Jennifer Patterson considers what two exhibitions of works by female artists indicate about the art world for women today
Two exhibitions of works by female artists currently running in London raise questions of representation, identity and may herald the changing market value of women’s art.
The Nature of Women at The Mayor Gallery is an exhibition of abstract works by established female artists working in different ways with squares and grids. Challenging the viewer to determine what women’s (collective) nature might be, the title highlights the individuality of artists and the unequal challenges faced by artists who are also women. The show marks the gallery’s final exhibition at its premises on Cork Street and acts as a counterpoint to their show only featuring male artists when they opened back in 1925.
The second exhibition showcases works by Anjolie Ela Menon, an outstanding contemporary Indian artist who, after 50 years of figurative painting, has a huge national reputation and several works in international museums, but like Saloua Raouda Choucair is relatively unknown in this country.
The patriarchal and paternalist bias in the art market is well known. Opening in 1925 with an all male show of six artists’ work that included Picasso and Dufy, The Mayor was and is the leading venue for surrealist exhibitions outside of Paris. It has an established reputation for driving art market quality and also for championing women artists including Hepworth, Hesse and Plath. However, the Mayor is in the minority. The art market is still harder for women to break into. Even today, galleries that exhibit women artists are limited. This is one of many astonishing facts humorously presented through the work of the Guerrilla Girls, another being the tiny proportion of work by women compared to nudes of women in most public art collections.
The title of the Mayor exhibition challenges and opens up the idea that women or men exhibit gendered characteristics in their art. The key to the exhibition and to the relationships that bring these artists together is Agnes Martin’s work; even artist George Bazelitz’ sees her art as an exception to his outrageous statement made earlier this year that “women don’t paint very well”. Work by Aurelie Nemous, Lisa Corinne Davis, Marischa Burckhardt, Sylvia Heider and Anne Appleby engages with Martin’s influence in different ways based on actual squares, grids or the square canvas form itself.
Martin created deceptively simple minimalist works that convey the experience of transcendent joy and truth as a spiritual and personal aesthetic. Influenced by meditative Buddhist philosophy and practice, her art presents the subtle visionary truth of a transcendent reality of perfection beyond material reality, moving in time through simple repetitive mathematical forms towards abstract minimalism and subtle colours. The ideology of truth in relation to mathematics is deeply rooted in traditional historical and gendered Western scientific and philosophical culture, a background that enriches Martin’s achievements, as does her distance from the art market during her life.
Appleby paints monochromatic colours inspired by natural subject matter across plain square canvases. Heider manufactures square metal patterned reliefs with wide oak framing, making squares within squares of graining and metal, bringing chance into the equation for final surface patina effects. Burckhardt makes collages of hessian and open weave undyed fabrics, creating variations on squared grids of warp and weft, embellished with strips of gold.
This exhibition is not about Feminist Art, as instigated and developed through the work of Judy Chicago, nor is it about overt expression of gendered art. It is about good abstract artists who are also women. But is it really so simple? To what extent can a woman separate what is produced from an embodied and engendered sex and from gender discourses, especially when the cultural environment differentiates sex and gender to such an extent and is so biased against her on a value basis? Achieving artistic value and success is an uphill struggle.
Lisa Corinne Davis has explained that she is an artist who happens to be a woman, referring to the content of her paintings, which for her relate to race identity. They are clearly, she agrees, about displacement. Nothing is fixed and they contain references from maps and landscapes to labels and décor. They shift meaning. With multiple layers originating in the making, unmaking and subverting of grids using colours, different dimensional projections and differing sizes of squares the paintings float between a world that give a sense of being clearly mapped but becomes more intersectional, more undone and more layered the more I look. As a feminist I connect with an imaginary whose content is individual but whose method is familiar.
The titles of paintings include words like “pandemonium” and “disorder”, unlocking a relationship between the scientific rigour of the mathematical grids and an internal creative imaginary who travels through and beyond these grids, undoing and reinventing them as it goes.
Davis is eloquent about her work and her language is careful and precise. She says that unravelling, pondering and thinking through are traditionally seen as more ‘feminine’ attributes but likes her work to pack a ‘masculine’ punch. Her fictional urban landscapes are bright and vibrant, incorporating a range of found materials within the layers, with travel references in the form of tickets and street maps. The mathematical influences referring to precise mappings and measurement of truths about place or situation are undone with strength and vitality. Woven through the fictional and seemingly urban landscapes, giant graffiti-like doodles resemble human creations. Three-dimensional mosaic forms, shapes like liquid bones and often a single linking and broken thread outlines and disappears between these undoings. Ultiamtely, we are presented with a space and place-associated tracery, weaving and unravelling all sense of uniformity.
At the Grosvenor Vadhera Gallery the sensual beauty of figurative paintings and collages by Anjolie Ela Menon offers a complete contrast to minimal and abstract art. Her mastery of technique is that of an artist who paints extremely well. Rich sombre colours and a certain gravitas in her art is reminiscent of and influenced by her study of Romanesque art in France as a young art student and later by Russian icons. Sensual melancholic tones and statuesque figures are balanced by decorative overlay, along with combining colour, decoration and references to daily life though the goats, crows, opens doors and windows that run through her work.
Menon likes ornamentation. Her recent collages play with kitsch, bringing together photographic references to former works with religious mass reproduction of calendar art and foil embellishment. Menon resists categorisation as a woman artist. She questions whether the viewer can tell her gender identity from a painting of the head of a man. For her, the subject of a work is not gender defined. It comes to her from strange places: an old medical instruction book, a crow flying past, a village goat wandering into her studio, her family, a person no longer sitting in a chair. She talks about her painting in terms of pragmatic themes at certain periods, such as the mother and child or the adolescent. These are enigmatic narratives full of juxtapositions, contrasts and personal memories. They are also representations and symbolic images, frequently engaging and sometimes deconstructing their past appearances in her work.
A talented artist who has been working for 55 years, Menon says it is hard not to be figurative, being surrounded by people. She is humorous and quirky. She enjoys experimenting in new media, painting “follies and fantastic furniture” or sculpting in glass. She likes taking art off a pedestal, making it accessible, wrapping work in recyclable quilts and painting a large airport mural in bright colours because optimism is necessary in such a place.
She says many women could paint as well as she does and that the hardest thing for an artist is developing a signature style and learning the skills.
Menon’s advice to young women artists is that art school cannot tell you what the content will be. This takes contemplation and hard work. If you stand in front of a painting, it is because someone has something special to say. For young women artists, making money does not come easily and Menon would like them to know that you have to keep going.
Anjolie Ela Menon: Recent Paintings runs from 7 – 27 June at the Grosvenor Gallery.
The Nature of Women runs from 5 June – 26 July at the Mayor Gallery.
Images used with permission:
Agnes Martin – Untitled, 1958 (wide red stripes alternate uniformly with thin yellow stripes; the colours are faded)
Lisa Corinne Davis – Bona Fide Disorder, 2009 (on a background of stripes, bulbous red and white shapes connect and spiral inwards to increasingly geometric patterns with more varied and vibrant colours)
Anjolie Ela Menon – Birthday Girl, 2013 (a blue nude woman sits with a clothed young child who is holding a doll; both look out at the viewer)
Anjolie Ela Menon – Pentimento – V, 2013 (a gold frame around an abstract painting of a woman, shown from the waist up, her nude body interrupted by other shapes, on a background showing body parts, animal print patterns and leaves)