Images of Men
From surveyed to surveyors - women focussing on men: this is the theme of Images of Men, the Outreach exhibition of thirty-three works by fifteen Auckland women artists. Such a thematic show would have been unthinkable a decade ago (before the Women's Movement gained momentum) and is not without a certain amount of controversy surrounding it now.
The works in this exhibition do not, however, all come from feminist artists: some do, but there is a wide range of commitment and comment here. To quote from the organisers' published statement: 'the only thing pinned down is the male as subject'.1 The results are an interesting variety of images, chosen by three of the exhibiting artists: Annette Isbey, Mary Mcintyre and Jan Nigro. This is not an open exhibition and neither is it as radical as the 1980 British exhibition of the same name at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. But the very concept of such a show plus the number of works included that make a statement clearly drawn, I feel, from a woman-centred experience, results in one of the more thought-provoking groups of work seen in Auckland for some time.
The images range from Annette Isbey's business-suited Walking Man, through the narrative, the symbolic, the portrait, the naked and the nude. Figurative content is obviously of primary importance (as it has been to much recent art, including women's art, of the 'seventies and into the 'eighties, especially in America). Can this concern also be seen as an aspect of the wider search for a more 'meaningful' and 'indigenous'2 style both here and elsewhere, as many artists continue to move away from International Modernism? Women's art, particularly in the sphere of the autobiographic art forms, can be seen both as part of and a major stimulus to this movement.
Certainly a wide variety of styles (a feature of post-modernism) and several local references give this exhibition added impact: for instance, the New Zealand bush setting for Raewyn Turner's Noel and Noel and the Auckland Victory Flats background to her Triumph, where the contemporary content of both scenes is given a certain edge by her assured handling of a traditional water-colour technique; or Lois McIvor's Rangitoto; or the portraits of politician David Lange M.P. by Lucille Cranwell, and Carrington Medical Superintendent Fraser McDonald in Jackie Fahey's Drinking Couple: Fraser analysing my Words; or Philippa Blair's installation of Christchurch ties . . .
A number of the works centre on stereotypes. Among the most obvious targets are images like the Superman (pathetically armless) accompanied by a punk-haired doll with toy gun in Jan Nigro's My Heroes: a dolls'-house-like construction containing a collection of other such images every child must encounter; Mary McIntyre's humorous, meticulously painted Spaceman, who flexes his biceps and wears a comically phallic pink fool's cap; Glenda Randerson's more objective Boots, a knee-to-foot view of a man, empty Rugby boots dominant in the foreground; and Agnes Wood's victoriously grinning team The Boys.
Mary Lawlor Bartlett's sportsmen, Naked New Zealand Person I and II, confront you boldly from their position in the centre of the end gallery wall. Their stressed physicality attracts attention: with their life-size nakedness, their mouths open (screaming?) trapped in the centre of the picture-space/patriarchal religious/social system. The image is not a comfortable one for many viewers (one removed both paintings from the wall and placed them face down in the centre of the gallery). These are the works that have perhaps been the most controversial.
For me, much of these images' significance lies in precisely what must have shocked some people: their directness. You are required to relate to them - in the case of N.Z. Person I by the trompe l'oeil device of the outstretched hand. There is an intentionally untraditional treatment of the male body here: one that is not idealised in any way, not posed or transcribed with a more stylised technique - approaches which would distance, weaken the impact. The technique and choice of colour support this directness of presentation: there is nothing 'nice' or carefully contrived; instead, murky browns and yellows, stabs of pink (the hairs on the whitish un-tanned body), running paint evident in the background. In the same way that the American painter Alice Neel's images of men have an uncompromisingly direct quality (e.g. John Perrault, 1974), so do Mary Lawlor Bartlett's Persons.
Some other male nudes in this exhibition are clearly nudes, not naked persons. Although Lucille Cranwell's are named (Kashan I and II), this artist is not concerned with depicting the figure's individuality. The intention is closer to an effective turning of the tables on the long tradition of the reclining female nude.
Claudia Pond Eyley's stylised and rather monumental drawings, a set of three Reclining Men, similarly pose a male and successfully reverse traditional roles. Her Strutting Men comments clearly on a very male type of posturing.
Mary Mcintyre's Only Wool has Natural Talent cleverly and wittily includes two small scale nudes who support the legend to the picture like little Renaissance putti: her children - you read their names on the horizontal top of the canvas. This is a pointedly amusing work, with its nuclear family of sheep, the ram standing with victor's ribbon, the ewe and lamb passively recumbent and gazing quizzically out at the spectator: an entertaining commentary on patriarchal hierarchies; as are Philippa Blair's three Old School Tie pieces, the Snakes and Ladders construction nicely imaging the easy success of the oldest school tie (Christ's College's black and white) over the more hurdled course of the merely colour-striped as it struggles to snake up to the lowest rung.
These are humorous non-personalised comments: as is Annette Isbey's Knit Shirt for the Ultimate Achiever. Non-personalised also are Marte Szirmay's two symbolic pieces: Slumber, with a moonfaced man's head reflected (narcissistically?) in a mirror, and Everlasting, a boxed and submerged death mask. Sylvia Siddell's non-personalised but anthropomorphised machine Brute works on more painful, emotive levels. It symbolises through juxtaposition of the chainsaw and the crushed vulnerable lacy garments and pillow not a structure but the actual destructive force of man. Reading the image closely you can see scratched on the motor's control knobs the words 'rape' and 'fuck'. There is no doubt about the message here. Again style supports image; the chainsaw carefully and intensely worked up in dense textural black, its jagged gothic saw-edges emphasized and clearly contrasting the light, sensitive, glancing pencil strokes on the pillow. This is a strong image effectively involving a hideous metaphor. Its emotive impact is communicated on a rather more humorous level in two other drawings by this artist, hung together: Behold This Dreamer Cometh and Pretty Boy. Like Brute, both scenes are set in an intimate, bedroom environment. Behold This Dreamer Cometh has orgasmic undulations of sheets as the focus, an ascension of male legs floating out of the picture-space; while Pretty Boy depicts a large-scale self-absorbed budgie positioned on the bed beside the woman, who gazes, quizzically again, out at the viewer.
This exploring of intimate experience together with the very personal style and approach of this artist, makes these works, like Mary Lawlor Bartlett's, for me, among the stronger images in the context of this exhibition: as also are Jackie Fahey's and Carole Shepheard's.
Jackie Fahey's Drinking Couple: Fraser analysing my Words is constructed rather like patchwork fragments, set together, with thickly impastoed areas and collaged pieces (her hand, the bottle label ... ). It operates on a number of levels. On the surface it is a narrative scene; the couple drinking, talking - personalised by the individualising of the figures into self-portrait of the artist with portrait of her husband. The moment chosen: his analysis of her words, he leaning across, physically encroaching on her space, where she (red stripes to his green) forms a flight of jewelled peacock words. She struggles to be heard. This is a subtly chosen moment of male/female interaction, one rarely imaged. It is certainly not based on a reversal of the traditional male self-portrait accompanied by supportive wife, model or muse. It is also an image whose impact is extended and given depth in both a more explicit and enigmatic sense by the meaning conveyed through other objects arranged about the figures: on the mantelpiece the statuette of an erect charioteer and the reproduction of a portrait of a woman communicating with her eyes; the (phallic-) lipstick, the bottle, the crumpled paper and dragonfly perched on a glass in the foreground.
Carole Shepheard's works also operate on many levels, and include a variety of images with both specific and more enigmatic references. They are set within a compartmental framework of twenty-five boxes, five across, five down. The great range of media here sets these works apart from others in the exhibition: she has used photographs, ceramics, sewing, tying, found objects, paint, printmaking, typography, various beautifully speckled hand-made papers ... This variety demonstrates an experimental approach, and it is one which is also being explored in other ways by other women artists here and overseas artists who are in the process of liberating many skills traditionally women's (sewing, embroidery etc.) into the sphere of the so-called fine arts. Such women artists are involved in reassessing the status of the decorative arts and in working in new and evocative combinations of techniques (for example in Judy Chicago's Dinner Party).
The separate images in John, the photographs of crumpled sheets, the crumpled ceramic piece, the photographs of various parts of his body-navel, penis, close-up of eye-lid etc-present the relatively unexplored potential of a combining of the erotic (supported here with the emphasis on softly-lit textural skin, fine hairs) with the highly particularised and personal. And the personhood of the subject is reinforced by other images of him, like the photograph of the man in the role of father standing with his child in a landscape. This kind of presentation and approach opens up, I think, a rather new, refreshing, expansive alternative to the more usual treatment of the portrait and the nude. It also asks questions about conventional boundaries of these genres.
Memories: Fragments and Dreams, similarly presented, describes not the characteristics of one person as he relates to the artist, but a remembered series of responses to emotional situations experienced by the artist in the past. its over-all effect expresses a darker side of the coin to that presented in John. Here feelings sometimes including anger and bitterness, are expressed in a variety of media-from fragments of a wedding photograph and the pressed remains of a wedding bouquet3 to pieces of canvas stretched taut and tied, the centrally boxed bright scarlet gash of paint.
An interesting situation arises from these very personalised autobiographic images - both Jackie Fahey's and Carole Shepheard's It seems to me that the impact of the works is not less accessible because of the very private nature of the work: but rather it is this very quality that imparts strength and significance. It is certainly very refreshing to see in this exhibition as a whole (and the fact that it was organised as a group show by women artists is important) the beginnings, in Auckland, of an alternative perspective-one that explores new approaches.4 This show should reinforce a re-vision of certain assumptions and ways of looking: one very much needed at a time when books like Kenneth Clark's Feminine Beauty (1980) and Norman Mailer's Of Women and their Elegance (1981) continue to spread yet more images of the one-dimensional decorative female around us. What this approach and these writers have to say has been said before. What women have to say now in our literature and in the visual arts challenges that necessarily limited Vitruvian world view where 'men act and women appear'.5 These statements are often new, exploratory, and clearly based within women's (different) experience of the world.
1. Auckland Star, March 17th,
column headed 'it's art before politics'.