Tag Archives: Art

Art Student Resorts to Carrying Around a Mattress to Draw Attention to her Ignored Rape

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Emma Sulkowicz is walking around Columbia University campus with a mattress on her back. She’s an art student there, and Carry That Weight is a performance piece. What looks, without context, kinda funny (I immediately thought of this guy), is a actually a highly charged protest piece. The mattress carries the extra weight of Sulkowicz’s injustice and suffering.

Emma Sulkowicz says she was raped in her own dorm room bed by a classmate. Since then, she’s spent a substantial amount of time at her University trying to convince staff and peers that it actually happened to her, and that her rapist therefore deserves to be punished for his crime. Instead of expelling the rapist and allowing Sulkowicz to move on her with life the best she can, Columbia University totally ignored Sulkowicz, along with two other students at Columbia University who have reported the same assault. Their claims were swept under the rug and the alleged rapist is still allowed to roam freely on the campus as though nothing ever happened. Columbia University dealt with the allegations so flippantly, that in April Sulkowicz and 22 other students filed a  federal Title IX complaint filed against the University for mishandling sexual-assault cases.

In short: Sulkowicz lives in constant fear of harassment, because the man that raped her could be queuing up behind her to buy a can of Coke between classes. He could also walk into her room and rape her again. What’s really problematic – obviously apart from the act of the rape itself, and the high chance that it could happen again – are the lengths that Sulkowicz is now going to, to try bring her rapist to justice. It’s similar to charities having to resort to celebrity-endorsed social media campaigns to raise some money for people of dying of a disease. People are only going to give a shit if it comes up in their news feeds.

Sulkowicz has committed to carrying around a twin-size dorm mattress everywhere she goes on campus, to classes and appointments, for as long as her rapist it allowed to attend Columbia University. “I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then that space has become fraught for me,” she says in a video about the piece published by the Columbia Spectator. “And I feel like I’ve carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then.”

Women are afraid of speaking out in case nobody believes them. We assure them that if they do, then justice will ensue. Emma Sulkowicz, as well as carrying the burden of being raped, is now carrying a fucking mattress around so that someone will listen to her. What kind of message does this performance deliver to women around the world? This performance should never have to had to happen. Rape victims will keep their mouths shut. They’ll carry the weight on their backs too. Columbia University: Listen to Emma Sulkowicz. Take her allegations seriously. Take that mattress off her back before she cripples under the weight.

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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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An introspective glance at Claude Cahun by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Today, I encountered a photograph that unearthed a whole flood of emotions in me that I have been grappling with and attempting to articulate for some time. It is a rare thing with a work of art, when it hits you between the teeth- presents itself- and manages to encapsulate a very part of you that you knew was there, simmering silently, but never allowed itself to brim to the surface. It’s a rare moment and often a disconcerting one, when a piece feels so tangible yet it appears slightly impossible to articulate exactly why. It rises intuitively as if it rose from within you itself. It resonates. It breathes.

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Claude Cahun (25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) was a French photographer, writer and artist. Her highly personal yet political work explored notions of gender and sexuality, challenging accepted social and economic boundaries. Cahun is often associated with the Parisian Surrealist movement yet introduced alternative representations into this field. The majority of the Surrealist artists were men that perpetuated the site of women’s bodies as a mode of expression and isolated eroticism.  Today, I saw Cahun’s Self Portrait (kneeling wwith quilt), 1928, for the very first time.

Self-portraits are extremely vulnerable in the sense that they incorporate a certain lack of control. You are presenting an image of yourself to the world yet once this image is constructed, it lays exposed to levels of interpretation and judgment. The control in constructing your image is handed over to the eyes of the viewer who seizes it through the gaze. Lacan describes the gaze as a term loaded with feelings of anxiety and loss. Once we realize we can be seen, risks of categorization and misinterpretation are at play. Your identity is no longer safely constructed as your own.

In this self-portrait, Cahun kneels in front of the viewer in an almost religious position. An offering before the altar. Behind her, the soft fabric of a quilt looms over her body connoting an upright bed. We have the privilege of looking down on the figure, disrupting and disallowing the notion that Cahun is actually lying in a bed. That site of dreams, of sexual encounters, of vulnerability. This composition is also dramatic, theatrical almost, rising up behind her like a stage set. Through the pose and composition, she speaks of exposure on many levels. The interplay of textures highlights this exposure and creates a conversation between the fabric and the figure. The dark horizontal lines of the exposed wood floor and ceiling act like framing techniques, juxtaposing the luminescent white of the quilt and the white of her skin. Contained within this box, her own personal cell, the shadows mirror and dance across both surfaces. The bright white tone of her stomach echoes the sheet directly behind her, whilst the strong shadow cutting across the top emphasizes the mask slicing across her face. The shades and tones of her naked body melt into the background. Therefore, the quilt seems comforting and warm. Like flesh.

Yet, Cahun’s body language and gesture appear both introspective and self-defensive. Her hands curl across her chest and up to her neck, creating a barrier to her bare body. Most importantly, the mask across her eyes creates an immediate sense of shock. It is possible to incorporate Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze at this point; it could be argued that through this masking technique, Cahun is discounting the masculine objectifying gaze. She controls the boundaries of concealment and revelation, of inner and outer, of passive and active. We are not met by the expected returning gaze. We are unable to read any possible expression. And that’s disconcerting, possibly even linking to Foucault’s notion of a controlling gaze. The mask itself is clown-like, surreal and highly patterned like the swirls of decoration on the quilt. The eyes are painted white appearing hollowed, empty and disfigured.

However, I happen to think that the aversion of the gaze is actually highly personal. Caught in her own world of introspection, her eyes looking inward on herself; perhaps it is possible to take a moment for yourself. I believe that contemporary viewers will understand innately about the difficulties and contradictions of masks as, in a way, the concept is more paramount than ever. Physically and emotionally. We fix our facial features into a neutral mask whilst moving through the modern world, on the train, on the bus, on the pavement. The mask presented to us through technology, our own faces multiplied on screens through the flash of a camera. The mask of make-up. These are survival techniques, disavowals of complete exposure.

You can see my naked body, but you cannot see my eyes.

“Under this mask, another mask. I will never keep removing these faces.”- Claude Cahun

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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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THE REVIEW: GILLIAN WEARING. ART WEEKLY by Leighann Morris

Whitechapel Gallery, London

28 March – 17 June 2012


Gillian Wearing, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say,1992

Born in Birmingham in 1963, Gillian Wearing shot to fame in Britain in the 90’s with the rising profile of the YBA’s. Having attended Goldsmiths with Damien Hirst, throughout the artist’s 20 years of practice to follow, it seems that that the inevitable comparison with our favourite formaldehyde loving celebrity artist has left Wearing increasingly overshadowed by the formers blinding, inescapable, loud, and controversial artistic statements.

Wearing’s practice is on another level altogether: quieter, subdued, and frankly more effective in engaging with the British public, Gillian Wearing is not an artist for collectors or the market (not saying any names), but rather an artist for the people. To my great pleasure, the Whitechapel Gallery brings Wearing’s array of photographs, works on video, and sculpture to light for the artist’s first and much deserved retrospective.

Wearing’s most effective tool is the video camera, and she uses it to peel back the façade of the individual in the public sphere, to reveal truths behind outward appearance. Wearing films children dubbed with the voices of adults, invites people to reveal their darkest secrets on camera whilst wearing a disguise, and tells members of the public to write down what they are really feeling, to present to the world in a photograph. Wearing’s work is essentially the traditional portrait inverted. Members of the public are encouraged to do the opposite of pose, to exude importance. Instead they are stripped, and invited to reveal truth.

Wearing’s work is all about paradox: given the chance to disguise oneself behind a mask, the individual is liberated and their character is in fact de-masked. Her aim: to question what is true, what is performed or real, to ask WHAT ARE ORDINARY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC ACTUALLY THINKING? She cleverly and often heartrenderingly highlights the discrepancy between what exists in our minds and how we present ourselves in the public sphere, drawing attention to the large gap between the two.

The exhibition begins with Wearing’s 1994 video piece Dancing in Peckham. Wearing invites the viewer to watch her dance for 25 minutes in a shopping mall. Contemporary art cynics: give it a chance and allow me to jump to Wearing’s defence. (Many of my friends would be relentlessly shouting “THIS ISN’T ART!!!” If I had taken them to see it). Perhaps the most puzzling piece in the exhibition (why is she dancing like an idiot to no music outside a curries in Peckham for 25 minutes?), I think the piece sums up Wearing’s aims as an artist perfectly. Unaware of passers by, Wearing dances like nobody is watching acting out self-abandonment within a public space to highlight the gap between accepted social norms and what is really going on inside our heads.

Wearing’s now iconic series of photographs, Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, And Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say makes this point explicitly. In 1992, the artist invited strangers to write down what they were thinking on paper and hold it to the camera. The effect is humorous, sad, and shocking. A personal favourite is an elderly man holding up a sign saying “what a lovely girl”, showing the discrepancy between our expectations of character judged by external appearance. Seeing the elderly man in public, one would assign to him sexless and paternal characteristics. Given the chance to express all, we discover that the truth is far from the expected: the elderly man reveals his inappropriate sexual and erotic desire.

Similarly, a smiley, handsome, and seemingly happy young man holds up a sign declaring: “I am depressed at the moment”. Wearing captures the truth behind the British public, suggesting that our public “face” is in fact a façade. It is something we can all relate to as members of the British public. Last week on the tube, a well dressed suited business man sat next to me. In his lap lay a letter for probation and a leaflet to alcoholics anonymous. Getting on the tube in the morning, we all appear the same: same “work” clothes, same miserable face, same relentless march to the office, but in our private lives we are different people altogether. Wearing creates her work out of a desire to explore this; to turn it inside out: to turn the private into the public.

My favourite parts of the exhibition are Wearing’s works on video:Confess All OnVideo. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… (1994), Trauma (2000), and Secrets and Lies (2000). Through the medium of video, Wearing explores the difference between ones public persona and private life with a darker, more macabre tone. The retrospective leads us to modern day confessional booths; an enclosed space within which we, put in the position of confidante, are presented with a screen. On the screen anonymous members of the public, masked with latex faces and wigs, reveal emotional and traumatic secrets involving rape, murder, incest, and violence.

Wearing asks to consider which is really the mask: our public “face” or the latex face that hides the confessor. Which is fake? Paradoxically, by masking the confessors, they become de-masked. Their true identity is revealed. With her works on video, Wearing captures the truth behind our public personas. And the truth is depressing. This is Britain today, says Wearing. Lies, secrets, and fake smiles.

I really hope the man on the tube is ok.

ART WEEKLY.Reviews, news, listings, and recommdendations in the arts, London.

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SOLIPSIST by Andrew Huang

Directed by Andrew Thomas Huang
andrewthomashuang.com

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