Sunday, April 28, 2013

Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London

“Jemima Stehli undressed and redressed in front of male members of the art world…”

As a librarian, I must admit that it’s difficult to be unbiased about a book that (1) thanks multiple librarians in its acknowledgements and (2) in its introduction, highlights the importance of converting private knowledge into public information (via artist interviews). But here goes…

In Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London (I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013), Kathy Battista strives to redress the dearth of feminist art scholarship in Britain by younger academics.

As Linda Nochlin urged in her well-known article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), Battista doesn’t just cite examples of talented artists like Mary Kelly. She looks at the conditions that discouraged or encouraged their professional success.

Battista is clear that her account is not meant to be encyclopedic. Her introductions of artists are fairly extensive, and once the reader is familiar with the artist’s oeuvre, she weaves them in and out of the book, bringing them back into the discussion just when you assume that is the last you will read of them. Since it would be unnatural to suggest that each artist only relates to one of the myriad themes she explores, it allows the reader to appreciate the web of connections as the artists resurface.

As for the title, Renegotiating the Body, Battista notes that prior to the second wave of feminism, “[t]he only female presence within the public space of the museum was the female model, often nude” (p. 18). Since British artists were considered outcasts, they found alternative spaces to public museums to show their work (Bobby Baker, for instance, used a mobile home). With painting having reached something of an impasse with Jackson Pollock, female artists used unconventional materials in their work. The most available to them was their own bodies. The body was not so much a theme as a vehicle to address more complex ideas in performances. Some artists chose to keep their clothes on (Rose Finn-Kelcey recalls the unstated question about when she would take her clothes off) while others addressed the female-as-muse trope head on (Carolee Schneeman dressed and undressed repeatedly while giving an art history lecture).

The issues in London’s 1970s feminist art scene mirror those elsewhere. For instance, one artist says that wearing makeup was considered a cardinal sin. I recall that it was also a bone of contention among America’s feminist artists (Hannah Wilke was pro; Judy Chicago was con). Through archival research and personal interviews, Battista uncovers many examples of relatively unknown works that reveal an international web of influence. For instance, there was a British reinterpretation of Womanhouse (a Californian student installation spearheaded by Judy Chicago) organized by Kate Walker with such memorable images as a woman in bridal attire half submerged in a heap of garbage.

Given Battista’s position as Director of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York, it’s unsurprising that she demonstrates how recent British art was influenced by the 1970s, whether consciously or unconsciously. For example, Jemima Stehli undressed and redressed in front of male members of the art world and displayed photographs of them photographing her, which relates to Carolee Schneeman’s unforgettable art history lecture. Another example is Tracey Emin’s My Bed, which harks back to Judy Clark’s display of tissues from 28 days of sex with her partner in Semen in Boxes. My, how times have changed: Clark was delighted to be offered a solo exhibition the night she unveiled this work yet Emin’s piece sold to Saatchi for £150,000. One of the factors Battista attributes to more women being in the limelight is increased male support, like megastar Damien Hirst promoting Sarah Lucas. Gentlemen readers, please take note.

The book contains a bibliography, notes, and an index. Images are in black and white, but it would be helpful to see them in colour, especially with works featuring blood, fecal matter, etc. since their shock value is lessened in this state. Also consider the loss of impact in Jemima Stehli’s Strip Series. When one of her male subjects wrote about the shoot in The Guardian*, he noted the bright red wall and his professional black suit. Here, we lose access to those details.

*Adrian Searle, “Why Do I Feel Naked?”, The Guardian, July 15, 2000, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2000/jul/15/books.guardianreview4

2 comments:

  1. Noted. Would that I were in such a position. My favourite currently practicing artists are almost all women.

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