Alice Maher: Transfiguration

IN OCTOBER Alice Maher returned to Belfast from California where she has spent almost a year as a Fulbright Scholar at the San Francisco Art Institute. The ten large charcoal, pastel and mixed media drawings in ‘Transfiguration’, in addition to a number of smaller pages from the artist’s sketchbook of this period, demonstrate her continuing investigation of the representation of women and female sexuality within both religious and art historical definitions. Recently this has also included a reworking of selected mythological themes, a shift which is visible in this show.

The basis for Alice Maher’s work is a sharp awareness of the experience of growing up female in a Catholic society. Originally from rural Tipperary, she once described the situation as one wherein the processes of birth and death of animals were familiar from a very early age, yet all aspects of human sexuality and procreation were denied and repressed through the teachings of the Catholic Church. Her drawings and early paintings often include a high degree of biting satire directed towards the repressive morality which has such horrific consequences as the Kerry Babies case or the death of Anne Lovett, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who died giving birth alone in front of a grotto to the Virgin Mary.

Alice_Maher5

Alice Maher consistently uses humour as a means of undercutting the traditional authority given to Church patriarchs and male saints. Centaur Bothered By Fairies (Temptation of St Anthony) reveals the discomforts of a mythical winged figure, an awkward combination of man and horse, being poked at by small spear-bearing female figures. Unlike many of the larger pieces this is worked in rich colour pastel and wash on a dark ground: it suggests fruitful future directions. In fact a clear evolution of both Maher’s thematic concerns and working procedures is visible within the spectrum of works here–even though the time span is one of only a few months from those executed in San Francisco mid 1987 to early 1988 in Belfast. Prior to this she has predominantly used a format of two static figures, generally vertical and alway linked together as if bound into a love-hate relationship. These earlier drawings, similar to The Bride or Mo tHintean Fein, were always monochrome, charcoal and pencil on a white ground. A surrealist juxtaposition of found objects, medical apparatus, household and farmyard implements would combine with organic and physical elements to assemble the figure, and Alice frequently incorporates parts of her own body in unexpected circumstances. In Mo tHintean Fein, for example, her nose appears as a pillar-like support or neck for the figure on the right. This metamorphosis or Transfiguration is a clear example of her working methods–yet the naming of this piece in Irish has a further significance. Not only does it mean ‘my own fireplace’, a symbol of women’s sexual power and source of energy, but it dates from the artist’s stay in San Francisco, and could be read as functioning as a reminder of home.

Alice Maher 1

In later drawings, such as Meeting on the Forest Floor II, this static format has become submerged in a cataclysmic outpouring of figures, both human and animal. Horror and a sense of the macabre are rarely far from the surface in Alice Maher’s work. Based on the myth of Diana and Actaeon, this is the moment of Actaeon’s dismemberment by his hounds, but without the voyeuristic connotations of Titian’s version where the semi-nude goddess also appears. Unfortunately the layers of colour are just too dense here: definition has been sacrificed in favour of a whirlwind of dark tones and half-glimpsed forms–but it doesn’t come off. In general however the later drawing are increasingly subtle. They incorporate elements of recycled previous drawings, torn and stuck down and worked over; previous marks are also partially erased and remain half visible, returning the eye constantly to variation in surface texture. These working procedures actually reinforce the main thematic concerns, a bringing to light of the hidden and repressed aspects of women’s sexuality, something which does not offer itself up for the voyeuristic eye, but remains undefinable.

The transition to the increasingly expressionistic later works can be seen in such pieces as Abundance or Expulsion (After Masaccio). The two figures are whole, increasingly organic bodies even if not fully recognisable as human. It is here also that references to a ‘grand tradition’ of European painting becomes more apparent, yet these references tend to unfix the original meaning, demonstrating that women can use aspects of a male painterly tradition for their own purposes.

A subversion of existing female representations is not without its problems however. The largest piece in the exhibition, Babylon, was intended to represent the Whore of Babylon not as evil and to be despised as in Biblical accounts, but as a powerful, self-determined woman striding forward with the scales of justice balanced on her shoulders. Yet at a discussion held with Alice in the gallery by the Northern Ireland Women Artists’ Group it became clear that there were other more disturbing readings. The lack of spatial cues means that it’s highly possible to read the figure as lying prone, weighed down by the scales and with legs forced open. The exposed backbone, intended by the artist as signifying Babylon’s strength, was seen by some viewers as highly phallic. The image now becomes a rape scene, the archetypal ‘evil’ woman once again punished for her sexuality: the complete opposite of Maher’s intentions. The problem is compounded by the high number of representations of women as victim within male expressionist work from whatever period; women painters can find themselves on dangerous territory here. Yet as also became clear in the discussion, it’s of great importance that women allow themselves and each other to make mistakes. As in Alice Maher’s Babylon, it’s only by pushing a particular representation that we find out the nature and extent of its limits, its strengths and disabilities for the purposes of women artists.

1874903_orig

Gwen John

THIS IS surely the definitive work on Gwen John and is essential for anyone interested in women artists or art of the 20th century. Gwen John (1876-1939), ten years ago virtually unknown, today is considered worthy of a place in art history. The book with its magnificent representations of all her 200 paintings and an extensive selection of her several thousand drawings is a sheer delight. Paintmyphotos gallery are currently having an event which providing custom oil painting at 20% discount off. So if you like Gwen’s artworks, you can try their service.  There is a fully documented biography which draws on some previously unpublished material, extensive quotations. Cecily Langdale assesses the artist’s achievements and places her life in a historical context through a complete catalogue of her oil paintings and many of her drawings and water-colours.

Gwen_John_-_Self-Portrait

Gwen John, born in Tenby, Wales, was among the first women students at the Slade. Her three years of academic training stayed with her always. Augustus John, her flamboyant elder brother, also considered to be talented artistically, was emulated by fellow students though Gwen John always maintained her distance from him. He was frequently concerned and criticised her disregard for her health and well-being, traits which ultimately caused her decline and death.

After leaving the Slade in 1898 she travelled to Paris with two fellow students. There Gwen John enrolled in the Academie Carmen under Whistler who was greatly revered internationally by art students. He declared: ‘I do not teach Art; but I teach the scientific application of paints and brushes’. As Gwen John was already familiar with his art and painted in the low tones he recommended, Cecily Langdale does not find any particular influences apart from her detailed use of written colour notes

In 1904 Gwen John settled in Paris where she worked as an artists’ model and had some exhibitions and sales. Among the artists she posed for was the famous Auguste Rodin. Cecily Langdale has had access to the thousands of letters Gwen John wrote to him over the ten years of their friendship. The author, unlike other biographers, does not dwell on this relationship though she does feel that Gwen John did accept his guidance, in that her linear compositions became looser and more spontaneous during this period. Throughout her life Gwen John formed several very strong attachments to people, often with quite disastrous endings.

rodin

Gwen John painted and drew still lives, interiors, cats, children in church but the bulk are portraits in thick oil impasto of single seated women before a simple background. Her main interest was the formal aspect of painting; models were conceived as ‘an affair of volumes, not as individuals’. The pose is simple and static, the body seen as a study in which detail is suppressed. The artist’s palette and tonal values are restricted as a generalised light covers the form. Gwen John repeated compositions, sometimes up to ten times with very little change. As she rarely dated her work the author admits that it is impossible to draw any conclusions of the time progress or changes of her working methods. Previously considered unfinished studies were regarded as finished by the artist as were her large and small canvases. The author explains Gwen John’s working techniques and subject matter through close examination of the work; and combined with the quotations the reader gets a very clear impression of this secretive artist.

In 1912-13 she became a Roman Catholic and thereafter there are portraits of nuns. Gwen John also drew numerous back views of women and children sitting in church; these had colour washes added later. Her faith remained vital to her for the rest of her life.

Gwen John was greatly encouraged to paint by the dealer John Quinn. They were introduced in 1910 and remained in close contact until his death in 1924. He acquired over a dozen paintings and numerous drawings In return she was assured financial security. Their correspondence is a valuable insight into her views of contemporary art, as through his encouragement she visited exhibitions and was introduced to other artists.

In 1935 she broke bones in her hands and wrists which naturally prevented her from drawing or writing, though she apparently ceased painting in about 1928. There is no evidence that she painted during the last years of her life though she did not stop thinking and writing about art. It is believed that she finally gave up on life and stopped eating and looking after herself. She died in Dieppe in 1939. Augustus remarked: ‘she had neglected to bring any baggage with her, but had not forgotten to make provision for her cats’.

The visual and written information make this the most sensitive biography of this artist. Among much current opinion, Cecily Langdale has shown that Gwen John did exhibit and sell.

Uneasy feelings explained

Having seen Mouse Katz’s exhibition, I feel Carole Drake’s review raises many pertinent questions relating to the depiction of the female form with regard to its production by the artist and consumption by the viewer.

The title of the exhibition intrigued me; it indicated a quest had been undertaken, but I feel the central and crucial issue is for women to free the female form from those stereotypical images which have held it fast. The Four Seasons sculptures made me feel particularly uneasy. When I am confronted with diminished female forms, preciously beaded, their legs unseparated and elevated on pedestals, I am aware that myths need exploding.

Methods of construction and the materials used have very powerful associations integral to the work, unless, through intervention, the artist is inscribing new meanings. I could find no visible signs of it here. However, it was interesting to compare these pieces with The Orphic Rights, where more positive elements were coming into play. Three towering women faced inward, their torsos animated, their features expressive of hearing, speaking, seeing; forming a bond of visionary power. These figures seemed to be freeing themselves. I hope it is a development Mouse Katz will see fit to continue.

Carole Drake’s commentary on Mouse Katz’s show focused our attention on the complexities involved in the process of consuming images. All images carry the personal commitments and preconceptions of their creators. Art is action in the subjective realm. It is always a political work and always open to examination in those terms so long as the artist names herself as part of, and accountable to, a community, in this case the women’s movement. Carole Drake provided a skilful feminist commentary which embodies clearly the standards and principles by which the work was being evaluated. Those principles associate growth and change in the representation of women with careful observation of power relations, and are motivated by a desire to make work accessible instead of falling in with male mystification and elitist tactics.

On visiting Mouse Katz’s exhibition ‘In Search of the Femorphic Woman’ I was drawn to the immense detail of the fabric sculptures and the technical skill of the drawings. The exhibition reminded me of an Aladdins cave, but as if walking through a cave I had a very cautious and uneasy feeling.

Carol Drake’s review of the exhibition while at first seeming harsh did in fact explain my unease, skilfully pinpointing how the images only served to perpetuate the stereotypes of women, and society’s patronising view of black women.

The review led me to think very carefully about the artist’s responsibilities and the viewer’s potential for being challenged in our conventionality and racism.

Responding to the apparent outrage at my review of Mouse Katz’s exhibition, I have these points to make.

artshow

The review was of the images at that particular show, not an overview of the whole oeuvre of Mouse Katz. Knowledge of an artist’s past work is not a prerequisite for a valid response to an exhibition. Mouse Katz’s past art production and activities do not somehow remove her subsequent work to some fenced off area beyond all criticism.

I know that many women disagree with my assessment of this exhibition, but this should result in a fertile and energetic debate of the issues raised rather than in attempts to dismiss and neutralise my ideas by labelling them as wrong in an absolute sense.

Images are always, to varying degrees, ambiguous. Artists cannot disregard differing or unexpected responses to their work just by saying ‘Oh but I didn’t mean that’, or ‘No, you’re reading it wrongly, you haven’t understood’. Artists have to accept that some viewers may not respond in the way hoped for and that their response is not due to stupidity or other such lack of understanding. The meaning of an image is not formed by the artist alone, the meaning is not made and fixed at the time of making. Meaning changes and develops at the meeting of image and viewer, for instance. Can there be one correct interpretation of an image?

As for the accusation that ‘Eyes full of theory may be blind to fact’, we all employ theories or ideologies when articulating ideas, verbally or in writing, whether we recognise them or not.

The W.A.S.L. Journal is the right arena for debate on issues around women making images of women, the uses and practice of life drawing and the role of the model, and the ways in which meaning is made. The Journal is not a self-congratulatory club in which all criticism of women artists is exorcised and in which all questioning and disagreement is silenced. Does Mouse Katz think all adverse criticism of her work should be quashed?

I look forward to more women putting forth their ideas on these issues, in discussion with friends and by writing to the Journal, in a dynamic and constructive way in which all views are given space.

Carol Drake’s angry review of Mouse Katz’s exhibition

Carol Drake’s angry review of Mouse Katz’s exhibition (Issue 20) ‘In Search of the Femorphic Woman’ suffered from a problem clearly identified by its author–that of the need to consider the power of the viewer’s gaze and preconceptions. However hard we may work to overturn them we all have preconceptions and here I would include the reviewer herself.

While her article was highly readable–the arguments put forward being all of one kind and well constructed–its very simplicity, however, precluded a sense of balance, leaving the author in danger of attempting to replace one set of assumptions with another. Perhaps this is true of most criticism? The exhibition was entitled ‘In Search of the Femorphic Woman’. The reviewer seemed more concerned to present her own emotions and findings than to consider seriously the artist’s search, a pity as I believe Mouse Katz’s work deserves serious consideration.

I am a committed feminist. I am angry that you printed a blatant attack on a sister Mouse Katz. Especially as she has contributed so much to feminism in art in the UK. Does Carole Drake’s awareness extend to the ‘Pandora’s Box’ exhibition? I spoke to Katz for a long time while the show was in Edinburgh (1985). The show, her organisation of it, and her own art work have been a source of inspiration to many of us. The Art Space Gallery was too small for her work, but genius shone through. I had a lot to think about when I left. I went back twice before it finished and would like to see the work again. This is not my usual reaction to art exhibitions. Carole Drake had better see to her own feminism before throwing stones at Katz!

Inside_the_Artspace_Gallery

As a Black feminist and model, I object to Carol Drake’s review of Mouse Katz’s work. I choose to model rather than clean white women’s houses or work in the white man’s office. I am proud of my colour, my body and my African heritage, which includes textiles and turbans. I have modelled for Mouse and I own two of her drawings of me. I gave one to my mother for Christmas. I don’t think her titles, drawings or attitudes are racist in any way. I don’t want some art reviewer to tell me what I should wear or how I should sit or where I should work. Carole Drake’s review is paternalistic and offensive.

I was introduced to your Journal last week. The first article I read was the review of Mouse Katz’s show at Art Space Gallery. Frankly, I was stunned. My reaction was, if this is feminism, I don’t want any part of it. I want to explain why.

I saw the Mouse Katz show. I also saw the Sue Atkinson show at Air Gallery. Although the same woman reviewed both shows, there was a huge discrepancy in her attitude to these two artists, who both work in textiles. I have been using textiles for many years and consider myself somewhat knowledgeable. I, and most of my friends, found Sue Atkinson’s work crude and amateur. The craftsmanship was insulting to women seriously working in the textile format. Poor workmanship is not politically advantageous to feminism. Contrary to the reviewer, we could see no meaning in this work. To paraphrase the reviewer’s words to Mouse Katz and apply them more aptly to Sue Atkinson: does she think she can hang badly seen and executed landscapes on a wall, give them political titles, and expect us to see some meaning in them? Her work looks very much like it is made by a woman jumping on the textile bandwagon, without taking the time or trouble to learn anything about it. This does nothing to increase acceptance and respect for textiles as an art form. Sue Atkinson’s work was easy to dismiss, and forget. I would not have bothered to write were it not for the reviewer’s hostility (obvious) to Mouse Katz.

SueStudio

On the other hand, we were knocked out by Mouse Katz’s work at the Art Space gallery. The workmanship, which the reviewer mentioned in passing, was excellent. I would strongly recommend anyone in textiles to see her work. Her imagery was very moving. Contrary to the reviewer’s point of view, I find Katz’s work inspiring to my understanding of feminism. Her work gives many women, including myself, a way in to feminism that the reviewer, and W.A.S.L. in printing this review, seem totally ignorant of. Not all of us see man as the ultimate and hated enemy. Some of us are even married, relatively happily. I like beautiful objects and fabrics, and my interests are wider than the political. The reviewer threw mud on everything I hold dear in her review of Katz’s work. I found the review patronising, and I think it was inspired by jealousy, and ignorance on the part of the reviewer.

I was struck, in particular, by the sculpture in the Art Space show, Madonna of Flames, that the reviewer found so repulsive, and offensive.

I hope we will soon see Katz’s work at a larger and more prestigious gallery such as the ICA or the Whitechapel. The work deserves public acclaim, not the abuse of feminist critics. I am surprised that W.A.S.L. would consider printing a review like this and I hope you will give equal space to the response. I will be looking at the next issue to see if I still want to call myself a feminist.

Is it elitist or ‘feminist taboo’ to make work about our spiritual lives as women? We all have one, in addition to the social and economic power structures which mould us. For me, the ‘important’ work in Mouse Katz’s solo show were the painted fabric sculptures. Although the 2 groups, The Orphic Rights, and the four ‘seasons’, Spring Heiress, Madonna of Flames, Falling to Earth and Winter Pearls, did not have enough room in the gallery to enable us to see and think around them adequately, despite their bold presence and extremely high standard of craftwomanship.

Carole Drake’s slaughtering ‘review’ did not take the time to say why she found The Orphic Rights, ‘strong’. For a start, they are around 7 feet tall! And can she say that 4 feet (plus a stand,) is really, ‘toy-sized’, especially when you are obliged to kneel in order to read the statements at the base of each sculpture of the ‘seasons’. There was little flattery or adornment in The Orphic Rights–three women locked in witnessing: seeing ‘the horror’, hearing ‘the horror’, and despite brutalisation, speaking out. If Mouse Katz was on ‘her pedestal’ here it was to get a clearer view.

Making images of our bodies is a big problem for ‘conscious’ women artists– but we have to face it and do it, censor it often too; but ‘passive’, reflective or even conventionally ‘attractive’ images of women by women should not always remain locked away with the skeletons in our cupboards. Perhaps those of us raised in a post Church of England dominated country find iconic female images, colourfully and elaborately embellished to be repulsive. This would be true to our cultural heritage. However Carole Drake should be aware of the narrowness in opinions of taste and also be informed of the cultural background of the artist when attempting an interpretation of the work. I did not feel that Katz’s ‘seasons’ were images of ‘woman’ specifically, but rather images of ‘states of consciousness’ and changes of sexuality. We are subject to change as the larger natural world is: women and men have to live through change and accept it without trying to escape it in fear of death. The idea that men are in control of nature is a sad joke, a short-term balls-up in the lifetime of the planet.

1God_Giving_Birth_large

I am interested to read more debate about the issue of Women/Nature/Art, hopefully through W.A.S.L. Journal. The physical world is very important to my own mental and spiritual life, and I would like to re-form the context of these issues into relevant work for our times. How? is the absorbing question.