Chicks on Speed, 2013, Photo: Tim Levy, Chicks on Speed: Scream, IMA, Brisbane, August 3 – September 21, 2013.

The more things change: Feminist aesthetics, then and now

Forty years ago artists and scholars first tentatively asked, ‘‘Is there a feminine sensibility?’’ Recent all-woman shows allow us to review feminist aesthetic speculations, and a swift backwards glance over the ‘‘herstory’’ of such curatorial laboratories highlights shifts and continuities. But it appears that the jury is still out on that old feminine aesthetic conundrum.

The first thing that strikes us in hindsight is the activist tenor of feminist aesthetics, the idea of reaching out into the real world to create new audiences by exploring women’s social, political and cultural experience. Back in 1975, for instance, Women’s Liberation mounted a stall at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, displaying a variety of women’s arts and crafts, including hand-printed T-shirts, silkscreen and offset posters, badges, jewellery, ceramics and bric-a-brac alongside stickers and pamphlets on contraception, women’s health and rape crisis centres. A similar drive to work out there in the public space can be discerned today in the endurance baking performance by Sydney-based collective Brown Council. The group relentlessly worked their way through the Country Women’s Association cookery book in Mass Action: 137 cakes in 90 hours (2012) at the CWA headquarters in Potts Point, under the bemused guidance of the cultural committeen of that venerable and conservative although undeniably feminist organisation.

Feminist art activism still involves both ongoing advocacy for equal representation on the basis of merit (with all the challenges that non-masculinist ideas of artistic merit might suggest), and the critical elaboration of distinct aesthetic qualities characterised as feminine. Artists and scholars have investigated those spaces where women have contributed imaginatively and skilfully to cultural life, and challenged the gendered terms and conditions of canonical art history and practice. In the arid, formalist context of late modernism, these explorations demanded autonomous practice and research. The loosely structured women’s art movements of the 1970s offered safe spaces for exhibitions around the concept of female imagery and the female in art. Feminist research on long-forgotten women artists and feminist aesthetics were similarly nurtured through Women and Art courses in art schools and universities, and through the 1976 launching of LIP – the first interdisciplinary Australian feminist arts journal.

These were cramped and precarious hot-houses, and production values were usually just this side of grunge. A good example is the socialist-feminist magazine Refractory Girl that published an issue on women in the visual arts (no. 8, March 1975). It declared a radical aesthetic intervention with a cheerfully defiant central core front cover: an abstracted, close shot of a vulva, barely legible against an electric blue field and inscribed with a cunt manifesto:

We are suggesting that women artists have used the central cavity which defines them as women as the framework for an imagery which allows for the complete reversal of the way in which women are seen by the culture. That is to be a woman is to be an object of contempt, and the vagina, stamp of femaleness, is devalued. The woman artist seeing herself as loathed takes that very hallmark of her otherness and by asserting it as the hallmark of her iconography, establishes a vehicle by which to state the truth and beauty of her identity.

Contrary to popular myth, vaginal imagery was not a wholesale North American import. Ten years earlier, Sydney artist and founding Women’s Art Movement member Vivienne Binns was exploring sexual imagery in a conscious rejection of the dominant styles of lyrical abstraction, hard-edge and colourfield painting, and as a reaction to the easy suburban satires of Australian Pop. Developing a funky, decorative style across a variety of media (from painting and drawing through toys, enamelling and silver-smithing), Binns sought a basic truth about her feminine identity. She adopted surrealist associationist methods to welcome chance events and eschew formal solutions.

As Binns recalled, “... once I started drawing images would appear on the page … direct imagery from a subconscious level. Sometimes they were very sexual images. The first one I did was a giant phallus in monumental position … then as an accompaniment to this I painted a cunt. I struggled with this one. I’d got the actual cunt there and a few other things that had happened spontaneously but was stopped. There was an image that kept recurring and I rejected it because it seemed too fierce, a bit too crude or something and I kept pushing it aside. In the end I did it and it was to put teeth on the cunt. Once I’d done it, it was right. I was happy with it and it was finished.”

The idea of a distinct feminine sensibility that was cheerfully, actively sexual and embraced a woman-centric unconscious was unknown territory. Binns’ central core explorations were exhibited at a 1967 solo show at Watters Gallery in Sydney, to widespread critical horror.

Vivienne Binns, Vag Dens, 1967, synthetic polymer paint and enamel on composition board, Courtesy the artist.

Binns’ ‘‘summer of love’’ vaginal imagery had few stylistic followers, although central core iconography briefly surfaced around 1975–76 across a variety of media, from delicate pen and ink graphics decorating women’s health pamphlets to the exquisite, soft-aggression centrefold of LIP No 1, made from folded, labial d’oyleys encircling a ruby-red core (designed by Frances Budden and painstakingly hand-stitched by the editorial collective). Central core work was in fact only a small blip on the seventies stylistic horizon. A diverse and open-ended field of feminist inquiry ranged from Adelaide artist Sandy Nairn’s aromatic nappy installations, Margaret Dodd’s funky ceramics satirising domestic deviations, haunting and often painfully confronting performances by Joan Grounds, Lyndal Jones and Jill Orr, menstrual and related coming-of-age iconography (Toni Robertson, Marie McMahon), conceptual-and-time based photography and film (Virginia Coventry, Micky Allen, Sue Ford) deconstructive photographic analyses (Jude Adams, Sandy Edwards) and documentary photography (Ponch Hawkes and Pat Fiske, amongst others). Fieldwork on female experience jogged happily alongside witty spoofs on mainstream art (often again involving nappies and other accoutrements of women’s domestic labour, as fitting interventions within Pop’s suburban iconography and the mind-numbing directives and ritualised routines of conceptual art, as in work by Jude Adams and Helen Grace).

Feminist interventions were more closely aligned with art schools, universities and the gallery sector through the 1980s. Feminism made important inroads in these areas, gaining mainstream visibility for women artists with aesthetic theories of sexual, gender and cultural difference. The radical grunge of the 1970s was cleaned up within the formal values and theoretical preferences of institutionally sanctioned postmodernism: no more sociological nappy installations, embarrassingly formless tampon displays, essentialist celebrations of a female central core or positive imagery of strong women working in the building industry. Curatorial experiments in feminist aesthetics ranged from pioneering ARI initiatives such as the inaugural First Draft exhibition in Sydney to more institutionally prestigious platforms like Heartland (Wollongong Regional Gallery in 1985), 150 Women (Victoria) and Half the Sky (Art Gallery of South Australia).

Why then did it feel like feminism was being sidelined or absorbed within institutional excursions in post-modernism? And what was this new buzz-word amongst our (mainly male) academic colleagues: post-feminism – so easily accepted, yet rarely articulated? Why were feminist interventions in the visual arts both cutting edge and cut to ribbons? The 1980s and 90s were a contradictory period for the international sisterhood. Though a selection of feminist artists were becoming international household names, the lack of women artists in prestigious postmodern surveys suggested that gains made through the activism of the previous decade were seeping away in the political quietude of the Euro-American art world. In Australia, the art boom of the 1980s provided fertile conditions for successful affirmative action campaigns launched by the Artworkers Union in NSW and Victoria and the Artworkers Alliance in Queensland. But, as the gallery and academy became major sites for activism, the activist and/or community-based interest in the audience and the aesthetics of interaction waned. Addressing audience issues in the 1980s increasingly meant referencing the world of popular culture and popular screen media.

Feminist aesthetic investigations continued and again proved impossible to define, except within non-specific terms. For instance, the 1986 sculpture exhibition Explorations Crossroads (curated by Celia Winter-Irving) canvassed issues of gender difference, as suggested by participating artist Ann Pell: “It has become increasingly obvious to me that I don’t read or understand sculpture in the same way as men. My terms of reference are different. Which brings me to the question whether there is a specifically female iconography in art ... for me as yet unanswered.” Aesthetic preoccupation with feminine forms stopped short of generalised claims for a definitive, formal vocabulary. Instead, feminist artists used the traditional artistic descriptors to hint at an indefinable sensibility. Sculptor Bronwyn Oliver thus commented on her Cyclops (1986): “My sculptures are concerned with vulnerability and protection, flowing, open spaces and taut stiffness, hardness and softness. They are often simultaneously seductive and menacing.”

A year earlier, Julie Ewington categorically stated in the Heartland catalogue that “Women … have different things to say, and say them differently”, yet she also stopped short of definitive categorisation. The Heartland works were themselves highly eloquent, evoking a self-conscious, fetishised feminine sensibility through lush painterly surfaces, drenched colour and an uncanny evocation of the domestic. At the time, the show’s playful, critical nod in the direction of commodity art and institutionally sanctioned neo-expressionism was also read through radical European feminist theories of sexual difference. This assertion of a camp, feminine voice evoking and critiquing art history and female desire had been pioneered in the 1970s. Polished to pseudo-glamorous extremes through the later 1980s and early 1990s, this burlesque strategy continues today in the heady colour, movement and overly feminine forms showcased in shows like The Baker’s Dozen (2012), Contemporary Australia: Women (2012) and Backflip: Humour in Feminist Art (2013).

The 1995 National Exhibition of Women’s Art projects revived feminism’s two-pronged strategy of community activism and aesthetic exploration in a period of conservative government, the so-called culture wars and commodification of raunch-culture. Through this difficult period, an organised activist agenda was taken up and advanced more forcefully through the work of Indigenous artists and curators. Indigenous activists like Fiona Foley and Banduk Marika, Hetti Perkins, Tracey Moffatt, Brenda Croft, Euphemia Bostock, Avril Quail and many others who matured as artists and curators through the 1980s, argued that issues of individual and gender identity were necessarily connected to community identity, an activist agenda, and the necessity to remain accessible to broad audience.

Today’s more multicultural and inter-generational feminist exhibitions have inherited this rich legacy of action research. Feminist curators often use the term ‘‘mentoring’’ to describe the exchange between more established and emerging artists working within a curatorial brief. For instance, the art labs by No Added Sugar at Casula Powerhouse in Western Sydney (2012) were structured around trans-generational engagement between women artists and within specific female Australian Muslim communities. The show’s intensive art laboratories and community cultural engagement projects enveloped Casula Powerhouse with epic structures of crafty story telling contoured by Muslim cultural traditions. They also echoed the inclusive Memory Cycle shows of the 1970s and early 1980s such as the Daylesford Project (1976), The D’Oyley Show (Watters 1981); The Lovely Motherhood Show (Experimental Art Foundation 1981) and Mother’s Memories, Others’ Memories (initially shown at Blacktown Shopping Centre in 1979). These trans-generational shows also explored the multicultural wealth of women’s traditional arts, from cake making to family photography to Indigenous string patterns and other customary textile practices, making a virtue of the repetitions, obsessions and sheer intensity of expression generated in cramped, domestic and community-bound spaces.

Other artists see feminist aesthetics in art historical terms, and their work highlights the importance of fixing, or simply not forgetting, women’s place in art history. Many contemporary projects thus reference feminist imagery, materials, gestures and processes through a mannerist (or maybe hipster) style in work as diverse as that of Natalya Hughes, Brown Council, the Kingpins, Margarita Sampson, Honor Freeman, Chicks on Speed, Del Kathryn Barton and others, including the now ubiquitous delights of guerrilla knitting. This work makes playful, even fetishised stylistic references to 1970s central core imagery, decorative collage, soft sculpture, in your face performance and radical handicraft through the dishevelling force of camp, radical drag and feminist burlesque.

Then, as now, feminist artists do not feel comfortable with any set formal or stylistic lexicon. Hipster feminism instead cheerfully embroiders, playfully unravels or badly performs the baser depths of feminine sensibility. Maybe this is another case of strategic essentialism, in this case feminist aesthetics, turned inside out in and replayed in decadent, camp and provocative form. This raunchy and humorous reiteration of female imagery in art stands out against the lacklustre backdrop of our current, endlessly networked art relations. As in the past, an insouciant, interrogative approach to the F-word (forever Art’s pornographic referent) has helped feminist artists gain critical and professional traction in the globalised and unregulated, events management style of the new art economy.

Catriona Moore lectures in modern and contemporary art at the University of Sydney, and looks forward to the day when fundamental changes in the arts industry make gender specific issues of Artlink no longer necessary.