ourselves. These aren’t the idealised figures of art history or women’s magazines; they are women as women are. It turns out that painting the female nude and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive – however much a trip to almost any major art museum might make it seem that way – which is good to know.
Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975 (video still)
They took things very seriously in the 1970s. Well, some things anyway. And two of those things were video art and feminism. In art terms, there was the whole postmodern emphasis on parody and pastiche going on. With video, though artists might have enjoyed the playfulness of exploring a new medium and freeing performance art from the one-off event, the resulting work was often somewhat po-faced. And of course, challenging the longstanding notion that a woman’s place was in the home, where she should be chained to the kitchen sink, metaphorically at least, wasn’t to be taken lightly.