31 Women: Contemporary Complexity

Breese Little takes a determinedly anti-essentialist approach to this exhibition by confirming the breadth of work produced by female artists over the last seventy four years. The title signals an historic reference point: ‘Exhibition by 31 Women’ at Art of This Century, New York, January 1943. In this landmark show, Peggy Guggenheim similarly demonstrated the hugely varied practices of female artists that thwart stereotypical classification. While some of the works in ‘31 Women’ respond to gendered issues, the majority explore a wide range of non-gendered interests. Guggenheim’s exhibition has been considered particularly significant in signalling the ways in which female artists at the time responded to what were then considered the two dominant tendencies in art, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, or, in Alfred H. Barr’s terms, Non-Geometrical Abstract Art and Geometrical Abstract Art.

By contrast, ‘31 Women’ fundamentally problematises a binary approach to the writing of art history. Instead, most of the works in the show address the widely nuanced terrain between these two options as well as a myriad of other concepts and methods that have developed in more recent years. Thus, the exhibition opens with responses to feminism, body art, conceptual art, abstraction and photography in the form of a hand-written text by Tracey Emin, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Cover My Body In Love, 1996, alongside Meat Abstract No. 8 Gold Ball / Steak, 1989, an editioned polaroid by Helen Chadwick in which the corporeal qualities of the visual both echo and advance the anguish articulated in Emin’s words. From this powerful opening, the show develops a complex network of directions, generating productive conversations between works that are not usually placed together. Aimee Parrott’s latex and mixed media Pelt, 2017, and Eileen Agar’s collage, Fighter Pilot, 1940, for example, are seen through this visceral material prism, while deft curatorial juxtaposition highlights the working processes of artists such as Bridget Riley and Mary Martin whose experimental paper-based works complement the more finished aesthetic for which they are better known. Contemporary responses to conceptual art and minimalism are playfully furthered through Rana Begum’s elegant painted steel No 409 Fold, 2013, and Alison Turnbull’s poetic Orto Botanico, 2011, while a more physical approach to materials is highlighted in Angela de la Cruz’s Ripped, 1995, the torn canvas transforming two-dimensions into three.

A notably wide range of processes is on display, with many works exploring unusual methods in which materials are treated unconventionally. Phoebe Unwin’s Leaning Figure on Soft Ground, 2015, in Indian ink on canvas stands out in this respect, hung beside Gillian Wearing’s Claude and Gillian’s shadow, 2017, in which the absent shape of a reclining figure is echoed in the photograph of Cahun. By adding her own shadow to the image, Wearing beautifully articulates her homage to the earlier artist. Scale is similarly unexpected; Rose Wylie’s watercolour Blackberry (Minimal), 2015, is surprisingly large, confidently holding its place on the wall, while Katie Schwab’s Leftovers 6, 2017, is small and compact, the frame containing a composite sample of the artist’s range.

There are too many works on display to discuss them all individually here, although the effective curation of the show makes me want to do so. By juxtaposing works that are not usually seen together, from across more than seventy years, the show successfully draws out new dimensions to the individual works, opening up dialogues that add to them, celebrating both their diversity and their commonalities. As a group show, this is far more than the sum of its parts, demonstrating how skilful curation can provide rich visual as well as intellectual stimulation. Each work benefits from the hang, with the resulting conversations addressing the complexity of twentieth century and contemporary art. Thus, the exhibition contributes to the position of female artists by demonstrating that there is nothing niche nor essentially female about their work. This is not to deny the gender specificity of the artists (the title of the show makes this clear), nor to shy away from women’s continuing lack of economic equality in the art world, but to demonstrate that binary oppositions can be positively overridden by more nuanced narratives that underline the fundamental contributions of these and other female artists to the history of art; their works are part of that history, rather than distinctly separate from it. Whereas Guggenheim considered her show ‘daring’, many of the artists in ’31 Women’ are well known, reinforcing the centrality of female practitioners today.

DEBORAH SCHULTZ

31 Women
Breese Little
Until 29 July 2017

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