Girls in art: feminism in the frame

Exhibitions held together purely by gender could be inadequate, even distasteful — but are they nevertheless a required evil?

Alice Anderson, Bound, 2011, Champagne Life at Saatchi Gallery©Steve White

Alice Anderson, Bound, 2011, Champagne Life at Saatchi Gallery

Julia Wachtel is a neo-Pop painter who casts an eye on celebrity culture. Mia Feuer tends to make art inspired by the environment. Virgile Ittah is a sculptor whose wax figures trigger reflections on human transience. Save that all three artists are still regarded as “emerging”, their function has nothing at all in widespread. Oh, apart from the truth that they are girls.


IN Visual Arts

This bond is adequate to have brought all three, along with 11 other females artists, in to a show at London’s Saatchi Gallery referred to as Champagne Life. It is not sufficient. Even though individually some of the artists here are powerful — Jelena Bulajic’s meticulous mixed-media pictures of human faces, for example, are electrifying in their self-conscious realism — as a group they are significantly less than the sum of their components. The job of the curator is to provide context and nuance. Like a dinner party of random strangers, these works lessen every single other to moments of embarrassed silence and awkward non-sequiturs.

So why bring them collectively? According to Nigel Hurst, chief executive of the Saatchi Gallery, the lady-only show is a response to the raw deal that women artists still expertise. “We aim to celebrate the work [women do] in its sheer range and diversity.”

Hurst is appropriate about the lack of equality. Amongst the shocking statistics gathered by curator and author Maura Reilly for a report published in Art News last year, “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Information, Figures and Fixes”, was the fact that ladies account for the majority of American art students (60 per cent in 2006), but enjoy just 30 per cent of representation in US commercial galleries.

Public collections are equally skewed. For example on the walls of MoMA, just 7 per cent of works are by females. As for temporary exhibitions, the fact that Venice Biennale in 2015 counted 33 per cent of work by women, although two years earlier the figure was 26 per cent, typifies the large picture.

‘Self-Portrait with Camera’ (c1933) by Margaret Bourke-White, on show at Musée d’Orsay, Paris©Los Angeles County Museum Art

‘Self-Portrait with Camera’ (c1933) by Margaret Bourke-White, on show at Musée d’Orsay, Paris

This disparity is hardly new. It is now a lot more than 45 years given that the art historian Linda Nochlin wrote her furious, seminal essay Why Have There Been No Great Ladies Artists? in which she lambasted patriarchal society for failing to put girls on a level playing field. Nochlin was in the vanguard of a wave of feminism that swept by means of the art planet and beyond as writers such as Betty Friedan and image-makers such as Judy Chicago and Cindy Sherman paved the way for the much less embattled generation of the 1980s.

By the mid-1990s, feminism was a dirty word in mainstream discourse. Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991) outlines how relentlessly mainstream culture — still largely controlled by males — shamed ladies into staying silent.

On 1 level, nowhere have far more glass ceilings been smashed than in the art world. On Art Review’s 2014 Power one hundred List no fewer than nine females appeared in the leading 20. Final year, Tate’s short-term exhibition spaces have been completely offered more than to female solo shows as Marlene Dumas, Sonia Delaunay, Agnes Martin and Barbara Hepworth went on show. And just last week, Frances Morris was appointed director of Tate Modern day, one particular of the most powerful jobs in contemporary art. She joins a expanding quantity of female institutional heads such as Beatrix Ruf, who heads up Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and Sabine Haag, director of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

The result is an art scene that, from a gender point of view, is schizophrenic. Women are more visible than ever ahead of. However simultaneously they have never lamented far more loudly that they are not visible enough.

Jelena Bulajic’s ‘Alise Lange’ (2013), at London’s Saatchi Gallery

Jelena Bulajic’s ‘Alise Lange’ (2013), at London’s Saatchi Gallery

Behind the complaints lie a plethora of aspects. On the 1 hand, there is a new, 21st-century tide of feminism. From websites such as Daily Sexism to the launch of the Women’s Equality celebration, set up last year by the authors Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer, ladies nowadays are no longer prepared to ignore the iniquity of a society in which 51 per cent of the population accounts for just 29 per cent of MPs and 24 per cent of FTSE 100 directors but an astonishing 75 per cent of minimum wage earners.

As Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery and a single of the most strong women in contemporary art, puts it: “Feminism is cool once more.” But there are also dangers when girls come below the spotlight purely simply because of their gender. Champagne Life is the tip of an iceberg of girls-only shows proper now. In Miami, for instance, mega-collectors Don and Mera Rubell have brought together nearly 100 females artists from Sherman to Yayoi Kusama and a host of less effectively-known names.

In Paris, the Musée d’Orsay is displaying girls photographers from 1839 to 1945. In Frankfurt, the Schirn Kunsthalle has devoted its rooms to women who as soon as showed at Der Sturm, the gallery that made Berlin the crucible of the avant-garde in the early 20th century. Soon, says Blazwick, the White­chapel hopes to bring collectively a group of female Abstract Expressionists.

It’s hard to argue with the logic of the historical shows. As Blazwick puts it, “There’s a lacuna in history that needs to be addressed. We realised that a large chunk of the story of [Abstract Expressionism] was missing.”

But what about shows exactly where artists have practically nothing in common save their chromosomes? Maura Reilly believes they do carry out a worthwhile service. Only by continuing to highlight ladies artists, she thinks, do we deny curators the excuse that “they couldn’t discover any women” when asked why their price of inclusion is so poor.

Numerous artists nevertheless, are wary of becoming ghettoised. “I’ve carried out two females-only shows and I’m not convinced,” says Nadia Kaabi-Linke, a conceptual painter and sculptor who won the Discoveries Prize at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2014. “It handicaps ladies as if they are saying: “Look how weak we are, we require a special location of our own.”

‘The Seasons’ (1957) by Lee Krasner, on show at New York’s Whitney Museum, is by one of the female Abstract Expressionists undervalued until recently©The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights

‘The Seasons’ (1957) by Lee Krasner, on show at New York’s Whitney Museum, is by 1 of the female Abstract Expressionists undervalued until not too long ago

Dayanita Singh, the renowned photography artist who is primarily based in Delhi and presided over an acclaimed solo show at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2013, notes that the categorisation by gender frequently goes hand-in-hand with ethnicity. “I want my operate to stand on its personal,” she says.

In the US, girls make up 60 per cent of art students but just 30 per cent of representation in galleries

Last year, she was so fed up with “being known as on to be the ideal woman Indian photographer” that she invented a spoof prize. Entitled the Anna Atkins Prize for the ideal Indian Male photographer, it requests applicants to submit a statement on “how you really feel your ‘Masculinity’ has informed your photographic vision”.

Probably Kaabi-Linke and Singh feel uneasy since it is not just feminists who are keen to make ladies far more visible. In current years, market-makers have been enormously active in ferreting out girls who are, as one blue-chip gallerist place it, “the bargains of their time”. (Currently, the highest priced female artist is Georgia O’Keeffe, whose painting, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1”, sold for $ 44.4m, a figure dwarfed by a lot more than a dozen male counterparts, from Rothko, Pollock and Bacon to Gauguin, Cézanne and Picasso.)

It is thanks as a lot to gallerists, auction houses and fair organisers that we have found overlooked talents such as Phyllida Barlow, who was championed by Hauser &amp Wirth, and Geta Bratescu, a single of the highlights of the 2012 Frieze Spotlight section on neglected masters. In February, Bonhams will be the 1st auction residence to dedicate 1 chapter of a contemporary and modern sale to 5 females artists: Yayoi Kusama, Germaine Richier, Louise Nevelson, Carla Accardi and Dadamaino. Of course, it is laudable that ladies artists are being valued a lot more extremely. But let’s not overlook that the ill wind that when blew them into poverty is now also performing their sellers — and buyers — the power of very good.

It is notable too that higher-glamour style and life-style brands are queueing up to sponsor women-friendly projects. In Milan this year, the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, the cultural arm of the style house, sponsored a vast show named The Excellent Mother. Despite the fact that it did not exclude perform by males, the relentless maternal theme reeked of biological essentialism. The Saatchi show is sponsored by Pommery Champagne. (Hurst mentioned the tie-up was ironic. “It’s meant to show the contrast amongst the perceived glamour of the art world with the reality of long, lonely hours in the studio.”) Blazwick, meanwhile, admits that behind the selection to make Whitechapel’s biennial MaxMara prize accessible only to ladies was the desire of the Italian fashion property that sponsors it to have “something in line with their brand”.

Asked why so a lot of ladies artists continue to take element in female-only forums, Kaabi-Linke mentioned: “Because you feel you cannot afford to say no.” But with so many strong folks keen to co-opt them as flagbearers, females ought to really feel capable to refuse. After all, they are in demand because they’re worth it.

‘Champagne Life’, Saatchi Gallery, London, to March 9.

Photographs: Steve White The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society/DACS, 2016 Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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