Opinion

Saatchi Gallery Congratulates Itself on First All-Women Art Show

Alice Andersons with Arthur
Two works by Alice Anderson in ‘Champagne Life.” Left: “Bound” (2011), bobbin made of wood and copper thread, 345 x 248 x 248 cm; right, “181 Kilometers” (2015), sculpture made after performances, copper thread, 200 cm (diameter) (photo by Steve White, 2015, all images courtesy the Saatchi Gallery, London)

Charles Saatchi, head of the eponymous Saatchi Gallery in London, doesn’t exactly have the best feminist track record. In 2013, a scandal erupted after photos surfaced of the multimillionaire advertising tycoon with his hand clenched around the neck of his then-wife, Nigella Lawson. And though it arguably helped launched the careers of female Young British Artists (YBAs) like Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, Saatchi Gallery itself (like most major art galleries) has a history of disproportionately featuring men: a list highlighting artists who’ve shown there includes only one woman (Agnes Martin) in the gallery’s first three years (1985–88).

Now, on its 30th anniversary, Saatchi Gallery is apparently trying to correct this pattern. Its first all-women art exhibit, called Champagne Life, features the work of 14 “emerging” practitioners. Named for a Warhol-esque 2014 work by artist Julia Wachtel, which mashes up photos of Minnie Mouse, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian, “Champagne Life celebrates the work of a constellation of female artists, and provides a rare and apposite moment to reflect on what it means to be a female artist working today,” reads a vaguely self-congratulatory press release. “This exhibition will play an important role in approaching issues of the glass ceiling that applies to the art world as much as to the world at large.”

Julia Wachtel, "Champagne Life" (2014), oil, lacquer ink, and flashe on canvas, 5 panels, overall: 152.4 x 472.4 cm (© Julia Wachtel, 2014) (click to enlarge)
Julia Wachtel, “Champagne Life” (2014), oil, lacquer ink, and flashe on canvas, 5 panels, overall: 152.4 x 472.4 cm (© Julia Wachtel, 2014) (click to enlarge)

Looking through images of the artworks online, it seems that many of the pieces are impressive in their technique and scale, and many of these artists deserve to continue emerging in the coming years, as so many Saatchi-discovered talents have. But content-wise, the show as a whole doesn’t offer any particularly groundbreaking reflections on “issues of the glass ceiling” or “what it means to be a female artist working today.”

Mequitta Ahuja, "Rhyme Sequence: Wiggle Waggle" (2012), oil, paper, and acrylic on canvas, 213 x 203 cm (click to enlarge)
Mequitta Ahuja, “Rhyme Sequence: Wiggle Waggle” (2012), oil, paper, and acrylic on canvas, 213 x 203 cm (click to enlarge)

The work on view is, as far as I can tell, thematically unrelated. It ranges from a couple of hefty animal sculptures — Isle of Man–based artist Stephanie Quayle‘s life-size clay sculptures of two brown cows and Iranian Goldsmiths student Soheila Sokhanvari‘s taxidermy horse straddling a balloon — to Serbian artist Jelena Bulajić’s hyperrealistic portraits of elderly people, meticulously rendered in marble dust, ground granite, limestone, and kaolin. Particularly striking are the fantastical paintings of Baltimore-based artist Mequitta Ahuja that incorporate imagery from ancient myths, including the 15th-century Persian manuscript The Hamzanama, and Hindu miniature paintings.

Sure, it’s a sign of progress that a major gallery is making an effort to correct for centuries of gender disparity. But instead of attempting to really look at “what it means to be a female artist,” this particular exhibit, in which the artworks are united only by the gender of their creators, comes off as a kind of PR stunt. Imagine a show in which the only curatorial principle is that all the featured artists are male, and you start to see how absurd the premise is.

Stephanie Quayle, "Two Cows" (2013), air-hardening clay, chicken wire, steel, 230 x 340 x 170 cm
Stephanie Quayle, “Two Cows” (2013), air-hardening clay, chicken wire, steel, 230 x 340 x 170 cm

Still, some prominent art critics are patting Saatchi on the back, hailing the show as important. Mark Hudson at the Telegraph called it “heartening news for art.” (In disheartening news for art criticism, he couldn’t resist comparing the work of most of the female artists included to that of much better-known male artists: Jelena Bulajić is kind of like Chuck Close; Suzanne McClelland’s abstractions are Cy Twombly derivatives.) And in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones declared that “Saatchi Gallery’s all-female art show could start to shift the male gaze of the art world.”  

Start to shift? Giving the male-run, corporate-sponsored Saatchi Gallery credit for initiating such a change is to discredit decades of previous work by feminist artists and activists fighting for gender equality. Judy Chicago made her landmark work “The Dinner Party in 1975. The Guerrilla Girls have been pushing for better representation of female artists in galleries and museums since 1985. (Though it’s only now that they’re getting their message to a mainstream mass audience via a recent appearance on The Late Show.) The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston hosted Inside the Visible, a major survey of 30 women artists, in 1997. If anything, Saatchi Gallery is late to the party.

Soheila Sokhanvari, "Moje Sabz" (2011), taxidermy, fiberglass, Jesmonite blob, automobile paint, 170 x 230 x 140 cm
Soheila Sokhanvari, “Moje Sabz” (2011), taxidermy, fiberglass, Jesmonite blob, automobile paint, 170 x 230 x 140 cm

As Adrian Searle writes in his review of Champagne Life in the Guardian:

Mounting an all-female exhibition doesn’t make Charles Saatchi a feminist. Nothing could. Saatchi himself has become a kind of sacred monster. Although rarely seen in the galleries, he casts a long shadow over the whole enterprise. Did someone suggest this show would help him to improve his image? An all-female lineup is intrinsically no more interesting than an all-male roster of swinging dicks, especially when it has no larger thematic purpose.

Instead of patting itself on the back for hosting a thematically vague exhibition of women artists, shouldn’t the gallery be a little embarrassed that it’s taken 30 years to make a concerted effort to embrace gender diversity? Why is showcasing women’s work still such a rare event?

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