An Interview with Jessica Nash by Sian Matthews

An artist working predominantly with photography in east London, Jess works with themes such as touch, skin, sex and cancer and uses these themes to explore her own relationships, fears and curiosities on an incredibly personal level. On the surface her photographs are very clean, beautiful to look at and are reminiscent of the surreal and eccentric images used to sell perfume or jewellery in editorial magazines. However, once you peel away that serene exterior it is clear that her images are a way for the artist to explore and understand the sometimes hard-hitting issues she faces in her personal life. Like many artists Jess uses her work as a way to document and catalogue her struggles as well as a form of healing and understanding. I met up with Jess to discuss the topics and motives behind her work and to get to know her a little more as an individual, away from the sometimes gloomy subject matter of her work.

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Infectum Pellis, Jess Nash

Infectum Pellis is an ongoing project in which the artist is further examining her relationship with skin and touch. These photographs show the skin as tense and restrictive, reflecting the way haphephobia, the fear of being touched causes the artist to feel in her own skin. Jessica’s practice is heavily influenced by her relationship with skin, sex and cancer.

 

It has been couple of weeks now since I met up with Jess in Loughton to get a coffee and I had planned to start our interview with some silly, light-hearted questions just to break the ice and to  have a little fun, the ice was broken however when I found myself waiting for her after she found a hoard of old Polaroid cameras in a charity shop and her excitement got the better of her (who doesn’t get excited over old cameras in charity shops though, right?).

Once we were sat down, coffee in hand, we started to chat about how Jess currently works for Polaroid and generally had a catch up. I should mention here that I have known Jess for a couple of years now, having met after being invited to exhibit alongside her and a few other artists at ‘The Body Exhibition’ in Peckham. An exhibition exploring the relationships between artist and body which Jess had organised in conjunction with her degree.

The body exhibition

 

Once that was over with, we started the interview with some quick fire questions!

 

Q. Do you have a favourite artwork or an artwork you feel drawn to?

A. I don’t think I have just one favourite piece, there are a few that come to mind. But the book ‘Pond’ By Clair Louise Bennett, although not an ‘artwork’ really stands out and is important to me.

 

 

Q. Is there a song, a piece of music or a band that inspires you?

A. Again there’s a few, I love listening to Ludovico Einaudi in the studio and when I’m working, its something easy to listen to and have on in the background that isn’t too distracting. I also enjoy listening to James Blake for similar reasons and i also feel inspired when listening and dancing to old Motown.

Picked for the blog –

 

Q. Can you name 3 artists who have inspired or informed your work?

A. Mia Dubek, Alix Marie and Marina Abramovich. I’m not necessarily inspired by them anymore but they have informed my work in the past. Particularly with Marina Abramovitch, I once loved her work and she inspired me a lot but now I’m not sure I like her at all, she seems to have an arrogance about her now that I don’t like, I know that’s quite an unpopular opinion and very controversial because everyone seems to love her but I am just not into it anymore. (It is controversial but… I completely agree!)

 

Also see: https://miadudek.co.uk/Publications

 

Q. What is your biggest pet peeve, and why?

A.I have a lot. But definitely people who breathe too loudly, or people who breathe on you on the tube. I really hate it when you can feel someone’s breath on you.

 

Q.If you could choose, what super power would you have and why?

A. Errrm, it’s not really a superpower but something I would love is to have the ability to have eaten without actually having to stop to eat. I find stopping what I’m doing to eat very time consuming and I wish I could eat without having to eat. If that makes sense?

 

Q. Do you have a favourite museum or gallery? Or an exhibition you have visited recently that really stood out to you?

A. I think one of my favourite galleries is the König Galerie in Berlin because of its architecture. It has super high ceilings and the light is amazing.

 

Galerie-Berlin

 

Q. What do you dislike about the art world as a whole?

A. There are too many people trying to break into the industry and technology makes it too easy and too difficult. Its so over saturated because its so easy to put yourself out there via social media, like Instagram, that its also difficult to get noticed, whether its for your artwork or for a creative job.

 

Q. Other than art and photography, what interests do you have?

A. Since finishing Uni I have been pushing myself to try new things as a way to stay creative, its hard to stay in that mind set when you don’t really have a space to work in that’s dedicated to art, like a studio or other people to work with and bounce ideas off of. I have recently taken up crochet, needle punch and other yarn-based crafts. I recently started going skateboarding too because its out of my comfort zone and I am trying to push myself. Other than that I also enjoy doing a lot of stereotypical ‘hobbies’ that people say they do, except I actually do them, like reading, cooking, yoga and gardening.

 

Q. What is your earliest creative memory?

A. The first photo I remember taking was of my family on the beach, I was about 4 I think. I cropped my dad’s head off by accident.

 

Q. If you could visit anywhere on earth, where would you go?

A. Anywhere with a lot of stars! There is a place in Ireland where you can see the most stars anywhere on the planet because of the way its positioned. I’d love to take a trip there. I also really like Cornwall. I wouldn’t go far, just somewhere beautiful.

 

Moving onto the more serious questions I wanted to talk about Jess the artist, I wanted to find out about her thought processes and the motives, themes and inspirations behind the work she creates. So I started off broadly..

 

Q. To start, what exactly is it that you do? In terms of what mediums do you use, what do you aim to explore and what do you want to portray to the audience?

A. I take photos as a kind of therapy, I find that it’s a way to talk about something and communicate with the world without being static. I often think of myself as being very monotone in the way I talk about things and the way that I explain things, photography is an easier way to be expressive and show more feeling.

I also chose to use film because it’s much more tactile than digital, you end up with a physical object to hold and a process to follow – it mimics the idea of being about touch.

 

Old Wives Tales

Old Wives Tales is a diptych of self portraits. The photographs show a perhaps uncomfortably literal version of the artists memories. From a young age, the artist would bathe with her twin brother and whilst she would make ‘potions’ with whatever shampoos she could find, her brother played with rubber sea creatures. Their mother once told them a story of how the rubber octopus might use his suckers and tentacles to wrap around their feet and pull them down the plug hole. The second photograph shows of a hoop earring being pulled, looking back at when she was told that to wear them would meant that she would one day ‘rip’ her ear out.

 

Q. What themes do you use in your work and why?

A. I used to work with skin as an object – how you use it to communicate with the world. My twin brother was diagnosed with melanoma, skin cancer, it really started to affect me and unavoidably my work began to be influenced by both his struggle and mine. I also use my work to explore the tense and restrictive way my haphephobia, the fear of being touched, causes me to feel. At the same time I also started to investigate how skin can be used to convey more of a sexual message, separate from my other work.

 

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one of two

Through my series One of Two I was able to show the relationship between my twin brother and I. Shot in our home studio, The series uses natural light to show the organic nature of our relationship and how although we are growing together, we are also growing apart. Using a white background allowed me to show him as one. This project was a way for me to acknowledge how independent we have become from each other.

 

Q. And what made you think to make art about this subject matter?

A. It came completely naturally, when something so significant is happening with your home and personal life you can’t help but let it spill over into other things, in some ways making work about everything that was going on was cathartic, it was a way to release it all into something, it was freeing. While I was making this work I also had a separate project that was sort of documenting a relationship and a person who was absolutely nothing to do with my home life. I feel like I had to have this project running alongside my other work as a distraction.

 

Q. Where do your ideas and inspirations come from? What kind of research to do you?

A. I read a lot, both literature and poetry. Weirdly I don’t look at other photos or photographic artists, I get a lot of inspiration from watching videos, films, specifically home videos. I also like to just talk to people. You get a lot of information just by talking. And people watching. I guess my research style is very non traditional, I like to collect things and getting lost in Instagram.

 

Q. Are there any inherent qualities that your work has that you dislike?

A. I don’t like that it has a trendy aesthetic and a trendy colour pallet, it means that people don’t ask the right questions and a lot of the time they take it at face value. I also feel like it needs to have more writing to accompany it at shows because people don’t get it. But that defeats the object really.

 

Q. What is the most memorable response you have had to your artwork? (coincidentally, Jess asking to exhibit my work after seeing it at Free Range the year before is mine!)

A. My work was shown in the largest photography exhibition in China, they asked for my work to be sent as a digital file with printing instructions which I did. They ended up printing it on the wrong paper, the wrong size and then hung them in the wrong order. It was crap and I was really disappointed. What I thought was a great opportunity was ruined.

One of my brother’s friends has recently got his own place and wants to buy one of my photographs and not just because we’re friends, he genuinely wants to buy my work and it’s a massive compliment!

I’ve also got my work onto the front cover of the Royal Photography Society magazine which is a huge achievement and I am very excited about.

 

Royal Photographic Society

 

Q. What is your dream project? Art or otherwise?

A. I really want to try printing onto latex and making garments. With latex though, it’s extremely hard to work with and expensive which is holding me back. I don’t have a space to work in at the moment or anywhere to store stuff.

 

Q. What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

A. ‘You are responsible for what you’re doing’, there is no use getting stressed about your art work because it is only what you make it. Sometimes it is good to be reminded of that. And also ‘you’ve got time to do what you want to do’

 

Q. Professionally, what is your goal?

A. Right now my goal is to have my own studio space – to find people who I can collaborate with – I just want to be making. I also don’t want my job to be my artistic practice, I want there to be a break between the two.

I would love the opportunity to exhibit my work in the RA Summer exhibition and I want to go back to Uni and study for a MA at Bournemouth.

 

Q. And lastly, what’s next for you? What can we expect to see from you in the next year or so?

A. I want to start a new Polaroid project, maybe something to do with collage. I like the medium, I like that its instant. I’d like to start putting myself forward for more opportunities and exhibit my work more, possibly across Europe?

 

I just wanted to finish by saying a big thanks you Jess for her time and if you want to explore Jess’s work further you can do so by visiting her website or via social media, links below!

jessicanash.co.uk

Instagram – jess.a.nash

 

 

 

 

 

Art Pilgrimage – by Sarah Kingham

I have spent at least an hour today queuing to experience art. Firstly, because I mistakenly got to the Hayward Gallery an hour before it opened, so I passed a peaceful 40 minutes in the National Theatre expresso bar watching a man stick lines of dots to the windows. This seemed to presage the second part of my day, at least in retrospect. There was a small line of people waiting at the door to the Hayward when we returned at 10:58am.

Then I queued because I waited in line twice to commune with pieces of art. The first of these was Richard Wilson’s 20:50. The work is so popular at the Hayward’s current show, ‘Space Shifters’, that the ticketing staff advised us to go straight to see it, before the queue built up. That they gave this advice to everyone entering the show possibly nullified its efficacy. None the less, we chose to follow it.

 

There was a queue of around twenty people on the first floor. We joined it. A series of tape barriers showed that the queue could be four times longer later in the day, when things get busier. Out on the roof garden a huge convex, blue tinted mirror by Anish Kapoor reflected the clouds. They never seemed to move while I looked at them. It was peaceful; the air was heavy with the odour of sump oil and anticipation. As we approached the work, laminated health and safety sheets were handed out. We needed to remove coats and bags (there was a pair of storage boxes, like those in theme parks, before rollercoasters). If we got vertigo, we should look out of the window, but definitely not grab the sides of the path into the work; the oil in 20:50 goes right to the top of its container; the edges curve in voluptuous surface tension.

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Sky Mirror, Blue – Anish Kapoor

I absolutely love this piece. I first saw it in the second incarnation of the Saatchi Gallery, at the former GLC County Hall building. There it reflected the Edwardian splendour of the top two-thirds of a high windowed and wood panelled room back to itself, darkly. The realisation that the surface is flawed, marred by tiny motes of dust, does not detract from its black splendour. How deep is it? You imagine it could engulf you. Surely the director of ‘Under the Skin’ must have visited it at some point and sublimated its darkness as a future image to use. The space at Hayward is truer to the first conception of this site-specific work, a white cube lit by a grid of skylights. On the far side of the room, the oil continues through an open doorway and out of sight. The path cut through the slightly more than waist deep pool of oil narrows as you reach the centre of the space. (Surely it’s only a few inches deep? Otherwise the weight would bring the building down.) Despite the queue, and the gallery assistant hovering, I felt awe. It is a rare man-made exemplifier of the sublime. I was sad to hear that Saatchi sold it to a Tasmanian museum in in 2015. Two versions can exist simultaneously, one there and one on loan. I wish the Tate had bought it. They could’ve filled the ground level of the Turbine Hall with it. Imagine it installed in the whale gallery of the Natural History Museum.

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20:50 – Richard Wilson

Later we went to Victoria Miro Gallery. Somehow I had managed to secure a timed ticket to see the Yayoi Kusama show. I’d originally had two but their website had crashed before they were processed. Kindly they allowed themselves to be persuaded to let my friend in too. We queued into the building and were handed dot-covered passes to the infinity room installation, ‘My Heart is Dancing into the Universe’; these were also laminated. We queued up some stairs. The top floor of the gallery is a reclaimed industrial space with grey concrete and exposed beams, supported by an iron girder. We agreed that it was like queuing for something at a squat party. It was a long queue, and we had a lot of time to talk.

I first came across Kusama at the start of the new millennia, at a big Serpentine retrospective, her first in the UK. She’s one of those artists who fascinates through living her art as much as making work, like Kahlo or Warhol. Her New York happenings, her now self-imposed seclusion in an institution; the way that she chooses to embrace her overwhelming hallucinations, covering her work (and her costumes) with a riot of seething dots, multi-coloured or black on crimson or primary yellow, undulating with the forms they engulf. The Serpentine show also had an infinity room (possibly a box rather than a room; I remember something smaller). Mobile phones didn’t have cameras back then, so no one was taking selfies.

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Still from one of Yayoi Kusama’s 1960’s performances

When we reached the threshold of the infinity room at Victoria Miro we were shown a plan of the L-shaped space. We must follow the path, staying within the low barriers that delineated it. Rather facetiously (or hopefully) I asked if anyone had strayed off the path and become lost in infinity. No, but apparently a few people had blundered into the installation.

Inside it was a fairyland of black paper lantern spheres suspended in darkness. Each one was patterned with large dots that glowed through a range of colours, pink into purple or yellow into green. The colour changes were gradual. There seemed to be a whole universe of them falling away from us. We gawped and took some photographs (including, I’m afraid, the now obligatory ‘art selfie’). Seemingly seconds later the gallery assistant told us it was time to move on. We had to leave so the next person or pair could be entranced by it. Later I realised that another highlight of the Hayward show, the installation ‘Narcissus Garden’ was also by Kusama.

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Infinity Mirrored Room – Yayoi Kusama

It was impossible for many people to get tickets to see the Kusama show, which is a pity. I hope she gets another UK retrospective soon, it’s been eighteen years since the last one and she turns ninety next year, still prolifically designing large scale sculptures and painting dazzlingly intricate, vivid canvases, examples of both of which were on show at the Miro. The Hayward show is well worth a visit; there are many fantastic pieces there, and they interact wonderfully. Perhaps queuing for these works intensified them; we live in an age of instantaneous gratification, and the novelty of waiting added to the experience. I would have liked to have longer alone with both works, without the pressure of a queue behind me, but you can’t have everything.

Space Shifters was at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank and closed 6th January 2019

Yayoi Kusama; The Moving Moment I Went to the Universe was at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road, closed 21st December.

Threesome – an exhibition of three women painters, by Charlotte Elliston

As it was recently the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People act, which gave women who were over 30 and property-owners, the right to vote in the UK, and will soon be Women’s History Month (including International Women’s Day on 8 March), the Sweet ‘Art team will be trying to see, and post about as many relevant exhibitions and events as possible.

First up was a visit to New Art Projects gallery in London for a panel discussion about their current exhibition Threesome. Threesome is an exhibition featuring artists Roxana Halls, Sarah Jane Moon and Sadie Lee, and has been curated by Anna McNay. The focus of the exhibition is the female gaze; each of the artists are figurative painters, female, and identify as queer.  This follows on from the recent Tate show Queer British Art, which was a show timed to coincide with the anniversary of the  1967 Sexual Offences Act.  This was a great show of art by gay white men, but was a bit lacking on other forms of queerness. Threesome was partly intended as a response to this – showcasing the work of three contemporary lesbian artists. I knew in advance that the premise of the exhibition was that each artist was painting each other as well as themselves, and had also each painted a nude study of performance artist Ursula Martinez. (Along with Corrina, and some of the fab WIA group, we had recently seen Ursula in discussion with Sadie at the National Portrait Gallery for their Queer Perspectives Lates).

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Sadie Lee and Ursula Martinez in conversation at Queer Perspectives

So I was excited to see the full exhibition, and the works ‘in the flesh’ (pun intended) rather than just as images. The event featured all artists and Ursula Martinez in discussion with Anna McNay, and the gallery has said that the full transcript of the discussion will be added to their website in due course. I highly recommend keeping an eye out for this! The discussion began with Anna McNay inviting each of the artists to discuss their works in turn, before moving on to the portraits of Ursula and finally opening up the discussion to encompass more general themes from the exhibition.

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Portrait of Sarah Jane Moon, by Roxana Halls

 

Each of Roxana Halls’ portraits use heightened colours (in the discussion she mentioned positioning her subjects within a set of neon lights to create the effect) and stylised poses reminiscent of dolls, to create what I would describe as a ‘nightclub’ effect. Her subjects are flanked by mannequins dressed as iconic lesbian characters from films and are posed almost as if they are mid-dance. For most of the discussion I was facing the portrait of Sadie, and (I don’t think it was just the fact that she was wearing glasses), I was reminded of some of the iconic images of Grace Jones. I attributed this mental link to the almost luminescent skin tones Roxana created, and to the strength and power of her images.

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Bulletproof Heart album cover.

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Ms Jones in 1984 in London, by Adrian Boot

In the discussion, Roxana said that she often uses mannequins within her work, not always so explicitly. Her reason for doing so is that straight male film directors will often use mannequins in their films to represent lesbian women; somehow implying that lesbian women are not quite ‘real’ women, or not quite human. Judith Butler says in her essay Imitation and Gender Insubordination “I suffered for a long time, and I suspect many people have, from being told, explicitly or implicitly, that what I “am” is a copy, an imitation, a derivative example, a shadow of the real”. This was echoed by the ideas present in Roxana’s work

The discussion of the use of the mannequin to represent lesbian women also made me consider the myth of Pygmalion, and the use of this trope in art and culture. Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with the figure of a woman he had carved, and she was brought to life with magic and became his wife. The myth has been widely used in painting, film and literature.

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Pygmalion and Galatea, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

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Still from the film, Mannequin, dir. Michael Gottlieb

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Still from My Fair Lady, dir. George Cukor (They changed the ending from the original play to add ‘romantic’ interest)

In both the straight and queer versions, these tropes appear to be created with the fear of the unknown, and the desire to impose control by not just objectifying, but actually making the woman into an object. The myth also places the creative agency in the hands of the male, whether that be the sculptor Pygmalion, shop-window dresser Jonathan Switcher, or linguist ‘Enry ‘Iggins. In these instances not only a creative, but a sexual power is also conferred to the male as in each instance, the bringing of the ‘mannequin’ to life results in sexual union.

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Portrait of Roxana Halls, by Sadie Lee

 Sadie Lee’s work focuses on the ideas of intimacy and sexuality. Her three artist portraits are reclining figures, shown in their underwear, on rumpled beds. Within the discussion, Sadie said that her aim was to use (and I think to subvert) the traditional Venus pose, where the subject had one arm bent over her head, and another around her waist.

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Venus Anadyomene, by Jean Dominique Ingres (with a barbie-doll genital area)

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Venus Williams, taken by Hirakawa for ESPN Magazine

Her portraits were created by looking at the subjects from a position between the legs (described by Sadie as a position a lover might see them from), lit from below with a harsh raking light. They pick up qualities of the skin like dimples and stretch marks. The underwear is everyday; big knickers, 100 denier tights, bras with the label sticking out. In the discussion, Sadie said that she wanted the portraits to be real and mundane. She deliberately used a harsh light, to challenge traditional notions of female portraiture equalling female beauty. Her aim was to contest the thought that a portrait of a woman has to be flattering.

The portrait of herself was based on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, where the model is purportedly using her hand to hide her genitals, but could equally be masturbating.

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Sleeping Venus, by Giorgione,

Sadie’s self-portrait replicates this pose, but turned away from the viewer in order to make the pose “more threatening”. She explained that by turning her back on the viewer, she removes complicity in the voyeurism. The subject knows that the viewer is there, but is performing the act for herself and not them. Sadie’s portraits lie in direct contrast to the European tradition of the female nude, in which the subject displays her nudity for the observing male’s pleasure. John Berger sums this up in Ways of Seeing “In the art-form of the European nude the painters and the spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them” – I really hope Venus Williams actively sought out her nude photoshoot of herself as a Venus!

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Portrait of Sadie Lee, by Sarah Jane Moon

Sarah Jane Moon’s portraits were created with the aim of giving her sitters agency. The fact that they are all painters was important to her, and she wanted to show them as creators in their own right. Each of the portraits was painted from visiting the artist in their own studio, and the studio features as a backdrop. Each of the artists is also featured holding a tool of their painting. The subjects all stare back at the viewer, making eye contact which is direct and unapologetic and could even be described as challenging. The paintings show that in each case the viewed is also the viewer.

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Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Sarah’s portraits made me remember the self-portraits of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the 18th century French painter, and the thoughts of Griselda Pollock on this piece in particular. The artist has painted herself with the tools of her profession, but she is also portrayed as unambiguously female. She is well groomed, well dressed and beautiful. The shadow of her hat across her face and her gaze avoid confrontation. Her mouth is slightly parted in a demure smile. Pollock says that the aim of the piece is still to create a spectacle for us, the viewer, as through Western art history there has always been “an insuperable distance between the notion of the artist and the notion of a woman”.

Sarah’s pieces also critique the tradition of portraying the male artist in his studio, with his female (nude) model. In two of her portraits, we see completed works, or works-in-progress depicting naked female bodies. Within the discussion, it was revealed that one of the pieces behind Sadie was actually a self-portrait, further subverting the idea.

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The Artist’s Studio, by Gustav Courbet

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Lucian Freud, shot for Vanity Fair

Although each of the Threesome painters has a very distinct style, and is aiming to explore different things within their work, the discussion also drew out common themes. The idea of agency seemed very relevant. It seemed important to each of the artists that they were not simply producing a passive image of someone, but were creating a piece where the subject was active, dynamic and powerful – in some cases, stripping the viewer of their agency and relegating them to the role of passive consumer.

The discussion ended with the questioning of what is different about the female gaze. The panellists mentioned ideas of empathy, truth and respect; possibly even love, certainly from a queer female perspective. The point was also raised as to whether defining the female gaze was reductive. Is art created by women inherently different to that created by men? Should differentiation even be employed between art created by women and that of men?

 

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Anna McNay, Sadie Lee, Sarah Jane Moon, Roxana Halls and Ursula Martinez in conversation

There was also the acknowledgement that the idea of the female is seen through a history of the male dominated society. Notions of femaleness, and queerness are both linked to notions of otherness, perpetuated in the Western art tradition, so what does being ‘female’ even mean – how can this be defined in a society which has always just seen ‘female’ in opposition to ‘male’ and ‘queer’ in opposition to ‘heterosexual’.

The theory of there being a somehow unified female gaze also implies that there is a shared way of looking which links women through history and across the world. Griselda Pollock also references these kinds of theories that art produced by women has commonality, saying that this idea will “…efface the fact that although women as a sex have been oppressed in most societies, their oppression, and the way they have lived it, or even resisted, has varied from society to society, and period to period, from class to class. This historicity of women’s oppression and resistance disappears when all women are placed in a homogenous category based on the commonest and most unhistoricized denominator”.

Many of these discussions and debates are far to large and unwieldy to continue here, but I am sure that we will touch on them again in our various exhibition visits. I also again recommend getting down to see the show for yourself before it closes. It is also running on conjunction with 3X3, also curated by Anna McNay, which is a photographic show from 9 queer female artists.

Threesome opened on 11 January 2018 and runs until 4 March 2018 at New Art Projects, London.

‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’; a graphic take on the counterculture – by Sarah Kingham

‘Records and Rebels’ at the V&A applies their house style of curatorial ‘cluster-fuck’ to the 1967-70 period, when psychedelia ruled avant garde and pop culture, and mainstream media and advertising rushed to jump on the bandwagon. The aesthetic of the show is more; disparate objects clustered in arbitrary groupings, and headphones (previously utilised in the phenomenally successful ‘David Bowie Is’ show) releasing blasts of various music of the era as you approach the display cases. On one level, this jumble of sound, colour and imagery is justified as appropriate to the times; densely layered and vividly hued visuals were a signature of the graphic design work of the counter culture, as were collages of images or sounds in the arts, and multi-media ‘happenings’ that utilised light shows, sounds and performance.

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Unfortunately some of the connections are just too obvious or gauchely executed to be effective. In one of the several rooms devoted to protest inspired art and objects, Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’, the seminal Situationist attack on visually mediated culture, is displayed as a (presumably first edition) copy inside a gutted old fashioned television. As you approach this the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ blares through the headphones. It’s too gimmicky, too obvious, which is somehow disquieting; you can all too easily imagine a group of creatives around a table throwing out ideas; ‘radical’ exhibition as a precursor for a well-stocked gift shop (which of course there is). The tune ‘Revolution’ doesn’t even seem an appropriate choice, as the ambivalent lyrics advise the imagined young wannabe-revolutionary it addresses to change their head, not their surroundings; and that ‘if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow’. All of which makes this viewer (and listener) wonder if the show is even more vacuous (or possibly much cleverer) than it appears. Along with the crumpled fencing hanging from the ceiling alongside blow ups of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and Angela Davis (despite her commitment to Communism, I’m not sure how she would feel about sharing the space with Uncle Joe), it reads as a strangely garbled retelling of the preoccupations of the day.

Displayed alongside posters advocating gay rights, black power and women’s liberation, and protesting the Vietnam War, is an original, skimpy, costume from space-opera/sexploitation movie ‘Barbarella’, with a quote from director Roger Vadim claiming Barbarella’s disinhibited sexuality as a triumph not just of free love but for women generally. This juxtaposition of genuine politically engaged objects with a supposedly politically ‘justified’ relic of a piece of cult, pulp culture is rendered even more bizarre by its contrast with the other mannequin on display nearby, decked in a ‘recreation’ of a Black Panthers’ uniform of black leather jacket, beret, and trousers.

To be fair on the V&A, they are a design museum, and attempting to reify concepts, especially those as simultaneously charged and vague as ‘rebellion’ or ‘youth’ through objects is problematic at best. The pieces on show include relics of the era; the wicker, high backed chair Black Panther Huey Newton posed in as an armed and radicalised post-colonial African Prince; two of the Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper’ satin coats displayed in a re-creation of the album cover, disappointingly gaudy and hideous in the flesh. These share space with the ephemeral, mass produced art-meets-design of the album cover and poster, whether it be advertising a festival or sharing a political or philosophical sentiment.

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Huey Newton seated in wicker chair, 1967: photography attributed to Blair Stapp (shown here reprinted in contemporary poster)

Although the one of a kind objects have an and authenticity and the glamour of celebrity – though more ‘street style’ and less stage costumes and designer wear of the rich and famous might have been truer to a coherent vision of Rebels as well as Records – the strongest objects in the show are often the collisions between the avant garde, graphic design and countercultural and radical politics. Some, like the …and Babies anti-Vietnam poster on display, are so powerful and disturbing that 50 years on they are still painful to view, and hard to imagine living with as ‘decorative’ objects (albeit as serious displays of the political commitments of those who hung them), between pinups of Che and Dylan on the walls of squats and teenage bedrooms.

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‘And babies’ creaated by the AWC, a group of New York based artists whi oppsed the war, using an image of the My Lai Massacre taken by US combat photographer Ronald L. Heaberle in 1969, overlaid by a quote from an interview with US soldier Paul Meadlo who participated in the massacre.

Others show the cornucopia of influence, both on and by the alternative in the graphic arts. The historic inspiration, combining Fin de Siècle and Art Noveau swirls, Dada-like cut and paste and explosions of Victorian circus and Art Deco style lettering, rendered in vivid rainbows of colour is still recognisably present in current design and media.

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Alphons Mucha’s ‘Job’ rolling papers pin-up goes pshychadelic. Poster for Jim Kweskin Jug Band at the Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, 1966.

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The Acid Test, avertising late 1960’s happening, facilitated by Ken Kesey, by Californian artist and designer Wes Wilson.

These aesthetics are still with us today, as is that of the witty and politicised advertising and media style shown in images like Cramer/Saatchi’s 1969 ‘Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?’ campaign for the Family Planning Association.

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‘Would you be more careful it it was you that got pregnant?’, created by Alan Brooking, Bill Atherton and Jeremy Sinclair for Cremer Saatchi advertising agency, London, 1969.

There is plenty to enjoy here; the sheer exuberance of the graphic design’s elaborate and colourful detail is exhilarating, and the idealistic belief displayed in images and objects of protest is profoundly moving. There are contemporary photographs of protestors at the Pentagon, including a youth poking chrysanthemums into the muzzles of guardsmen’s rifles (the first recorded instance of this kind of protest, and the origin of the term ‘flower power’) and earnest young peaceniks in Grosvenor Square tussling with bobbies in capes and domed helmets, who despite their now endearingly anachronistic appearance seem to be dolling out some fairly brutal treatment. Iconic objects are plentiful; not just that photo of Christine Keeler, but also the contact sheets of the shoot, and the original Establishment club chair she straddled in the picture.

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‘Flower Power’ Antiwar demonstrators, Pentagon Building, 1967 by Bernie Boston.

Unfortunately, the combination of the high price of entry (£16 for a full price ticket), uncomfortably dense crowd, mostly of baby boomers, presumably here on a nostalgia trip, and the incoherent nature of the hang strikes a discordant note with the overarching vision of the era the show attempts to communicate. The mandatory gift shop, overflowing with overpriced objet tenuously linked to the era (and an admittedly cheap selection of reprinted protest badges) only serves to heighten this impression.

‘You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’ is open at the V&A, London until 26 February 2017

Sarah Kingham is a London based artist, writer and academic. Trained in art history, theory, and fine art, she is currently engaged in a Masters in Cultural and Critical studies at Birkbeck University.