A Review of The Great Women Artists at Mother, East London
I don’t know the exact amount of artworks by female artists that are on show in the world’s greatest museums, but we all know it is too few. In 2011, the activist Tim Symonds revealed that only 11 of the thousands of artists on display at The National Gallery are female. Most of us are numb to the fact that female artists are not present in the world’s greatest art institutions. Is it perhaps because there were not any deserved of public display? Linda Nochlin famously, provocatively, questioned this in her essay published in the pages of Artnews in 1971, Why Have their been no great women artists? Nochlin considered all possible reasons as to why there had been no great female artists, and she concludes of course that both the making of art and the development of the artist her/himself is determined by specific social structures and institutions, and the gendered inequality amongst arists was always fuelled by “the mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man.”
Almost half a century has gone by since Nochlin’s essay was published, and, slowly, slowly things are changing. The past couple years have seen more retrospectives of the great female artists of the 21st century. Marilyn Minter, Judy Chicago and the feminist photographers of the 1970s have had celebrated exhibitions in major museums around the world. Katy Hessel, founder of the online gallery @thegreatwomenartists, accelerated the momentum in central London last week when she exhibited the works of 15 female artists for the first time off screen in the lobby of advertising agency Mother.
The hundreds of people coiling around the block waiting to enter the space attested to the significance of the occasion. The artists in question together compile over 600,000 followers. Indeed, Hessel harnessed the power of social media to create a group exhibition of what many would deem emerging artists, that sparked more excitement in viewers than many blue chip galleries could only hope for at their openings.
As I examined each of the works, I became aware of a uniting essence of the female gaze staring back at me. This may sound obvious, given that all of the artists in question were female, but Linda Nochlin herself scorned at the possibility of being able to speak of a quintessentially feminine subject matter, much less a feminine style. However given that we rarely witness the fruits of an entire band of female artists together how would we know? This may be true for other realms of life – politics, science, business, where our gender does not compromise or affect our potential. However Nochlin’s derision at the idea of ‘feminine’ art should be challenged when speaking of contemporary art. Visual imagery has for so long reflected nothing but the male gaze. The works of Cindy Sherman, Marilyn Minter, and now Juno Calypso are testament to the fact that women who work with photography and painting feel a compulsion to create a new vision of woman, rewriting the visual backlog of images generated by men for generations.
Manjit Thapp and Gill Button’s arresting painted portraits both showed female characters that appeared self-conscious yet defiant. Their gaze is decisively arresting and suggests a warning against unwanted eyes - a refreshing respite from the seductive, submissive gazes of so many female subjects. Frida Kahlo and Barbara Hepworth made an appearance in the form of Fee Greening’s ink illustrations that added some historic iconography to the ensemble. The practice of women creating new imagery showing women is crucial in the revolution towards equality in the arts and in society. Film director and screenwriter Jill Solloway recently commented in an interview that she has always felt “an elemental nausea” about her gender, caused by the following realization: “being a woman meant being watched. I wanted to be a watcher.” The most natural step in breaking this pattern of being watched is to first turn our gaze inwards to watch ourselves, and then others. With each image we uncover the increasingly infinite possibilities of the female psyche.
This introspection organically produces works that reveal the more nuanced elements of our inner world. Alice Skinner’s cartoon When I think about my life for more than 30 seconds showed a tongue-in-cheek representation of anxiety, while painter and illustrator @unskilledworker depicted an idyllic multi-racial family portrait sitting peacefully between luscious vegetation and tropical birds. Their synthetic lines and flat colour stood in stark contrast to the expressive painterly styles of Antonia Showering and Venetia Berry, whose dynamic paintings shroud figures in camouflaged faces and sinuous shapes.
It dawned on me towards the end of the exhibition that photography is perhaps the most powerful medium with which to confront the male dominated art world most immediately. A female photographer is not plagued by the fact that societal structures at the most exciting time in painterly innovation did not favour women artists. This leaves less to push back against in the art history of great photography. Whether conscious or not, the snapshot reaction of a female subject towards a female photographer may be different than towards a male. Such sisterhood is tangible in Alice Aedy’s photograph of schoolgirls in Somaliland and her portrait of a knowing Iranian beauty who clasps at a floral headscarf. Maisie Cousins sexually charged, visceral photographs showed kaleidoscopic explosions of sticky colourful flowers, broken butterfly wings and shattered glass.
The most beautiful dance of light plays on the walls in Alice Joiner’s nude portrait of a friend/lover, and I was transported to an LA bedroom on a hot summer’s day. I have never been to an exhibition showing only female artists, but we have all been to many showing only the work of men. Perhaps it is worth considering that Nochlin is mistaken in thinking there is no feminine style, and in assuming it would be reductive. The Great Women Artists showed that the female hand can depict great joy in the colours of natural life, and great wisdom in expressing the complexities of the female psyche.
Written by Hedy Mowinckel, Contributor to Arteviste.