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.
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.
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.
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (It’s a small world), 1990
If art reflects and comments on the world around us then it’s not surprising that it also has the potential to change minds. There are lots of artists whose work engages with political issues with the aim of helping bring about social change. And while I’m on a text theme it makes sense to think about some of those who use text directly to get their message across.
Barbara Kruger’s work draws on her own background in design and particularly in the magazine business. In her work, Kruger combines black and white photographs – often from magazines that promote the lifestyle she critiques – combined with text on a red ground. It’s a simple formula but it’s also a powerful one.
Guerrilla Girls, Do women have to be naked…?, 1989
As today is International Women’s Day, it seems like the right time to take a look at women’s place in the art world. It’s the twenty-first century, there are lots of women artists now, right? Well yes. Up to a point. Tacita Dean’s work is in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern at the moment and the big exhibition is of the work of Yayoi Kusama. Perhaps all’s right with the world? Clearly, it wasn’t ever thus.
In 1989 the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of women artists and the self-styled ‘conscience of the art world’, conducted an audit of the work on display on the Modern Art sections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The statistics really weren’t good. Only 5% of the artists were female but 85% of the nudes were. No matter how familiar we are with art history and the dominance of male artists, that’s still a pretty shocking figure, especially since the group had specifically restricted their attention to the modern art sections where things might be expected to be a bit less bad. Surely by now things have changed?