The female condition
By Jemima Stafford
The Female Condition throughout history
Throughout history, women and art have been inextricably linked, but it's only really been in the last 50 years that it's become normal for women to be behind the camera, the easel, and in the studio. Before this, women were the depiction, the perfect nude sprawled provocatively, passively, looking back out at us from a canvas with eyes devoid of emotion, appealing to the spectator's (owner's) sexuality, without any representation of her own. The female form, in European presentation, had been locked submissively into art. The few female artists that have made it onto the canon pre-1960s is a serious reflection of the lack of opportunity women were presented with outside of the domestic sphere. You can count female artists that have become household names on your fingers; Kahlo, O'Keeffe, Le Brun, Morisot, Delaunay. Meanwhile vast multitudes of male artists have reached this level of recognition, even with the problematic and often misogynistic baggage that accompanies them. Picasso is one glaring example, as he explained to his 21-year old lover at the ripe age of 61, “For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”
First-wave feminist art came in the late 1960s as an explosive rejection of women's sidelined position in society, with artists like Judy Chicago and Mary Beth Edelson creating art that reclaimed the female experience and pushed it to the forefront. Vaginal imagery, menstrual blood, re-creation of the female form as goddess-like and using media such as embroidery (which had become dismissed as a 'real' artistic form because of its' association with feminine sensibility) was explored and exhibited. Post first-wave art historians and critics went further than just celebrating what had before been dismissed. Rather than just re-asserting the function of the doormat, the concept of the doormat was pulled out from underneath and deconstructed. They asked where femininity came from, and recognised that gender norms in themselves were problematic and wrong. The frame as well as the picture were turned upside down as the language of art history was recognised to be latently sexist by authors like Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker, with gender-loaded terms such as 'old master' and 'masterpiece' being held up as evidence for a fundamentally anti-female artistic environment. As artist and instructor Hans Hoffman once said in a “compliment” to the abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasnerin in the mid-20th century: “This is so good you wouldn't know it was done by a woman.” It's not just about adding the names of women to the artistic canon, or making more academic and critical texts that solely focus on female art. The entire concept of art is built on something selected and tailored for the few.
What is the reality today?
Fast-forwarding to today, the art scene is more hopeful for all minority groups, but under-representation is still rife. 78% of the London galleries represent more men than women, whilst only 5% represent an equal number of male and female artists. The removal of female artists from art history is something that we must learn from moving forwards, and defying the anti-female artistic environment is something that The Female Condition exhibition has done simply by the nature of its being. Whilst running a solely female exhibition runs the risk of undermining female art by ghettoising and segmenting it into it's own 'special corner', the collection has fostered a safe territory where truly personal ideas can be explored and indulged in.
As gender itself is deconstructed, identity and selfhood have been bought onto the examination table. This weekend and into next week (22nd -27th of February) Centre-Space is performative as this examination table, and a selection of work by young women comes together to challenge, subvert and defy social convention. For £2 you can buy a ticket for the visual art, and as well as this there are evening events being hosted including talks and Q&As with inspiring individuals and collectives.
When first walking into the space, you are instantly struck with the diversity of the media selection. Photography lines one wall, with projections and installations on the other, as well as hanging sculptures and fine art. Softly drawn watercolours in pastel pinks and oranges of the female form by Esther Palmer hang opposite a loudly coloured mixed-media piece by Matilda Boyer and Sam Green.
One of the pieces you are greeted by is the confident and colourful photography of Jade Ayino depicting a young woman (herself) with huge, false red lips posing in the graffitied back-streets of Bristol. The vibrancy of the plastic red lips against the washed grey palette of the urban setting made this an inescapable piece of photography, a frank and glaring statement that follows you around the room.
The artist had some interesting points to make about art being what you make it, and this in itself is a reflection of one of the main messages put across by the exhibition. Not only is art what you make it, but you are who you make yourself – and this isn't easy in our modern world, where social media and the beauty industry (to name two) are huge pressures on self-image.
“I don't want to tell you what I think it's about,” said Jade. “Because then you'll come into it with an idea that isn't yours. And this is supposed to be about what you think it is.” Whilst Jade handed power over to the observer, she herself holds judgements about the beauty industry, and the voices of society around her, who “[tell me] what to do and what not to do and how to do things with the objective to please everyone but myself.” A similar message came from the images by Hannah Roberts, whose contorted self-portraits aimed to challenge the value system of external beauty in modern society.
For me, the messages of exploration and identity were somewhat lost in the video projections that covered the back half of the Centre-Space gallery. With a high-ceilinged venue providing large amounts of echo, any sound from the projections was lost in the chatter. Chatter which was undeniably productive, fostering an at-one atmosphere between exhibitors and visitors. Artists mingled with their audience, opening up conversation (a particularly poignant one I overheard concerning the projections of peeled grapes: “is society supposed to be the onion then?”) about the female condition and how these artists understood the concept.
On the other side of the room, one installation held items from a previous relationship such as underwear and archived WhatsApp messages in see-through bags, for all the world to see. Placing personal conversations and items in a room bustling full of people created a bridge between the inner and the outer, with the physical manifestations of emotional turmoil evoking Tracy Emin's 'My Bed', but with more focus on the idea of personal independence and our ability as humans to attach such deep significance to essentially replaceable, consumerist objects. The bridge to the inner is buoyed up with artists like Emin and Abramovic, and provides interesting insight to intensely personal experience.
So, what now?
“That photo there of me on the stairs was actually taken just after I fell over, and before the moment I started to laugh,” Jade said of one of her photographs. Capturing the subject in the moment before the reaction, and two stages before the reflection, is an interesting analogy of the entire experience of this exhibition. In our society today, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be feminine or beautiful (for they are not the same thing), are questions that are relentlessly being forced upon us. It takes bravery to pause, examine, and reflect on what it is we are being told, and who we are, rather than who we should be when it is put on us by anyone other than ourselves. As written by Esther Palmer in her descriptive notes nestling below her fluid and quite beautiful watercolour life drawings, which incorporated pomegranates as representative of the nature of womanhood, “There is great beauty and freedom in our acceptance of [our] ever-changing states.”
Groups like Gal-dem and the new Switch House at the Tate show that it's becoming cool to bring people into spaces where the connection wasn't as strong previously. There are exciting times ahead for women in art, as the number of opportunities for women to express themselves grows, and exhibitions like The Female Condition are individually making up a mass turning-point in this period of change. Cool indeed.