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Abstraction and Representation: women artists and contemporary art

3 July 2014

At the beginning of this year, the Tate Video channel uploaded a film narrated by Jemima Kirke (a painter who also moonlights as Jessa in Lena Dunham’s perennially provocative HBO TV series Girls) entitled Unlock Art: Where Are All the Women? It’s a short but effective piece that manages to compress one of the longstanding arguments of feminist art history – that while the simple re-insertion of women into histories of art is a vital endeavour, this will be nothing without a fundamental structural overhaul of the discipline to ensure that it can encompass a multiplicity of perspectives and politics – into a resource that, thanks to Jessa, is eminently accessible to sixth formers and undergraduates. No mean feat for a five-minute video.

Tate’s film might almost be seen as a prelude for Amanda Vickery’s recent and well-received TV series The Story of Women in Art, which recently finished airing on BBC2. Over three programmes, Vickery’s project effectively provided an expanded version of Tate’s piece, offering an in-depth historical overview of women practitioners since the Renaissance. In subsequent interviews, Vickery has stressed that if the rumoured re-make of Kenneth Clark’s ground breaking Civilization series goes ahead, the BBC must ensure that women’s voices are heard in both the content and the presentation – and ideally multiple women’s voices, able to bring intersectional experience to the understanding of artistic production.

All this might seem a far cry from a series of recent UK exhibitions which have foregrounded the work of women artists in a less explicit way, but which together constitute a rich and significant range of interventions. Many of these interventions have focussed in particular on the complex relationship between women practitioners and abstraction. In May this year Alison Jacques Gallery held its fourth solo exhibition of the US artist Hannah Wilke, displaying her well-known sculptures alongside several fascinating drawings from the 1960s. These drawings use biomorphic abstraction and bright blocks of crayoned colour to evoke a factious merging of body and landscape, infused with an uneasy but compelling erotic charge.

Last year, Hauser and Wirth London dedicated a show and substantial catalogue to the inventive abstractions Eva Hesse produced during a 15-month stay in Germany in 1965, as she imbibed Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and produced works displaying what the critic Lucy Lippard evocatively characterised as ‘eccentric abstraction’. Riflemaker’s 2013 Judy Chicago exhibition contained transitional works such as her Pasadena Lifesavers, which bridge an early interest in minimalism with subsequent overtly bodily depiction. Incredibly, Lynda Benglis only had her first UK retrospective in 2012 at the Thomas Dane Gallery, where she showed a range of her witty and compelling sculptures that pour, slouch and twist across the floors and walls. Hesse, Chicago and Benglis all featured in Susan L. Stoops’ 1996 exhibition ‘More Than Minimal: Feminism and Abstraction in the ’70s’, which signalled the returns to be gained from thinking about the use of abstraction to explore gender as both subject and social context.

This was also evident in Nottingham Contemporary’s recent exhibition ‘Somewhat Abstract’, selected from works in the Arts Council Collection. From its outset, the Arts Council Collection has supported artists at the early stages of their careers, and its holdings reflect the development of a number of women artists. It means that a show like this could pull out works from the 1960s by abstract painters like Bridget Riley and Prunella Clough, and place them alongside explicitly activist and feminist works by the Hacky Flashers photography collective from the 1970s, as well as sculptural explorations of the body by Helen Chadwick and contemporaries such as Kathy Prendergast.

The abstractions addressed by Nottingham Contemporary’s show were social and economic as much as formal. It demonstrated how women artists have frequently explored gender as an abstraction – an abstraction which in turn conditions other lived abstractions such as, in the case of the Hackney Flashers, state provision for childcare, or for Chadwick, the Cartesian split between mind and body. In the hands of artists as diverse as Chadwick, Rita Donagh, Rachel Whiteread and Cathy Wilkes – as well as their US peers such as Hesse, Benglis and Wilke – abstracted processes, far from designating a retreat from the world, allow space to explore the body, biography, memory, and social politics.

Related Articles

Chicago in London: an interview with Judy Chicago (Beverley Knowles)

Civilisation 2.0: who could replace Kenneth Clark? (Rosalind McKever)

First Look: ‘Somewhat Abstract’ at Nottingham Contemporary (Alex Farquharson)