Tag Archives: Art History

Review of Hannah Höch at the Whitechapel Gallery By Lily Magenis

 

Hannah Höch was the only female member of the Berlin Dada movement, and a pioneer in photomontage, a medium and method she used to satirize Weimar politics and subversively comment on society, gender, and race. Her first major exhibition in the UK is currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery from January 15 – March 23, 2014.

The Hannah Höch exhibition brings together a collection over 120 pieces of work, and spans the length of her career, from the 1910s -1970s. Höch’s varying series of photomontage are presented in a chronological time line, beginning with her early work, which was heavily influenced by her career in fashion magazines. Höch critiques the way in which women are represented in the media, by ripping their images out and pulling them away from the objectified environment of a magazine page. She re-applies an image of the ‘new woman’ into a formation and structure that addresses how we perceive beauty.

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Höch’s Ethnographic Museum series questions the construction of gender and the notion of beauty, for she pairs Ethnographic masks with images of the female body. Höch’s collage “Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From the Collection: from an Ethnographic Museum)” (1929), combines the body of a baby with a traditional mask and gives the figure an eye of a modern woman. Höch wants us to relate to the body in a different way, as this figure does not adhere to the idealized vision of beauty, but questions different standards of beauty. The new woman she creates here does not correlate to that of the typical woman of ‘typical’ beauty, she is a woman with a modern eye.

Höch’s art is personal, and we are greeted with a playful exploration of re-imaging. She cuts and pastes, taking familiar images and reconstructing them. Women in Höch’s collages are beautiful, feminine, and playful, but not as sexualized objects. Instead, women are depicted in a way that challenge preconceived notions of femininity. This is the new woman.

The upstairs gallery showcases a collection of Höch’s scrapbooks while the rest of the exhibition is dedicated to her experiments in abstraction and ‘Fantastic Art’ where we see her transition into color and an adjustment to her portrayal of the new woman.

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Given the extent to which the female body is included in her work, it is evident that Höch is conscious of sex and her bisexuality. However, sexuality is a factor that presents itself in her work scarcely. I was struck by the collage of a peachy pink bottom resting on a beach in “Der Schöne Po (The Beautiful Bottom)” (1959). For this was the only overtly sexual image in the exhibition. It’s bright turquoise hues and sparkling semblance stand out in comparison to her earlier collages – it has an exaggerated, girly character which I regard as a shift in the image of the new woman.

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By pulling apart and reshaping figures, most commonly female, Höch seems to be challenging the treatment of gender in 20th Century Germany. Traditionally the female figure in the artistic canon exemplifies an object of beauty. Höch contests this notion with, “Um einen roten Mund (Around a Red Mouth)” (1967). Here, a set of red lips rest on a mountain of pink petticoats. The inclusion of petticoats, which were worn by women for centuries, draws reference to a traditional and often required uniform for women. However, Höch tears at the petticoats and layers the pink horizontal frays one on top of the other, creating an abstract image of a vagina. The violence implicit in the medium Höch used here literally reshapes an image of the very core of a woman’s femininity.

Höch’s work is ambiguous, but this allows for a sort of fluid and ‘fantastic’ reading. The medium she uses is surrealistic – the multifaceted layers of cut and pasted images relax the boundaries of interpretation, and therefore we can read them in myriad ways. Her work is both political and poetic. The way she chops and splices images is political, and often comments on gender, but the finished product is beautiful and dream like.

My first impression was that Höch’s work is confused, that she struggled between different images of the new woman, as she too identified with struggles alike, (e.g. confusion with her bisexuality and being the only woman in Dada) “Two Faced” (1928), illustrates such confusion; a collage of a woman with two faces, drawn in different directions. However, this exhibition takes us on a journey of the new woman from the stiff magazine women in pearls to the effervescent pert behind. And this is exactly the point. Höch works with the notion of the fragmented self. The new woman is duplicitous and you can read her in multiple ways. Höch wants us to have our own personal and objective understanding of the ‘new woman’, as there isn’t one way to perceive her.

Höch’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is a humorous critique of gender and beauty. Her work is crude, but not offensive. It is light hearted, but makes a point. It’s sexual but not sexualized. Hannah Höch cuts the perfect balance and creates a new image of the new woman.

 

 

Hannah Höch is on view through March 23, 2014.

For more information visit Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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Ana Mendieta’s Traces: A feminist icon? By Ruth-Eloise Lewis

“The nature of her work was transitory; it either took place in time, or was destined to be reclaimed by the earth.”

“All that is solid melts into air.”

It’s been a week since Ana Mendieta’s first ever UK retrospective closed at the Haywood Gallery in London and I’ve spent every day of that week attempting to pin down my argument, to articulate the experience of the exhibition into a firm and reflective line of thought. But that seems precisely the point. Mendieta appears impossible to translate into words, a transitory trace in which memory and solidity are fragile.

Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba and sent to the US when she was 12 in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. During the late sixties, she studied painting at the University of Iowa and developed strong and forceful performance pieces that utilized her own body. The full range of her practice- which incorporated performance, film and sculpture- has often been overshadowed by the tumultuous tale of her unsettling death in which she fell from the 34th floor of an apartment she shared with her husband, the minimalist artist Carl Andre.

Fortunately, the Haywood didn’t become entrenched in the dialogue of personal drama but focused instead on the life, power and themes of the art she produced. Moving through the exhibition, which was curated chronologically, felt like moving through a process of absorption with the artist in which her body blended increasingly with elemental materials of blood, fire, earth and water. And as her physical body seemingly faded, a sense of the transformative force of nature arose. Therefore, a focus on key three stages (body, outline and elements) can help to emphasize the culmination of an incredibly unique artistic perspective in relation to corporeality and its connection to the earth.

Stage One: The Body

Mendieta is often venerated as a feminist icon and bearing in mind the first three rooms of the exhibition, it is easy to understand why. The initiation into the visceral hits the viewer as they enter the space. Mendieta’s body appears in full view, squished up and distorted against panels of glass, altered and masqueraded under wigs and heavy make-up and covered in facial hair. These works explore concepts of corporeality, the politics of hair and the social and cultural implications of gender performativity. Projected video works Source (1973) and Sweating Blood (1973) focus closely on singular body parts, milk being pumped out of a breast uncomfortably and ox blood dribbling from Mendieta’s forehead and fixed gaze. Viewed in conjunction with other famous feminist works of the 1970s, for example Abramovic’s Rhythm series or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, this exploration of the fluidity and form of the female body is deeply symbolic. The repetitive use of blood in the second room of the exhibition ties in closely with 1970s French theorists such as Kristeva exploring the concept of abjection and the subversion of the boundaries of the acceptable and presentable female body.  A clear commentary on violence against women can be seen in Untitled (Rape Scene, 1973) that focuses around the real-life rape and murder of a young student nurse. Mendieta re-created the scene, placing her bloodied and naked body over a table and inviting guests to her apartment to be shockingly confronted with the enactment. However, even in Body Tracks (1974) in which the artist dipped her arms in blood and dragged them down a wall in a ritualistic gesture, the movement and energy of Mendieta is still at the forefront. Mendieta’s blood works were also inspired by Afro-Cuban spiritual Santeria practices, installing them with a powerful aspect which she viewed as “a very magical thing.” Blood, for Mendieta, could be seen as a positive force in healing, sacrifice, initiation or exorcism. So, whilst she can be closely correlated to personal-is-political abject ideals, the pattern and rhythm of her body tracks connote the force of her presence and the organic energy of life.

Nonetheless, the artist is, very overtly, present.

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Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) 1972 

Stage Two: The Outline

The second stage of Mendieta’s work approaches the dynamic of the female body in relation to the landscape. She created her first ‘earth-body’ sculptures, named Siluetas, up until 1981. In these works, outlines of her body are marked into the earth with leaves, mud, ash and hair. She frames these contours with fire, flowers, fruit and candles. Mendieta recorded these performances through photography, carving the etchings into the soil and leaving them to the will of nature. The collective repetition of her silhouette against various backdrops evokes notions of space and belonging. As Mendieta was forced out of her homeland, she appears to be seeking a home in the earth. There are instances where the outline rises like a mound of the soil, grave-like, decorated with patterns or vertically planted sticks. Puddles of wet clay-like earth create a fluid boundary around the mounds, emphasizing the transitory nature of the piece. Soon the water will evaporate and the soil will shift away, just as the body of the artist has fallen slowly away before our eyes. We no longer see Mendieta’s body parts, displayed defiantly and forthrightly, and in fact we are denied them. We have an impression, we know, that Mendieta was once physically there yet the fragile impermanence of the silhouettes appear like a surrender to a more powerful force.

The artist is, becoming, absorbed.

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Corazon, 1977

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Silutetas, 1977

Stage Three: The Elements

We all want to leave a trace, to alter the minds and landscapes of those we love. Mendieta’s Siluetta’s engaged with her corporeality yet disengaged from it by focusing on more organic materials and elements. But what does the landscape mean to us today? We are taught in the Western world to believe that the individual is powerful; we build cities in the sky from concrete and put our own egos at the core of our being. We are aware that our bodies are flimsy and fleeting in comparison to the forceful stability of mountains, volcanoes or forests yet how we are, truly, linked to it to the landscape that surrounds us?

In the final shift of the exhibition, we are presented with the late work of Mendieta of the 1980s in which she changed direction and began to create sculptures of wood and precise drawings incised on leaves; concentrating solely on the elements. Also included in this section is paintings and sketches of simplified female forms inspired by cave paintings such as the Venus of Willendorf. This final shift seems to disintegrate the concept of the individual entirely replacing it with material, the elements of wood and leaves, repetition and pattern. In the narrative of art history, therefore, this sentiment is potent as the cult of the unique genius artist is so inherent at its core. We all know the big players of art history and venerate their names like gods, those (mainly masculine) icons who supposedly pushed forward a singular linear progressive vision of art. Mendieta’s absorption opens up a space beyond this narrow definition leaving it free for the collective and the previously marginalised, beyond the ultimate ego-driven goal of modern status. As both a female artist and an ethnic minority, Mendieta is speaking from the borders. Yet, whilst this dialogue could be interpreted in feminist terms, her ultimate goal feels more humanist, linked to the fragility of all women, men and living beings against the power of our planet. Nevertheless, Mendieta appears impossible to translate into words, a transitory trace in which memory and solidity are fragile.

Ana Mendieta at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 22/9/2013.

Totem Grove, 1985

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Gwen John- A glance at a private painting by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Gwen John (22 June 1876 – 18 September 1939) was a Welsh artist often cited as a classical example of a woman artist in a male-dominated environment. The focus has frequently been invested in her private life, focusing on her isolation and personal relationships.  During 1895 to 1898, John studied at the Slade School of Art alongside her brother Augustus. The Slade School was said to welcome women students with a degree of equality, allowing her to make an independent career. In 1898 John made her first visit to Paris where she studied under James McNeill Whistler at the Académie Carmen. John settled in Paris in 1904, painting three-quarter length portraits of young women and girls seated in bare domestic interiors. The subjects are often slightly off-centre or leaning, half-way between sitting and standing. Distinct details of dress or background are obscure, with the unity of surface and depth acting as the principle harmonizing components of the paintings. Features of her work such as extreme delicacy of coloring were also often taken as ‘feminine’ yet; as David Fraser Jenkins argues they could also apply to an artist such as Seurat with no such concentration on gender.[1]

It has been argued that John had no interest in political issues and her withdrawal from society signified a withdrawal from the avant-garde groups invested in the expressing experiences of modernity. Suzi Gablick argues that her work expresses, “a dedicated concentration, a private incandescence of spirit that is enthralling.”[2] However, during her years in Paris she met many of the celebrated artistic personalities of her time such as Matisse, Picasso and Rainer Maria Rilke and had an affair with the sculptor Rodin.  John exhibited in Paris in 1919 at the Salon d’Automne yet only had one solo exhibition during her lifetime, in London in 1926.  As David Peters Corbett states, she was the artist “responsible for defining a poetics of the privatisation of modernity.”[3]

Gwen John’s Nude Girl is a three-quarter length portrait of a young girl in what appears to be a domestic interior.  The composition of this piece is stark in its simplicity; the figure dominates the entire canvas in front of a plain background. This minimal setting gives no indication of biographical details or context, directing the attention solely on to the naked body and the character of the model Fenella Lovell. According to Carol Duncan, the representation of the nude female body during John’s lifetime was not ideologically neutral, but instead “when an artist had some new or major artistic statement to make, when he wanted to authenticate to himself or others his identity as an artist, or when he wanted to get back to “basics” he turned to the nude.”[4]

John’s model looks directly into the eyes of the spectator; her features are distinctive and individualistic. This gaze aligns the spectator to the position of the artist meaning we become involved in a human exchange. We acknowledge her humanity, her sociability, her personality. Her back is upright and dominant against the chair, instead of lying down submissively, yet her shoulders are hunched slightly inwards, her hands are clasped together defensively and placed across her body in front of her crotch, acting as a direct barrier. The hand also pins down the piece of fabric, as if she is preventing it from falling down entirely.  This fabric appears transitional, between modesty and exposure. It makes the figure look vulnerable and uncertain, caught between two contradictory gestures.

The effect is paradoxical, the figure is both monumental and static, but her movements are vulnerable and defensive.  This emotional aspect is highlighted by the de-saturated tonal colours and textural brushstrokes, which are used as a way of expressing the volume of the body rather than as a mode of self-expression. The more you look at this portrait, the more unsettling and challenging it becomes; a potential refusal of the female nude body as an ideological site of masculine sexuality.

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Gwen John, Nude Girl, 1909-10


[1] David Fraser and Lisa Tickner, Lisa Gwen John and Augustus John (London: Tate Publishing, 2004) p.35

[2] Jenkins, p.35

[3] Lisa Tickner, Gwen John and Augustus John, p.97

[4] Duncan, p.98

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Old masters and old mistresses: the BBC’S ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The HIS-tory of art, as a discipline, adheres to a strict theoretical canon based on a process of constant innovation, progress and avant-garde advancement. Movement follows movement, -isms spiral into –isms. As time unfolds, so does the reduction of the canvas- style is unpicked, colour is unleashed, linear perspective and historical narrative deconstructed and transformed into an explosion of subjectivity that peaks with the onset of modernity.

This canon thrives on the romantic notion of genius as a singular individual overwhelmed with radical raw talent. This individual is often posed as depressed or neglected, misunderstood in their own time frame, only to be rediscovered after their death. Excavated like a golden nugget. But this concept of genius is not neutral. Genius follows a pattern in the history of art- white, heterosexual and masculine. Tick these three attributes off your list and you’ve got yourself a modern master. This is the history of art we’ve all been taught at school: Manet led to Cezanne who led to Picasso who led to Matisse who let to … you get the point.

The BBC often has interesting art historical programmes based (loosely) outside the parameters of this model, like Andrew Graham-Dixon’s focus on the art of Russia, that new preppy young chap (James Fox, I think his name is? I typed ‘preppy young art historian’ into Google but I realized this made me sound about 100 years old and did not surface any answers) who looked at the history of art thematically in three colours. That was interesting. Not radical, but interesting enough as a one-time formula. However, on Iplayer this week the Beeb have a brand spanking new art program called ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ (1907-1939.) The program “unlocks” the BBC archives in order to “tell the story of the birth of modern art, in the words of the artists who created a cultural revolution” which all sounds very impressive and dramatic, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The notion of documentation and archiving is interesting just in itself. When you look at documentation in the light of say, 1970s feminist performance art, it becomes clear how dominant myths of modernism are perpetuated in the acts of interviewing or recording. The 1970s performance works were not well documented, and they were not supposed to be. This is because the emphasis was placed upon the ephemeral and transitive experience of the performance, as something that took place in front of an audience and then disappeared. Photographs or videos would always stand in place as a substitute for the corporeal act, becoming a tangible object that could be placed within the art institutional system of production, consumption and capital. The downside of this is that feminist artworks often remain unexplored underground, their complex meanings never to be debated within mainstream discourse. Interviewing is based on a decision; somebody has actively decided that the artist has something to say that needs to be recorded and validated. They often do. But, what about the artistic voices that were not always given (or refused) a platform for discussion? What does the history of art omit in its inclusion?

So, this program was set in the hub of late 1920s/early 30s Paris and started with a charming biography of Picasso, the man who “set the standard of what it was to be an artist” due to the fact he “shattered conventions” through the creation of cubism in a “fever of creativity” (get ready for a lot of speech marks.) Rivalry! Picasso was supposedly jealous of another artist named Matisse, who also possessed “dazzling gifts” and a “revolutionary vision.” Then along came Duchamp, who was equally as transgressive, who “completely changed human art expression” through one “simple gesture” of the ready-made. Just like that, startling really. This one man bought about a revolution! He “swept away” old art and replaced it immediately with “his idea that anyone could be an artist.” So along came Max Ernst, the lonely solider fighting on the front of WW1, he offered a “startling new direction” to the mix “like nothing anyone had seen before” which “lay the foundation for Surrealism” and “unlocked a new visual world.” Jump to photography and to Man Ray, his innovations and “incredible versatility dazzled his contemporaries.” What’s this? Leonora Carington, A WOMAN!? Have you never heard of her? That OK though because she’s a weird anomaly  “strong enough” to mix with masculine Surrealist circles. She also had a personal love affair with Max Ernst, of a sexual nature- ooh la la. Oh, and she’s also apparently a witch as it was said she “didn’t paint her pictures but brewed them up in a cauldron at night.” Nice. Then Magritte. Usurped by Dali, who eventually sold out and did loads of bizarre Alka Seltzer adverts. The end.

Apart from brief mentions of the world wars, this documentary completed omitted any references to the social, cultural or political circumstances of that time period. It relied solely on biography and personal antidotes. There was no mention of scientific discoveries, the urbanization of new modern spaces of leisure and entertainment or the rapid development of industries and production based upon capitalism. No discussion of the circulation of new forms of accessible media such as magazines and newspapers, the fact that women gained the right to vote in 1928, no mention of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Claude Cahun, Hannah Hoch, Remedio Varo, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker or Dorothea Tanning. Not even a hint at the emerging deconstructions of binaries of sexuality and gender or the discussion of lesbian identities in Radyclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness. No psychoanalysis, which actively began questioning the formation of the self in symbolic structures of language and the murky realm of the unconscious. I get that the program is supposed to be a brief introduction, a quick summary of the Western art of this period, and so maybe there simply wasn’t enough time to critically converse with those issues. But, then again, I don’t really buy that. The discussion of the work itself, the actual art, was so minimal. The paintings appeared on the screen for a few seconds, and then disappeared without any real analysis or interrogation.

The amount of hyperbole used was excessive, and quite frankly, ridiculous. Not to mention boring. Art history, when studied as a practice invested in the meaning of works placed within a sociological, cultural and political framework, can be so rich and complex on both philosophical and psychological levels. Biography after biography like some kind of gossip-y  Chinese whispers is embarrassing, and it’s why art history often has a bad name. It does a disservice to the artists mentioned, reducing their work to two-dimensional conceptions of revolution and change, propping them up as some other-worldly god-like masters with innovative powers beyond the realms of human understanding. But, even more so, it falls back upon the same-old canon of artistic progression; completely negating and undermining the deconstructive practices of so many incredible feminist, post-structuralist and post-modernist thinkers.  Art history is better than that, you’ll just have to believe me.

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Have you ever heard of Francesca Woodman? by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Francesca Woodman was an American photographer, mainly producing beautiful black and white works.  Woodman’s works display many diverse influences from symbolism and surrealism to Baroque painting. The ethereal and timeless quality of these pieces seem dream-like  and strangely haunting.  She began taking photographs at the young age of 13 and was only 22 when she produced the main bulk of her work. Nobody really talks about proteges in terms of photographers, but most certainly, she had to have been one.

Much of Woodman’s work explores notion of gender and looking, concentrating on the relationship of the body in relation to its surroundings. And most notably, the female body is what is considered traditional ‘feminine’ surroundings, the private rooms of houses. The interior as opposed to the public exterior. Woodman places her own body in the work often but her self-representation is often blurred or partially hidden, rendering her ghost-like and fleeting.  Her body often blends into the disintegrating spaces,  becoming a part of the peeling wallpaper or empty door frames. The vulnerability of her naked body is left exposed intimately yet through her specific photographic techniques, you feel as if you can never quite grasp the whole honest truth about the subject.  Blink and she is gone.

 

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Judy Chicago, Tracy Emin, Helen Chadwick and Louise Bourgeois at Ben Uri Gallery by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Judy Chicago is one of my favourite artists. I discovered her in my second year of university through a module by Griselda Pollock. In fact, I have even written a little bit about her before on this very blog. So, when I heard she was exhibiting in London for the first time since the 80s, well, I was rather excited. The Ben Uri Gallery in London seemed like the perfect place for her return to the country, having 1300 works in their permanent collection by women artists. Many of these works are currently focusing on themes such as autobiography, erotica, feminism, the nude and issues of masculine power.

Which is precisely what Chicago is most well known for. During the 1970s, she founded the first feminist art program in America, aiming to incorporate these themes into the realm of art. This was a time when the personal was truly political and Chicago encouraged and inspired her students to create feminist artworks that validated women’s experience.

On entering the gallery, I was instantly hit by Chicago’s famous works. On the left wall, recent dynamic lithographs such as Into the Darkness (2008) and Signing the Dinner Party (2009) stood opposite her pioneering feminist works, such as Red Flag (1971) and Menstruation Bathroom (1972).  This was a nice touch. For example,  the iconic image Peeling Back (1974)  on the right echoed  the Return of the Butterfly (2009) on the left, mirroring the core values of the initial work. This sense of dialogue seemed tangible, connoting the idea that these conversations are still vital. The writing underneath Peeling Back reads, “In this transitional image, I “peeled back” the structure to reveal the formerly hidden form. What a refuge to finally say: ‘Here I am, a woman, with a woman’s body and a woman’s point of view.'” After thirty or so years, it appears there is still many more peeling back to do and many more layers to explore.

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Judy Chicago, Peeling Back, 1974
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Judy Chicago, Return of the Butterfly, 2009

Also in this room were the ethereal smoky goddesses from the series Women and Smoke which drew on the “eternal power” of womankind. Helen Chadwick’s In the Kitchen (1977) dealt with issues of domesticity and confinement, reputing the idea that women should be confined within the home. Next to Chicago’s  expressive and free nude figures dancing in the mountains, it seemed impossible to disagree.

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Immolation IV from the Women and Smoke Series, 1972

As I walked down the steps to the lower floor, it felt like moving into a more private, personal space. At the top of the staircase, a photograph of a pouting Emin wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt stood alongside Chicago’s piece What is Feminist Art? “Weren’t art and life separated?” the text read, “Like men and women, good and evil, body and mind.” 

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I kept this question in mind in the first downstairs room. The space was smaller, more intimate and slightly cramped. Four walls were covered with A4 autobiographical drawings, expressing the moods and emotions of Chicago during a year of her life. A lot of these diary-type accounts seemed negative and  hyper-judgmental; dark holes, wounded trees and swathes of despair in black, blue and ruby red watercolours. It was a sharp contrast to the bold graphic prints on the first floor but it was interesting to see a different side to Chicago. Much of her popular work is so strikingly strong, this softer and more personal side was somewhat easier to interact with, to relate with despite its extremity. Sometimes, the pressure of fighting for what you believe in is draining. I felt that the pictures seemed cathartic, a release of daily pressures and tension. I am  no artist myself, but it appeared like a healthy means of expression that I could consider trying out in my  own life.  A way of clearing a sometimes muddled head.

 

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The final room included work by Emin and Bourgeois and it seemed to bring all the main themes of the exhibition together.  Chicago’s sensual and erotic side was depicted brilliantly and beautifully through her intricate work Nine Fragments from Delta of Venus (2004) and the “Cat-erotica” pieces were playful  and funny, a trait not often associated with feminism. On the last wall hung two nude portraits, one of Emin called Love is What You Want (2011) showing her running away from the viewer in a moment of vibrant spontaneity alongside a portrait of Chicago taken for her 70th birthday, as  a triumphant Eve  holding up her apple and laughing in a contemporary Garden of Eden.  Again, it felt like the two portraits were in dialogue with each other, two confident and creative women exposing their own skin. It seemed like Chicago was handing her feminist mantle down to Emin in a proud and confident manner.  A celebratory and positive ending.

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Tracy Emin Love is what you want, 2011
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It was so refreshing to go to an art exhibition as a young woman and a feminist and be instantly included;  in a space where women’s experience is expressed and celebrated, where their bodies  and sexuality are explored honestly and openly.  Often with art, I can appreciate it, I can  understand it, I can read and research and learn about the Old Masters or the marvels of the Renaissance  but I never really truly felt a part of it.  My friend had never heard of Judy Chicago before yet we both left feeling like we knew her. And learnt a little bit about ourselves along the way.

Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois,Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin: A Transatlantic dialogue is at the Ben Uri Gallery until the 10th of  March 2013. For more information see:  http://benuri.org.uk/public/?event-details

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A FEMINIST INTERVENTION- Analysis of Works; PART THREE by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Materials can embrace an exploration of texture and form and signify political intentions. Barbarie Rothstein produced sculpture in a wide range of media, including polyurethane foam, branches and vines, wax and plaster. These mediums open up vast possibilities to aid her exploration concerning the human form, space and the unconscious. Like Chicago and Wilke, Rothstein is immediately concerned with means of expressing internal thought and female bodily experience, as she states as such:

The thread that has run through my work from its very beginning is the mystery of internal spaces. Whether hinted at through the cracks and crevices in the human anatomy and the natural world, or expressed through the interiors of shelters and other kinds of enclosures, this concern has been a constant. While male artists, too, have dealt with images of outer/inner or actual enclosures, I see this imagery in my work as stemming from female bodily experience. This is my link to Feminism.

Jerry’s Piece is a sculpture by Rothstein made of polyurethane foam and fabric dye. The strong shape and curving folds suggest a clear outline of the vagina. The isolation of this shape alongside the jagged, triangular forms that protrude outward installs the piece with kinetic energy, as if it were a live, animate, breathing creature. Initially, these forms appear aggressive, invoking the masculine myth of the Vagina Dentata, the angry and dangerous toothed vagina. This myth is important in psychoanalytical terms, as it is thought to express men’s unconscious fears associated with the Freudian castration complex, the fear of penile loss. Women are controlled and contained by this terror myth, refused the right to natural human emotions such as anger or aggression. However, I believe Rothstein is actually inverting and reclaiming this myth from the patriarchal realm and a deeper investigation of this sculpture is needed. Undeniably, there appears to be a row of white, sharp teeth in the centre of the piece, these cover an inner layer of long, rounded purple foam forms which connote a tongue. Therefore, the combination of these inner and outer layers creates a mouth, a portal for communication and expression, an articulation of thought and speech. Women can speak of their deepest, most intimate experiences from their innermost private place, the source of their erotic knowledge. They can also use this knowledge to dispel social and cultural myths. The dynamic interchange between the organic softness, pliability of the material and the metaphorical association of meaning articulates the complexities of these cultural implications. Jerry’s Piece is not passive and silenced; it asserts an expression of inner strength that does not hide behind a shameful Pudica pose or a blank, idealised projection of masculine fantasy. Women have powerful human emotions- both aggression and desire, they have ‘teeth’ and mouths that could bite but also speak; these qualities make them real and human.

Barbarie Rothstein

Jerry’s Piece

1972

Polyurethane Foam, Fabric Dye

72″h x 36″w x 18″d

 VIEW MORE OF ROTHSTEIN’S WORK HERE. 

By researching these artworks from the 1970s in this three part blog piece,  I aimed to communicate how they engage with the deeper political agendas of second wave feminism. Chicago and Wilke were prominent and iconic figures in this movement, and whilst Rothstein may not be as well known, her sculpture shows how a wide-range of artists were communicating and responding to this feminist intervention. All three pieces resonate on two levels- firstly, they are content driven, questioning what is it and how it feels to be an object, not a subject, in the traditional story of art. They are not simply vagina for vagina’s sake. They refuse to accept this litany of patriarchal thought, they respond to the omission and absence of women in this thought system and explore issues of identity, sexuality, menstruation, erotic experience, power and knowledge creatively and actively, through a variety of skills and materials. They create a new position for women in the art world as a creator whilst disputing the narrow-minded legacy that the art world has ingrained within our culture. There is an undeniable articulation of aesthetic beauty in each of these works- the bold contrast of colours and clean graphic lines inChicago’s lithograph the soft, rippling waves of sensation in Wilke’s latex and the strong, organic presentation of forms in Rothstein’s foam sculpture. This art created in this feminist intervention can be aesthetically-pleasing as well as political and challenging, positive and deconstructing. Secondly, and for me most importantly, these images create a framework with allows a complete reversal in the way in which our culture views women. They resonate on a deeper, emotional and personal level that questions what psychological effects are conditioned in the structuring of cultural binaries and notions of femininity. Young women should not be anxious about their bodily functions, suppressed of their erotic desires, denied their natural emotions or be made to feel inferior. How can it be healthy that such negative connotations of fear and loathing are placed upon the female sexual organs? These three works show an alternative, they seek to eradicate this loathing and replace it with a celebration. Pride. Even with a distance of forty years, the potentiality of these works of art to deconstruct, to challenge, to repute, to inspire, to unleash and to grow, can only remain a positive and powerfully liberating force.

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The Trope of the Body and its Gendered Representations- PART TWO by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The 1975 work of Carolee Schneemann Interior Scroll was performed in East Hampton, New York and at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. This conceptual piece saw Schneemann standing naked on a table and covering her body ritualistically in mud. She then proceeded to slowly extract a paper scroll from her vagina whilst reading from it. In this piece, Schneemann is performer, subject and artist, both the image itself and the maker of the image. By using her own body in performance, she dismantles and challenges conventional masculine ideologies, contemplating the objective of her work as “the need to see, to confront sexual shibboleths.”[1]

Schneemann faced criticism for being overtly erotic, borderline obscene and narcissistic but these are the taboos she wishes to address and destabilize in this piece, resisting dominant paradigms of patriarchal thought by presenting the internal image of the female genetalia. In stark opposition to Titian’s Venus Pudica gesture, here the act of the scroll being pulled from the most internalized space of the female body denies the historical restriction that has persistently denied, hidden and refused to depict even the external image of the vagina and therefore, female sexuality. This exposure resists covering the void left by this omission in the conventional canon of academic, ‘high’ art.

In Freudian terms, the female body becomes a source of anxiety for the masculine viewer due to the lack of a phallus. Therefore, the female body becomes a representative of castration and domination, fetishized and defined as ‘Other’ by this phallic lack.[2] When Schneemann pulls this scroll out of her ‘lack’, she blankly refuses to be dominated. The scroll comes from within the vagina, the internalized female space which Schneemann views as “a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the sources of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation.”[3]

Furthermore, the control of the gaze renders a person capable to objectify and dominate the subject of the gaze. As we have noted in Titian’s Reclining Venus, the complicit and flirtatious outward gaze of Venus invites the masculine spectator to fantasize about her naked body. Schneemann’s scroll, however, acts as a physical object of otherness which has the power to disrupt the masculine controlling gaze. The action and removal of this object becomes the centralised focus of the gaze, controlled and created by Schneemann herself, so that her female body is no longer an objectified site for fetishization or sexual invitation. Interior Scroll breaks conventional parameters constructed to confine and control the feminine and refuses assimilation into dominant masculine theories and ideologies projected and elevated to the realm of art. Schneemann emphatically makes visible the invisible. The bodies we live, breath, sleep and eat in are not always perfect and flawless, polished and perfected but can very well be, “defiling, stinking, contaminating.”[4] Her work is not obscene or narcissistic but opposes restricting gender binaries by what has previously been omitted- the actual living experience of sexuality in a female body.

 www.caroleeschneemann.com


[1] Carolee Schneemann, “The Obscene Body/Politic.” Art Journal 50 (winter 1991):  p. 28-35: p.31

[2] Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. (New York: E.P Dutton and Co, 1962).

[3] Carolee Schneemann, “The Obscene Body/Politic.” Art Journal 50 (winter 1991):  p. 28-35: p.33

[4] Carolee Schneemann, “The Obscene Body/Politic.” Art Journal 50 (winter 1991):  p. 28-35: p.28

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The Trope of the Body and its Gendered Representations- PART ONE by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

“Our understanding of the body, our reading of it, is only possible with a concurrent reading and understanding of gender.”[1] The construction of the naked female body in the history of Western art has created a social and cultural emphasis on difference and gender. This female body when translated into the language of art is no longer simply ‘naked’ but elevated to the higher, superior status of the ‘nude’. However, the gestures and attributes of the female nude are often idealised, flawless and perfected (or on the other hand, monstrous and grotesque) working as a site for the masculine gaze, for fantasy, desire and fetishization. The Venus Pudica is a classical figural pose that has been passed down in the history of art and has worked to create an ideological notion of ‘femininity’ and the ‘feminine.’ This gesture sees a naked female with one hand covering the vagina, drawing the spectator’s eye to the point being hidden. Therefore, is this gesture covering or pointing- is it inviting the masculine gaze or endowing the female body with shame?

Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538, is perhaps one of the most famous examples of the Venus Pudica pose, although here we see her reclining horizontally instead of vertically. It is possible to note many iconographical features in this allegorical painting- the notion of loyalty and fidelity expressed the depiction of a dog connoting marital love and desirability, however, what is most apparent is the use of the Venus Pudica pose, her left hand placed over her groin that transforms the spectator into a voyeur. Venus gazes directly into the eyes of the viewer, a slight, flirtatious smile playing across her face. She becomes the object of the gaze, her central position and dominance of the frame inviting the (masculine) viewer to fantasise about her unblemished, sexually clean body. The gaze focuses ultimately on the covering hand, inviting the masculine imagination to contemplate what we do not see. What we do not see becomes eroticised, the image of the vulva itself. There is a complete blank denial of the female form, it is simply erased and ignored. The female form is reduced to an object of masculine desire, a repository of male fantasy that does not express the daily reality of their bodies that women experience.

The female body is idealised and distorted, the clean, smooth perfection portrayed becomes naturalised. Women artists working in the 1970 saw this construction and representation of the classical body, of the Venus Pudica, of Titian’s erotic and sexually inviting Venus and worked to reclaim female subjectivity, taking the cultural heritage presented to them and attacking it, reversing it, using it for their own purpose.
Part Two will focus on a specific reading of an artwork that serves to  deconstruct this trope…. coming soon…. !

[1] Hilary Robinson, “Border Crossings:Womanliness, Body Representation” in New Feminist Art Criticism edited by Katy Deepwell (Manchester University Press, 1995) p. 138-146: p. 138

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A FEMINIST INTERVENTION- Analysis of Two Works; PART TWO by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

In her autobiography, Judy Chicago explains the inspiration behind her overt lithograph Red Flag. The idea stemmed from her private conversation with four other women about menstruation, who realised they had never openly discussed the subject before nor had seen it addressed in art or literature. In fact, the subject was completely absent, a taboo, an ignored mark of ‘otherness’ connoting inferiority in women. It was seen as vulgar and disgusting, qualities that women are not expected to conform to in our culture. Yet, it is a natural bodily that process women experience, why could it not be discussed with dignity and sophistication in art? Chicago states how she wanted to validate female subject matter by using the ‘high art’ form of a handmade lithograph in order to challenge male reactions.
Red Flag depicts a woman’s hand pulling a bloody tampon from her vagina. We can only see the tops of her thighs, the hand and the tampon which is seen directly in the centre of the piece, the main point of focus and reference. Chicago also stated how she tried to make the tampon as overt as possible, down to the naturalistic tone of the blood so that it could not be interpreted as a penis. It just proves how culturally conditioned we are to visualising phallic shapes, rather than realising what is right in front of our eyes: the reality of living in a woman’s body. Red Flag is also an extremely important image for women; it takes a bodily process out of obscurity and validates it as art, installing women with confidence and pride in their bodies. Therefore, it opens up possibilities for discussion on a subject that women felt anxious or scared to talk about, and honest discussion can only lead to a greater awareness of such processes both anatomically, socially and culturally. The fetishization of women is acceptable in our society but this image, a mundane, everyday act is considered obscene and offensive. Why? It rejects the normative patterns of domination and submission in our social order; women are no longer hiding behind the conventional, yet restricting, veil of modesty. This piece also corresponds with Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection, that discuss a state situated outside the cultural world concerning repulsive objects that we try to cast away such as blood, rot and excrement. Facing these repulsions, here blood and menstruation, blurs the clear boundaries we sustain between nature and civilised society. This lithograph exposes this reality for open consideration, necessarily flouting ideals of good taste and feminine respectability in order to reclaim women’s own sexual and cultural power. Such a feminist intervention is necessary in its overt nature in order for public perception to grasp its true meaning and to explore the internalized taboos presented. Red Flag is not a white passive flag of surrender, admitting defeat and powerlessness but a soaring, passionate and colourful flag of defiance and strength.

Hannah Wilke was another artist involved in feminist arguments during the 1970s, deconstructing feminine stereotypes often through the use of her own body. By focussing on one of her most important works, titled Pink Champagne, I would like to argue how she successfully achieved a powerful feminist intervention that challenged notions surrounding the profane secrecy of women’s sexual organs. Like Chicago’s Red Flag, I believe Pink Champagne equally and radically investigates notions of the public and private. However, whilst Red Flag urgently dissolves the taboo of menstruation, Pink Champagne actively confronts taboos concerned with female sexual pleasure. Pink Champagne is a seven foot wall sculpture made of overlapping, undulating layers of latex. Liquid latex was poured onto a wide plaster bed and pulled into thin layers in order to create the layers, which appear like rippling, sensuous waves when mounted together. The wet, shiny material of the rubber alongside the fleshy appearance connotes the labial structure, opening outwards powerfully, suggesting erotic sensations. The colour, pink, is often associated with conventional ‘femininity’ and the conditioning of gender roles- young girls are dressed in pink in childhood, but here Wilke reclaims the colour from its restricting binary and uses it to create an aesthetic, organic effect. The ripples of rubber also connote petals, the soft curves alluding to flowers, specifically roses. Again, a cultural symbol of femininity reworked consciously, allowing Wilke to gain control of her own representation. The vagina is also representing sexuality outside of its maternal or reproductive function. Even the name, Pink Champagne, suggests an overflowing experience of glamour and extravagance. Champagne is a decadent, bubbling and pleasurable drink that should be savoured and enjoyed. I believe Wilke is claiming the same notion for women, addressing them directly to savour, relish and enjoy the sensuality of their own erotic experiences. Wilke introduces a positive image of the female genitals, expressing its capacity for pleasure in a feminine language, not a masculine ideology of female sexuality and fantasy. This sculpture works to transform negative associations of the vagina into a positive, expressive and beautiful form. It is therefore a valid version of feminism that Wilke invites the viewer to embrace, “Feel the folds; one fold, two folds, expressive precise gestural symbols. Multi-layered metaphysics below the gut level, like laughter, making love, or shaking hands.”

To read more about artists of the 1970’s, check out these following links:

Through the Flower: http://www.throughtheflower.org/page.php?p=40&n=3

Womanhouse: http://womanhouse.refugia.net/

Clips of Judy Chicago speaking: http://judychicagoandthecaliforniagirls.com/judychicago.html

 

RUTH. x

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