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LONDON — My friend, who works as an art teacher at a London school, recently decided to dedicate one of her classes to playing a game of Artists’ Top Trumps. Each card depicted a modern or contemporary artist, but out of the 32 cards in the pack, only four were women. She decided to set her pupils the task of creating a women artist’s trump card as homework. What she got in the next class was … Frida Kahlo. Dozens of her. Card after card of Frida. While Kahlo is fabulous, there are other women artists out there who could also be on the face of a playing card.
To me, this proves the burning need for shows like Tate Britain’s current all-women permanent collection display, 60 Years. The reason those school kids don’t know any women artists isn’t because women artists don’t exist; it’s because they’ve been systematically excluded from art history textbooks and museum collections. I won’t keep quoting stats; that’s what the inimitable Guerrilla Girls do. But to give you a flavor — a recent survey of the collections of major US museums found that out of the 10,000 artists represented, 87% are men. Clearly, something needs to change.
Of course, all-women artist exhibitions are tricky terrain. Parameters of gender identity are not clear cut, and there is a risk that such presentations will imply that there’s something innately different about art by women, or that it is necessarily feminist. Then, there’s the fact that lots of artists who fall under this category don’t want to be seen as “women artists.” Indeed, some of the artists represented in 60 Years, such as Bridget Riley and Maggi Hambling, stoutly reject this label.
This is something which the introductory wall label confronts, reading: “The issue of gender is incidental for some of these artists. For others it is a key concern.” The point of this display isn’t to argue that art by women is different from art by men; it’s simply to “increase the representation of women artists across the galleries.” And, if mounting all-women shows is what it takes to get works by women out of museums’ storage units and onto their walls, then so be it. My only wish is that 60 Years felt less apologetic and more celebratory.
The display is located in a three-room suite at the end of Tate Britain’s permanent collection display “Walk Through British Art,” which spans from 1540 to the present day and is extremely male. Although this placement makes sense chronologically (60 Years is the most contemporary section, gathering around 60 works by women artists working in Britain since 1960), it feels a bit like the women have been shoved away in a small dark corner. The primary victims are Alison Wilding, whose vast orange and black sculpture “Assembly” (1991) is claustrophobically placed in the first room and Sarah Lucas whose sexy stuffed-tights-woman “Pauline Bunny” (1997) loses all of its impact because of bad lighting.
Nevertheless, there are some fantastic works on display. 60 Years, despite its time-based title, is arranged in a series of themes: “spaces and structures,” “home,” and “fictional identities.” Each section has its own tone or mood, which means that the visitor is taken on an emotional journey: from the cool and rational through to the playful and absurd, and the poignant and uncanny.
We start in a world of shapes and lines and strange materials: Bridget Riley’s dizzying vertical stripes, Gillian Wise’s overlapping geometric forms, and Eva Rothschild’s illusionistic wool and cotton tapestry which, from afar, seems to depict a series of red, green, and purple ladders but, up close, is just a series of intersecting lines. My personal favorite is Mary Martin’s cacophony of mirrors, made from 96 aluminum panels pointing in different directions.
In the next room are works about “home” — some are literal (Mona Hatoum, Susan Hiller), others more metaphorical (Sonia Boyce, Rosalind Nashashibi). A couple of works are tenuously linked to the theme: it’s unclear to me how Helen Chadwick’s photographs of animal flesh or Liliane Lijn’s exploded glass sculptures are about “identity and belonging,” as the wall text claims. Are the artists not just experimenting with materials?
However, an interesting dialogue on the theme of motherhood emerges between two video works by Zineb Sediraand Gillian Wearing, respectively. Sedira’s “Mother Tongue” (2002), which features three dialogues between three generations of women, shows how in immigrant families one’s “mother tongue” is often not the same as one’s mother’s tongue. Meanwhile, Wearing’s “Sacha and her Mum” (1996)depicts a more violent form of mother-daughter interaction. The disturbing but utterly gripping video shows a woman alternately beating up and cuddling her adult daughter, who’s dressed in just a bra and underwear.
The final room is all parody, satire, and shifting identities. Georgina Starr constructs and plays with a ventriloquist’s puppet named Junior in her kooky video, “The Making of Junior (+ Entertaining Junior)” (1994). A young Karl Lagerfeld strikes a seductive pose in front of a row of potatoes in Anthea Hamilton’s “Karl Lagerfeld Bean Counter” (2012). Then there’s the larger-than-life self-portrait, “Crazy Bat Lady” (2018), by Monster Chetwynd (formerly Spartacus Chetwynd and formerly formerly Marvin Gaye Chetwynd). Shape-shifting is not contained to the artworks. And perhaps that’s my main take-away from this display: women artists and their works are gloriously diverse. And dammit, they deserve to be shown, prominently and proudly.
60 Years, curated by Sofia Karamani, continues in the permanent collection galleries at Tate Britain until April 2020.