Writing Art History Since 2002

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Johannesburg Art Gallery | Johannesburg

Expecting a reworking of Through the Looking Glass, a group show curated by Brenda Schmahmann in 2005, this exhibit came as a welcomed surprise. Unlike Schmahmann’s and other gender specific exhibitions that showcase women artists employing their bodies as a vehicles of self-analysis, curators Jeanine Howse and Amy Watson have selected art works that position the female identity as a shifting paradigm that exists beyond the physical self. Howse and Watson want to distance women artists from clichéd feminist visual impulses. And while the premise of this exhibit may be flawed, their ambition to widen the narrow lens through which women’s art is viewed and realised is necessary if women’s art (should there be such a genre?) or the manner in which women’s creative output is framed is ever going to be advanced. If women continue to use their bodies as conduits of expression, it is likely that their physicality will irretrievably be intermingled with identity, ensuring that gender typecasting is perpetuated.”Using my body is a tricky thing to do because it can reinforce stereotypes,” artist Berni Searle once observed. However, any exhibit that presents art from women artists only will suggest that a divide exists between the sexes, rendering any form of conceptual liberation null and void. Surely, the ‘goal’ of women’s art is to be rid of art that is specific to women. While Watson and Howse’s unique objective overshadows this exhibition, one remains sharply aware of the conflicting principles that inform women’s artistic production. The pair’s approach means that the subjects or sitters of these unconventional portraits merely function as a reflection of the author/photographer/creator’s fractured identity, which completely undermines the value of a subject – usually of prime importance in the portrait genre.Although the trendy getups that Lolo Veleko’s subjects don appear to indicate their individual sense of style, taste and character, instead they specify Veleko’s desires. Photographed on the street, one senses that she has handpicked her subjects from the hordes of strangers that populate this public arena. Her choices reveal her idiosyncrasies.Unlike Veleko, Frances Goodman’s You and I (2003) is not an indirect self-portrait; rather she explores identity in the context of a relationship, an unbalanced one. A portrait of a man accompanied by tape recordings of a woman’s voice reveal the way in which individuals allow others to shape their being. Although nothing about the man’s demeanour suggests that he has forced his will, the female protagonist remains submissive. Goodman infers that the desire to be connected to another can have a powerful effect on the transformation of identity.Is it a coincidence that as one stands in front of Goodman’s portrait one’s own face is reflected? The commingling of one’s features with the portrait presented further advances the idea that identity cannot be realised through a single form. How can it be tangible when one is unsure where it is located?Natasha Christopher’s His Bed and Mine (2005) and Penny Siopis’ Will (1997) both reveal objects to be purveyors of identity. Christopher’s photographs suggest that objects that facilitate intimacy – such as a bed – intrinsically become part of us and therefore an expression of who we are. Siopis, however, implies that all manner of trivial objects that we accumulate during our lifetime hint at our essence. The knickknacks that decorate our homes are like pieces of a giant puzzle that when combined form a jittered portrait. In death, when this collection is spread out among our loved ones, it makes it that much harder to decipher identity, what with each person holding onto a different piece of the puzzle. Perhaps in life those who know us are only ever privy to one aspect of who we are.Although one could interpret Siopis’ artwork from a gendered point of view – as with the other works on exhibit – it seems pointless to force art into boxes constructed by curators. While it is great to take stock of common trends in women’s art – which exhibits of this ilk invariably do – it is more satisfying to view art without being so acutely aware of the artists’ gender.

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