A belated Frieze week review by Sian Matthews

Well over a month after the big event I still have a lot I want to say and discuss, good and bad, about all things Frieze 2019.

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This year’s fair had a focus on the climate crisis and demonstrated this by including artworks such as Patrick Goddard’s ‘Blue Sky Thinking’ which uses hundreds of dead parakeets to ram the message home.

However, I haven’t seen much in the way of the fair itself addressing its carbon footprint, the only steps it seems to have taken this year is to switch to using biofuel.

One of the interactive projects this year was by the organisation Arto LIFEWTR who thought it was a brilliant idea to use PLASTIC bottles to display artworks by emerging artists and hand them out to visitors, along with pins by artist John Booth in exchange for posting about them on social media. I feel like I must have missed something on this because it just seems too tone deaf to be a real thing? I literally saw these bottles discarded everywhere all week.

Including at TOAF and Tate modern.

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I can’t understand why a fair with a focus on the climate crisis included an interactive installation which was centred around plastic bottles, something which as a society we should be using less of. Also, as I am writing this I am sat with a stack of handouts, newspapers, maps, all the paper that gets thrown at you while visiting the fair.

For a fair talking about climate change and carbon footprints there was a huge amount of waste. Something to think about.

Moving on to something more positive, One of the live artworks which I particularly enjoyed was an interactive artwork in which the participant becomes part of the piece after being asked to hold a feather duster perfectly still and to concentrate on not moving the feathers. Of course, this is impossible as the more you try the harder it gets. The feathers pick up the participants heartbeat and breathing so that you physically cannot hold it still. After the frustration subsides and you concentrate more on the movement of the feathers in time with your own heart beat it becomes quite relaxing, almost meditative.

 

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Woven: a curated set of stands at the far end of the fair focused on artists who work with fabrics, sewing, embroidery and other textile mediums was, I thought, one of the most thought provoking parts of the fair, and was pleased to see a less mainstream medium being celebrated. Included were Chitra Ganesh, Monika Correa and Cian Dayrit as well as many others. Working with themes and ideas such as Gender, Power, myth and reality, and historical narratives.

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Included in Woven was artist Angela Su who I completely adored and who’s work investigates perception and imagery of the body through metamorphosis and transformation. The works on display were almost like scientific drawings, delicate and beautiful, yet so real they were a little uncomfortable to look at. Looking closer at these drawings you realise they are incredibly intricate embroidery and honestly, I could have starred at them all day.

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Last year I mentioned that I was concerned that the representation of women at the fair was more of a fashion statement and less about real change. Although I stand by my concern, I was pleased to see that a lot of galleries embraced diversity this year, this was mainly the smaller galleries and stands but it was there, nonetheless. I noticed a lot of attention being given to artists from African nations which was fantastic to see, and I appreciated the introduction to some new an exciting artists.

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I also attended The Other Art Fair for the private view and at the risk of upsetting some people, I don’t have much to say about it. I always enjoy going, catching up with artists and friends but recently I feel like it is getting repetitive. I’m not saying it’s a bad fair, I would just like to see something new.

Finally, I visited the new Hyundai Commission at Tate modern which this year features ‘Fons Americanus’, a 13 meter tall fountain by artist Kara Walker. Inspired by the Victoria memorial outside Buckingham palace but exploring ideas and themes resulting from the transatlantic slave trade. I have long been a fan of Kara Walker and to see her work in the setting of the turbine hall was something quite special. Its open until April so I recommend a visit!

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A Women’s day Experience by Sian Matthews

I had a bad experience for International women’s day and it helps prove how far we still need to go.

A friend and I decided to spend IWD at a few galleries in London which were holding exhibitions and tours about women artists, the female gaze and the influential women who helped shape certain institutions. I hadn’t seen my friend for a while, I was looking forward to celebrating women and art with her.

The day started strong with a coffee and a catch up before moving on to the newly opened Richard Saltoun gallery in Mayfair. The first exhibition held at this new gallery space, ‘Women Look at Women’ explored themes such as feminine identity, censorship, gender stereotypes, sex and relationships through the work of thirteen international artists. The exhibition included beautiful but honest black and white photography by artists like Renate Bertlmann, Francesca Woodman and Annegret Soltau, as well as sculptural works by Helen Chadwick.

It was great to experience an exhibition, curated by a woman, working with female artists, feminine themes and the female gaze. You know, other then when Sweet ‘Art does it. For the most part I was impressed by it. The exhibition felt refreshing; it was clean and well thought out, and most importantly for the viewer, it was insightful and thought provoking. Of course, any exhibition has space for improvement, to learn and ensure you do things better the next time. ‘Women Look at Women’ could have been more inclusive. It could have included a wider, more diverse group of works, but it did what it was meant to do well enough for me.

After such a great start you will understand my disappointment and, honestly, outrage at our next visit.  This year for International Women’s Day, the Royal Academy intended to celebrate with ‘Feminine Futures’, a series of events and tours from the 1st – 10th of March.

We got to the RA at noon for the IWD tour, which was billed as an event that will “explore the lives of some of the important women in the history of the RA”. What we were greeted with however was anything but!

Before I explain why I was so disappointed, I should point out that this tour was one of six or seven delivered over ten days. The tour is presented by a different guide each day and therefore is different every time. For all I know the rest of the tours were spot on.

To start, the male guide took us into a small corridor next to a staircase which was decorated with photographs of the current eighty academicians. He pointed out Tracey Emin and Cornelia Parker and briefly spoke about them (they were the only female artists mentioned for the whole tour). He then spent the next 5 minutes talking about several of the men on the wall.  He made no effort to mention any other female academicians, he didn’t even mention Sonya Boyce, the first woman of colour to be made a Royal Academician, as recently as 2016.

Moving on he spoke about two paintings depicting some of the life drawing classes at the RA many years ago. These paintings showed female models being drawn by male artists and were themselves by men, although I cannot remember who. While standing in front of these paintings we were told that at this point in the RA’s history, women were banned from attending life drawing classes because it was thought that it objectified them. The guide also informed us that all female life models were from local brothels as it was inappropriate for women other than prostitutes to model nude. But according to him, all of that was ok… because they were paid a little more than their male counterparts.

Throughout the rest of the tour the guide spoke about not only the building it currently occupies, Burlington house, but also when it occupied the top floors of Somerset House and the National Gallery. He spoke about the architects, the owners of buildings and artists who have worked within the RA: all men, including Constable and even Churchill. It would have been far more interesting to tell us the little-known fact that’s among the 34 founding members of the RA there were two women! Mary Moser and Angelica Kaufmann.

A few times other members of the group asked about the role of women at the RA, which was met with the guide asking if any of us were artists and what our practice consists of. Both myself and my friend answered, explaining that we are installation artists with an interest in the work of the YBA’s. So we were already familiar with Tracey Emin who’s work he promptly explained to us as if we had no idea who she was. ‘My bed’ he said was a “product of her realisation of the mess around her” not exactly what I would call an in depth, insightful or accurate description.

'My Bed' by Tracey Emin

Right at the end of the tour, after someone asked about them, he briefly mentioned the suffragettes, how they had “slashed a couple of paintings in protest” basically referring to them as trouble makers who had ruined a precious painting. There is a lot of information to be found about this incident at the 1914 RA Summer Exhibition on their own website, surely a tour guide at the RA should be able to talk freely and in a respectful manner about this event?

Reading back through this it probably sounds like I am making this up. But I can promise I am not. You expect to come away from a tour of influential women at the RA feeling proud of what these women achieved in an industry that wasn’t always accepting, I expected to hear about how the women before me helped to pave the way for myself to be an artist and work in the arts today and instead I was told about how women had been mistreated by the RA until after WWII. I left feeling deflated, like we had gone backwards for an hour and honestly, I was angry.

Another point I feel I should add here is that on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, the same day I was trying to celebrate with a friend. An exhibition opened at Tate Modern, all about famous “ladies man” Picasso.

After all of this I had just one question on my mind. How did such a small gallery in Mayfair, and countless other small organisations manage to get their shows and messages so right when the big institutions with all their money and resources get it so wrong? Do they not care? Do they not listen? It seems ridiculous to me and it highlights just how far we all still must go in not only getting, but understanding and respecting equality.

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.