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.

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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.