Feminism Never Happened

Del Kathryn Barton, Pat Brassington, Kirsty Bruce, Jacqueline Fraser, Anastasia Klose, Fiona Lowry, Fiona Pardington, Yvonne Todd, Jemima Wyman Curator: Robert Leonard IMA (Institute of Modern Art), Brisbane 30 January - 20 March 2010

Yvonne Todd Palumbo 2008, lightjet print, 88 x 66 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Courtesy Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland, and Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington.

Deceptively flippant, the title of this group exhibition is acknowledged by curator Robert Leonard as a 'conceit'. The substantial works by nine female artists don’t so much refute this charge as reveal the complexities of imagery that has a feminist base. This is in spite of the fact that the majority of these exhibitors from Australia and New Zealand would shirk the moniker of ‘feminist’. After so many years of being engaged in ‘first-wave/second-wave’ feminism, I found it intriguing to see the approach of, mostly young, women artists from the position of their gender today.

Why now has there been a swathe of substantial all-women shows including WACK! at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 'Global Feminisms' at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn and Elles@centrepompidou that have recently occurred worldwide? Is it a generational thing where the daughters are ready to take stock of their situation (at times revelling in it) and use imagery that earlier women artists with a political engagement would have seen as ‘letting the side down’? This exhibition reveals contradictions within the broad expanses of feminist art and potentially sets up a strong agenda for debate. Unfortunately in the media release only one (a male) authority is cited and as no catalogue exists at this time for the show (with artist’s statements), it was difficult to fully appreciate complex inferences and perhaps have correctives to what I saw as some very lightweight works.

For instance Anastasia Klose’s 'Film for my Nanna' (2006) has the artist-as-performer dressed up in a traditional wedding gown walking through inner city Melbourne with a placard strapped to her chest which states 'Nanna I am still alone'. I would like to know how such interactions with the public impacted on the artist and why she chose to engage with street art in the first instance.

The tyranny of fashion and branding on many of today’s women is obvious in Jacqueline Fraser’s large-scale collages. There is a saying that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, for instance the adoption of aggressive behaviour in the work-place where women now often surpass their male peers. In Fraser’s case, she succeeds in observing that many women believe they are seductive only through their garments and exaggerated poses. One features an enlarged magazine cut-out of a black model lounging in a pose not dissimilar to Manet’s Olympia except that Fraser objectifies her subject and denies her a personality. It seems as though John Berger’s famous pronouncement that ‘men act’ and ‘women appear’ is perversely being reinforced by the New Zealand artist. Nearby, Yvonne Todd is included with her familiar colour photographs of women which also fantasise the media-driven ideal of femaleness. The frisson comes with Todd’s inclusion of a photograph of a silver-haired man, immaculately suited and given the title 'Founding CEO' (2008).

The male observer is disconcertedly asserted again with Fiona Lowry’s spray-gun paintings in soft pastel colours. Hung near the ceiling and next to two of them featuring women is a small canvas depicting a young man’s face gazing intently and it seems as though Berger’s pronouncement is even more chilling as here it is the woman who acts for the voyeuristic male gaze. I found Lowry’s paintings very brave and compelling as they hint at the vulnerability of young women who are groomed to satisfy the urges and expectations of men. The subject in the largest canvas 'Anything You See in Me Is In You' (2006), turns away from the viewer (and also, one surmises, from her invisible companion) with dress raised over her buttocks as though about to receive anal intercourse. We have no idea whether she is a willing participant or on what terms this exchange will take place. Implied sexual acts are also evident in Jemima Wyman’s projected film 'Lady in Red' (2005); fittingly, it is in a show that also includes the psychologically charged photography of Pat Brassington. The simple little song of the title is sung by the woman in her party dress, stilettos and careful make-up in a tone slurred by alcohol and possibly a recreational drug. The camera zooms into her face, swirls around and projects up her thighs. It is a vertiginous dance of solitariness and confusion.

Brassington acts like a senior female exemplar for both Wyman and Lowry, if not for Fiona Pardington with the latter’s famous black and white photograph 'Choker' (1994). This is where the artist merges implied violence and expensive adornment through the bruised throat of an anonymous woman which doubles as a be-jewelled necklace. Such an image sits well in an exhibition including four of Brassington’s characteristic digital photographs (and quite frankly would also give pointed meaning to the image from Bill Henson’s 'Paris Opera' series where the elderly man has as his companion a pubescent female wearing diamonds around her neck). Why in fact were men not included as exhibitors in a show called 'Feminism Never Happened' ?

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