‘Show Women’, Gibberd Galley, Harlow, Essex.
10th August – 27th October 2018
A pair of bright red lips dominate the composition of Rose Wylie’s Self Portrait with Shut Mouth (2017). Orbited by Wylie’s familiar textual whispers, the cinematically framed mouth lacks a parting of its crimson waves, rendering the red oval singularly mute and wordless. In the silence emanating from the sealed oval, the halo of lines cresting the lips starts to look like stitches. Have the lips been sewn shut? Is the artist’s reticence involuntary? Is the sketch simply a quiet comment on art speaking for itself and the shortcomings of explanations such as these? Or are the lines merely the wrinkles of an older face wearily framing that unrelenting motif of masculine desire, a pouting, passive, perfect pair of libidinous Marilyn-esque lips?
Positioned as you enter ‘Show Women’ at the Gibberd Gallery, the lips establish a digressive entry point to an exhibition of work by female artists drawn from The Jerwood Collection, The Ingram Collection, and the Gibberd Gallery’s own collection. Wylie, an art student in the 1950s, has spoken of a sense of the odds being stacked against her due to the preconceptions around what a woman’s role was. The exhibition literature invites you to consider the work on show in relation to 2018 being the 100th anniversary of women being given a vote in Britain, and more broadly how women have fought for equality in all areas of life and industry, including the arts.
Karolina Magnusson Murray’s film Commanding Content (2015) directly engages the theme of role-play and gender stereotypes. A female character tries to coerce a male character into participating in her ‘artistic’ film project, which as the scene proceeds feels more of an excuse for the female director to engage her reluctant lead in sexual behavior. His forced fake American accent adds to the genuinely comic effect of his embarrassed protestations, giving them an amateurish soap opera quality as dialogue such as ‘it’s like a porno, but it’s not a porno’, ‘it’s insinuating, it will only take like two minutes’, ‘it’s actually my only idea and I have to get it done by the end of term’, and ‘I’m just going to the toilet, take your trousers off’ pass back and forth. This comedic quality intelligently sets up the underlying pathos, as the female artist slowly strips off and gets closer and closer to her subject, egging him on to more realistic elaborations of his loosely scripted admonishment of her, ‘you’re bringing shame on yourself, in a sexy way.’ The naked women in Magnusson Murray’s piece skillfully asks us to reconsider the coercion that may or may not be at the heart of so many images of naked women, by way of a role reversal that gives us a domineering female artist manipulating her subject emotionally and physically until he gives in to her requirements of him. The short film gets funnier and simultaneously more uncomfortable with each viewing. As the directorial protagonist puts words into her unwilling muse’s mouth, Wylie’s sealed lips quietly flag their silent protest from across the room.
Another piece that has a form of manipulation at its core is The Tourist Administrator of Pitcairn Island (2016) by Naomi Ellis. A hand paws at a piece of wet clay onto which is projected an image of the coastline from Pitcairn, the malleable screen reconfiguring the image as an overlaid conversation unfolds. Two voices describe a correspondence between an artist and the aforementioned tourist administrator. Flat toned and emotionless, they mask the increasing sense of incredulity, frustration, impatience, and personal motivation behind the resolutely polite exchange as the artist tries to engage the administrator and the island inhabitants in one of her projects. Like Magnusson Murrays film, humour is the vehicle for interesting meditations on aspects such as the cultural clash between a London based artist’s intentions and means, and that of a rural community with altogether different priorities. As the administrator struggles to comprehend the artist’s requests, the hand relentlessly fondles the chiaroscuro clay; dark crevices fracturing the images, which we realise, may well be the horizon photograph the artist is requesting. Does the artists already have such a photo, and are her requests a subterfuge for some other form of manipulation or deceit? The fact that this is being played out against a black backdrop, the projection the lone source of light, alludes to the fondling of a computer screen or its content in a darkened room, layering the conversation further. There is a subtly predatory quality underpinning the piece, a quality that again echoing Magnusson Murray’s piece can be retraced back to an artist’s relationship with their subject.
The subject matter of ‘Show Women’ is primarily figurative, and the quality of the works both formally and thematically wavers significantly. A notable number of pieces were made by undergraduate artists – one piece was made whilst a student was studying for their A-Levels, and in some of these pieces accompanying texts such as ‘(the work) analyses societal expectations in gender, sexuality and non conformity’ (a large painting of an androgynous face) or, ‘hopes to depict the awful reality of war and therefore question the necessity of it’ (a charcoal drawing of a solider in a foetal position) can feel not just tagged on but something of an irreverent affront to the complex issues they allude to. An artist doesn’t necessarily require a life of experience to formulate an engaging or distinctive relationship to their artistic practice or subject matter, but as Wylie’s gagged siren shows, a little time post-education unthreading the fabric of protestations banners and sewing oneself into life’s seams can help. Returning to Wylie, there is something odd too about her own face being initialled, and the artist has spoken of her desire to be known for her paintings, not for biographical details such as her age, or even her gender. Perhaps finally the piece is a rebuff to those who insist on the artist being as central to the stage of an artistic encounter as their artwork. Signed, sealed, and delivered indeed.
‘Show Women’, Gibberd Galley, Harlow, Essex. 10th August – 27th October http://www.gibberdgallery.co.uk/index.php/current-exhibition https://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/rose-wylie http://www.karolinakarolinakarolina.net/ www.naomi-ellis.com https://jerwood.org/ http://ingramcollection.com/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingram_Collection_of_Modern_British_Art http://www.artlyst.com/features/ingram-collection-director-curator-jo-baring-talks-sculpture-artist-richard-stone/