Looks at the art practice of 5 Western Australian women artists: Helen Taylor, Alison Rowley, Moira Doropoulos, Michelle Elliot and Linda Banazis.
Women desire, look, speak, labour and make art. Creative practice which (need it be said) encompasses 'feminist' art, continues to deny the old Lacanian trap, the trap of theory that would render all others mute and confine everything within its own limits.
In another world we might dispense with the word 'feminist' and some of the artists to be discussed here would endorse this; but for now, I retain the word and concede only with inverted commas pending a future in which the masculine perspective ceases to masquerade as a neutral standard. Moreover, art continues to be imbricated with that modernist tendency which negates any engagement with the sensate, social and political. As Griselda Pollock has observed,
"Feminist artistic practices and texts have intervened in alliance with other radical groups to disrupt the hegemony of modernist theories and practices even now still active in art education in so-called postmodernist culture."(1)
I suggest that self-representations in women's art are constitutive of female subjectivity, not as a static fixed entity, but as an ever-emergent process of self-positing. The work of the five women to be discussed bears out this Kristevan notion of art as "constitutive of the subject".(2) Michelle Barrett has pointed out that the attempt to escape biological determinism and to negate biology altogether is symptomatic of the binary nature of western thinking.(3) Recasting the nature/culture dichotomy in more relational terms reopens a consideration of the body, sexuality, emotions and experience as integral dimensions of all meaning-making activities including art practice.
Every act we perform no matter how mediated emanates from the body. Meanings tend to follow a directional flow from the private to the public; from immediate sensate experience to institutional forms of meaning which in turn may be incorporated into dominant discourses. Alison Rowley illustrates this in her view of the actual physical process of mark-making in her painting as opposed to the necessarily verbal or descriptive act of explaining or 'understanding' the forms that emerge.
"You put a mark down. It's immediately not the mark you wanted..You paint to find out what you don't know...The problem with describing what you do is that once it solidifies into rigid theory, it is no longer useful. It's immediately no longer useful."(4)
'Feminist art recontextualizes meanings that have been solidified in art history and criticism which have tended to operate from what has predominantly been a 'public' and male perspective. Women's art can present a view from the 'other' side, from the practical, situated and differential knowledges and meaning effects surrounding women's lived experiences. Rowley's concern with representations of the female body is pertinent here.
"It is not a matter of trying to represent, to re-present the female figure, but rather of trying to present the female body...not to fix it as object, as symbol, but somehow to keep it moving in a series of traces of my bodily negotiation of the substances and surfaces of painting in time."(5)
Rowley is also concerned with reconstituting experience that would otherwise be lost. She has a particular interest in the interaction of bodies in close proximity. The circular 'track' in Picnic (1992) is an attempt to capture "the experience of sitting next to somebody and feeling that charge."(6) Rowley questions the notion of painting as an essentially 'male act'. She applies acrylic thinly, like watercolour alluding to a body of eighteenth century women's art that has disappeared or been largely ignored. Wedding Painting (1993) and Picnic (1992) disrupt many of the conventions of traditional English landscape and 'Arcadian' painting. Her work is a radical examination not only of the meanings we make, but also of the ways we make meaning.
"The kind of paint we choose to apply and how we choose to apply it can imply a position taken to the traditions of the craft... feminist positions with regard to technique have hardly been explored within the specific limits of easel painting"(7)
In Picnic ambiguity is created by the artists' use of perspective. There is a lack of three-dimensional depth and it is difficult to establish spatial and directional relationships between the figures and forms. Certainly there is a hint of pastoral serenity, yet the viewer's expectations are threatened and unsettled.
Linda Banazis also aims to unsettle expectations and preconceptions through the use of humour and parody, and specific manipulation of conventional techniques, familiar images and signs
"I just place, put together already signified images, some of them altered for particular reasons, from the position I take as a woman and then seeing what happens with the interruption of painting...what I call it is 'unease', 'sites of unease'.(8)
Banazis questions both social history and art criticism which have generally rendered women's contribution invisible. The practice of early male artists (for example that of the Heidelberg school) have helped to perpetuate the myths of Australia's development.
"These paintings are our national symbol, this is our treasure...and they're the biggest bit of crap that ever existed. Where are the women in that? The women were having their babies and working and God knows what."(9)
In Harvester (1993) and Ram (1993), Banazis makes anamorphic reproductions of two 1890 Streeton landscapes in an area of gesso surrounded by bare canvas. She juxtaposes masculine, technological domination of the land with her own symbol of femininity or domesticity, the gingham pattern, the 'laced' edge of the gesso which reinsert the feminine.
"The images are always deformed, they are not viewed from the centre, but from the periphery, from the edge, from the other"(10)
Recontextualisations operate at the level of image and of paint - raw transparent paint is used to renegotiate the notion of the transparency of language. Banazis' disruption of visual and verbal myths is also an attempt to recuperate and validate her own experiences and memories as sources of alternative meanings. The heavy transparent brushstrokes in Ram question patriarchal authority and notions of ownership and authorship. Banazis playfully inserts her own unique bodily mark with fingerprints, parodying her own parody.
Rowley and Banazis illustrate that women need not collude with the myth that painting is an exclusively male domain. Nor is there a need for reticence in validating the materials and methods through which for example, Michelle Elliot, Moira Doropoulos and Helen Taylor produce their representations. Perhaps what is most striking about each of the artists is the emphasis placed on process rather than product.
The preoccupation with the end product of artistic practice, a predominantly Western tendency, not only implicates what is primarily an expression of humanness with the entire baggage of commodification and the constraining influence of market forces, but also produces forms of criticism that at best may be described as partial. The notion of art as a vital and recuperative activity rather than as fetishization or abstract contemplation permits alternative and more enabling interactions between art-maker, the work and the viewer. Part of the process of Michelle Elliot's sculptural and installation work Scar, Char Chair and Vacant Block involved burning the products so that only slides and variously embellished photographic reproductions remain.
Ellen Dissanayake has defined art simply as a "making special", a provider of direct, immediate, unselfconscious experience which in literate society has been banished creating a kind of "disembedded thinking".(11)
These examples of Elliot's work may be interpreted as an act of making everyday experiences and memories special and also of allowing others to rediscover the significance of experiences which are part of collective memory.
"I like the process...It's a questioning of everything that you do. Often what I respond to is something that might be quite tactile...something you see that might force you to do something about it."(12)
The diversity of Elliot's practice evolves from a continual search for the appropriate medium through which to present her ideas, and from the constant need to cope with change which in this instance involved the demolition of a neighbourhood house.
"It was a kind of ritual...there were so many other places that were being demolished"(13)
The construction of chairs and a table from cane and paper towels, their placement on the empty block and their final incineration achieves what Julia Kristeva has termed "denegation", a symbolic retrieval of what has been lost.(14) "I want to do something before I go, so I will burn and dig the ashes into the earth..." (15)
There is no gilt-framed picture or glazed stone to buy as a result of this practice; instead, an interaction with the slides and other records that remain involves an ongoing process of negotiating new meanings, new significances and new problems.
Dissanayake has observed that both art and ritual provide a language in which otherwise incommunicable things can be said.(16)
For Moira Doropoulos, who works primarily in textiles, there is little that separates her art from ritual.
"The actual ritual is in the making of the work and I tend to use techniques and media that have some sort of ritual process and offer a very old tradition...It acts as a way to connect your physical self with something more intangible, with the other side of yourself."(17)
In her installation The Liminal Zone (1991) Doropoulos explores the relationship between spirituality and dogma. "The liminal zone is actually the overlap...this world and the other."(18) Symbols of established religion etched in steel form an outer circle which anchor soft flowing silk that has an upward movement of mark and which represents the spiritual. The scale of the installation 4 x 6 x 3.5 metres is monumental and the work may also be read as the interaction between the masculine and the feminine.
In Spiritual Flow (1992) Doropoulos evokes a sense of the adaptability and flexibility of the spiritual as opposed to the rigidity of established dogmas and ideology. She employs the traditional techniques of shibori indigo dying with cyanotype blue-printing, and uses stitching to incorporate fragments of religious iconography into the fabric. Spirituality is linked to the imaginative act in which new images and new meanings are forged through the recontextualization of familiar visual and verbal signs. In Doropoulos' work the 'other side' is a constantly changing source of renewal and creativity.
Helen Taylor, on the other hand, demonstrates how mass media images and other familiar signs and symbols in contemporary life may be manipulated to subvert dominant meanings.
"I respond to things around me. I always have to respond to something in the real world."(19)
Often witty and satirical, Taylor's images work as visual aphorisms. Her installation Conventional Signs (1992) consists of a rapid succession of pairs of slide images thrown onto a large screen. The effect is to debunk popular magazine images that perpetuate both male and female stereotypes. Scale and repetition produce a multiple parody in which clichéd meanings attached to gender are emptied allowing the spectator to take up alternative non-compliant positions.
An earlier installation, Gifts for Mother's Day (1981) captures succinctly the schizophrenic male fantasy of woman as both virginal care-giver and as sex object. Red and white damask tablecloths, gift-wrapped packages containing items of domestic work and perfumes bearing seductive titles will amuse anyone who cares to share the joke and at the same time indicate that everyday sights can operate as non-innocent signs.
Teresa de Lauretis has shown how female subjectivity operates both inside and outside of dominant discourses.(20) The work of these five West Australian artists illustrates that the proliferation of self-representation in 'feminist' art enables an ongoing process of emergent selfhood by allowing particular and personal dimensions of experience to be validated and given credence both at the immediate level of individual practice and within the wider domain of public discourse.
Currently completing a Ph.D. in Art and Literary Theory at Murdoch University
1. Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference, London: Routledge, 1988, p.14.
2. Julia Kristeva quoted by John Lechte in John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin (Eds) Abjection, Melancholia and Love, London: Routledge Chapman and Hall, 1990, p24.
3. Michelle Barrett, The Politics of Truth From Marx to Foucault, Cambridge:Polity Press, 1991, p.90.
4. Alison Rowley, Interview with Estelle Barrett, July 1993.
5. Alison Rowley, "Painting - A Male Act?" ARM, Volume 9, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, 1913, p.6.
6. Rowley, interview op cit.
7. Rowley, "Painting - A Male Act?" op cit p.6.
8. Linda Banazis, Interview with Estelle Barrett, November 1993.
11. Ellen Dissanayake, 'What Is Art For?' Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988, p.89-90.
12. Michele Elliot, Interview with Estelle Barrett, Nov 1993.
14. Julia Kristeva, op cit p.35.
15. Michele Elliot, interview op cit.
16. Dissanayake, op cit, p.90.
17. Moira Doropoulos, Interview with Estelle Barrett Nov 1993.
19. Helen Taylor, Interview with Estelle Barrett, Nov 1993.
20. Teresa De Lauretis, Technologies of Gender:Essays On Film Theory and Fiction, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.18.