'Women in conversation: three shows put female artists in dialogue'
by Lily Le Brun
17 February 2017
Very different artists paired at Turner Contemporary, Fine Art Society and Dulwich Picture Gallery
It feels timely that not long after the eruption of women-led demonstrations across the globe, female voices in the art world also seem to be louder than usual. Nearly 50 years since feminist art historians first sounded their battle cries, a clutch of independent exhibitions concentrating solely on women artists past and present suggests there are still questions that require attention and imbalances that need to be redressed. This month, Turner Contemporary, the Fine Art Society and the Dulwich Picture Gallery have all opened shows that spool around the significance of creative dialogues among women artists.
Entangled: Threads & Making, at Turner Contemporary, focuses on about 40 international women working with tapestry and textiles. It brings together work from the early 20th century by artists such as Anni Albers, Hannah Ryggen and Louise Bourgeois, with more recent pieces inspired by their example. The curator, Karen Wright, praises these pioneers for being especially “enabling” — and not just for other female artists. Eschewing stone and metal for unexpected materials such as masking tape and hair, working inexpensively and experimentally with their hands, these women presented a real challenge to traditional sculpture.
Wright points to the importance of the post-minimalist sculptor Eva Hesse, whom she believes was empowered by Bourgeois to play a major part in this “expansion of materials”. Phyllida Barlow, who will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale this year and is also a respected teacher, has acknowledged her debt to both Bourgeois and Hesse. Realising that sculpture could be made from materials ordinarily thought of as waste was, she has said, an “epiphany”. Her piece in the show, “Untitled: brokenshelf2015” (2015) — a riotous, multicoloured explosion of timber, cement, tape and plaster — is the embodiment of the expansive possibilities of any material, when used with confidence and imagination.
In London, more dialogues that cut across the years are taking place. Women Artists: A Conversation, at the Fine Art Society, invites 12 contemporary female artists to respond to a concurrent show of work by the English painter Gluck. A cross-dressing lesbian who insisted on “one-man” shows in the 1920s and 1930s, Hannah Gluckstein spurned the conventions of her gender, along with her given name. Sara Terzi, the curator, felt the retrospective presented a good opportunity to consider how far expectations for women artists have changed since Gluck’s lifetime. “The gender gap is still present in both the art world and society more broadly, so it is still important today to present this kind of [all-woman] show,” she says.
Only a few of the artists have chosen to correspond directly with Gluck. Annie Kevans has captured her striking, cropped-haired likeness in a portrait, while Eileen Cooper’s florid paintings and pastel drawings have been inspired by her graphic and unsentimental way of portraying flowers. Others have referenced her example more tangentially. Phoebe Boswell, for instance, is showing “The Likeness Project” (2016) and “Stranger in the Village” (2015), which explore stereotyping and how social media can bleed into our sense of self.
The sense of unfettered individuality in Women Artists: A Conversation, and among contemporary female artists in general, could suggest that single-sex shows are increasingly irrelevant, even counterproductive. But Boswell, who at 35 is one of the youngest artists in the group, disagrees. “Focusing on the work of women artists is . . . frustratingly necessary,” she says. Acutely aware of a gender imbalance in the art world, she reels off a list of female artists who have been important role models for her, and adds that some of her strongest professional relationships have been with women.
“It’s a pleasure to be in a show that celebrates women artists. An honour,” she says. “However, we do have to be conscious about what an exhibition of women artists in Britain looks like — whose voices are included in this ‘conversation’, and how these voices are handled and heard.”
It’s a good endorsement for the imaginative conversation happening a few miles south of the Fine Art Society. Legacy: Photographs by Vanessa Bell and Patti Smith, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, comprises 17 photographs by the contemporary American musician, writer and artist, displayed alongside seven family photograph albums of the Bloomsbury painter. The parallels are not immediately obvious. Smith’s ghostly black-and-white compositions are pregnant with abandonment and absences. Bell’s lively snapshots, taken on sandy beaches and sunny gardens, exalt in those dearest to her. They seem to dream of each other’s time: Smith aspires to amateur photography of the 19th century, a period that Bell largely wished to escape.
Their connection lies in this sense of existing outside their own era. Sarah Milroy, the show’s curator, believes that the strongest similarity between the two women is in their way of thinking. “Bell and Smith are both free spirits that challenged the times they lived in and epitomised the ideal of creative freedom,” she says. On view are several photographs taken by Smith of Charleston farmhouse in Sussex, Bell’s home from 1916 until her death in 1961. “I felt a real longing to document this place,” Smith has said, “because it is very much how I live: books everywhere, things that seem very humble, very sacred — a simple wooden box, a shell, a paint tube — everything has significance.”
Renowned for its homeliness as well as its fanciful decorative flourishes, Charleston symbolises Bell’s resolve to break with her stolid upper-middle-class Victorian upbringing, subtly manifest in most aspects of her life, not least in her contented ménage-à-trois living arrangement with her husband and lover. Even her family photographs gently teased rules: a penchant for taking cherubim-like pictures of her naked children elicited a crisp reprimand from a Boots chemist: “Would Mrs Bell please mark those rolls of film which contained images unsuitable for young ladies.”
The unobvious pairing sets both women free of their usual settings, allowing them to be seen in a new light. Perhaps that is the main value of exhibitions that encourage such dialogues, irrespective of gender. Building bridges over boundaries might sound clichéd, but it’s one way of dispelling any lingering sense of “otherness” that kept women from the canon in the past. That a paint-splattered mother in a rural farmhouse can be the rebellious inspiration to a blazer-wearing rock icon is just another judicious reminder that what we have in common is more significant than what separates us.