New Women Artists at The Govett-Brewster


The question that keeps occurring to me in relation to the exhibition of New Women Artists at the Govett-Brewster exhibition is: 'Is gender enough? Is the fact that all these artists are women a good and sufficient reason for grouping them together in a single show?'

CHARO OQUET The snake tamer 1984
acrylic and oil on unstretched canvas, 2090 x 1880 mm.

If you believe that women artists get a raw deal from the art world and need a compensating or alternative showcase from time to time, gender may well be enough; but Jenny Neligan, curator of New Women Artists does not believe this. In her introduction to the catalogue she writes:
I do not think women are discriminated against in the visual arts today. They are producing the goods and provided the goods are of quality the work gets through.

What, then, were her criteria for selecting this exhibition? Neither feminist or other political content (some works have it, others don't); nor unity of style or media (the former ranges from abstract to representational, the latter through painting, photography, installations and sculpture in a variety of materials); nor a common artistic intention provide the linking thread for the show.

CHRISTINE WEBSTER Craigwell House - Patrick Waller 1984
cibachrome colour photograph, 526 x 508 mm.

Ms Neligan states that she was looking for 'work that reflected the 'eighties, not to define any style but to convey an impression of Now, as the film Diva does and the magazine Metro ..,'But just how do the paintings of Delyn Williams or Pauline Thompson fit into the image of the spirit, colour and energy of the eighties' that the exhibition is supposed to present? There's enough compelling work in New Women Artists to show that, with a clearer purpose and more rigorous selection, Jenny Neligan could indeed have put together an exhibition that would, in her own words, 'knock your eyes out.'

Many of the best works in the show have a disquieting, somewhat menacing quality, either overt or suggested. One of the most striking is Angela Porteous's Hang-up - twenty-five moulded wax legs suspended by meathooks from a square metal grid. The brilliant pink of the legs is muted by mutton-cloth 'stockings' which stretch tautly down to the floor to end in twenty-five pale blue high-heeled shoes. On the floor, bands of mutton-cloth are stretched outwards from a central point to form a scalloped square base for the work.

moulded wax legs, mutton cloth and concrete 2000 x 7000 x 7000 mm.

Hang-up is an unequivocally feminist work. In the only artist's statement in the catalogue, Porteous says:
The woman's body is the vehicle by which she not only perceives herself in society but by which society views her ... the legs are totem objects, objects of desire and denial.

The equation of women's legs with legs of mutton might have seemed a cliché: but the formal simplicity and strength of the work, its exploitation of the inherent qualities of materials such as stretchy mutton-cloth, and the tension between soft colours and materials and the disturbing, even brutal content, make Hang-up an undeniably effective piece.

DEBRA BUSTIN Untitled Installation  1984
canvas, wood, enamel, wire, paper, etc., approximately 3000 x 5200 x 600 mm.

Charo Oquet's large passionate canvases, vibrant with brilliant colour and expressionistic brushwork, are also unashamedly political. Big Boy contrasts bullying muscular masculinity with limp downtrodden womanhood; While All the Good Men Watched, with its stabbed and bleeding child figure kneeling in lurid landscape and its row of passive onlookers (including two blood-spattered Ku Klux Klansmen), comments on those who complacently observe the suffering of others. The most violent, yet in some ways the most positive, of Oquet's works is The Snake Tamer, an ambiguous but powerful female image of sexual threat and power.

Sexual ambiguity of a different order is one element, in Christine Webster's three colour photographs of a near-androgynous young man. Webster's consciously-posed works, with their idiosyncratic use of colour, exploit and express the artifice and fantasy of the punk style, cutting right across the grain of the documentary genre which has been so dominant in New Zealand photography, Her images are bizarre - though not aggressively so - and very much of the 'eighties; yet a work like Craigwell House - Patrick Waller has a resonance that carries beyond fad and fashion into the realms of symbol and myth.

DELYN WILLIAMS Like always wearing lipstick 1984
oil on canvas, 1854 x 2413 mm.

Androgyny occurs also in Nancy de Freitas's paintings with their sexless nudes floating in space or seated in large bare rooms. I found these less interesting than her 1980 paintings in which bald, featureless, yet obviously female figures were compressed and constrained by their environments. Perhaps de Freitas is aiming here at more subtle portrayals of psychological states; however, the dryness of her style, with its sharp edges, severely restricted colour and precise tonal definition, demands a strong foil in terms of subject-matter if her work is not to seem merely academic.

NANCY de FREITAS  Passage on a landing 1983/84
acrylic on cotton duck, 1320 x 1150 mm.

Heather Busch also uses near-monochrome and detailed description of light and shade in her enamel-smooth paintings; but to very different effect. The horrific central figure of The Hostage - a screaming woman seated in an empty bath, with dress rucked up to expose thighs and pubic hair, one ban holding a magnifying glass to her huge red mouth; the spirit-figure reaching out from behind the elaborately cardiganed breast of an old spent woman in Holding - these are unforgettable images. The intricately-painted surfaces of cloth and hair, old gnarled fingers and wrinkled skin twist and writhe disconcertingly.

HEATHER BUSCH The hostage 1982
oil on board, 600 x 780 mm.

There are a number of three-dimensional works in New Women Anists. Debra Bustin's installations are always colourful, bursting with vitality, and the untitled work in this exhibition is no exception. Arranged behind a large-meshed net, her 'jungle' environment is a little like a Paul Klee painting in three dimensions - though shinier and gaudier - with its theatre-like box ion the centre, its floating fish and imaginary animals, its air of fantasy. Despite the whimsy, the gloss and colour and springing life, there is an edge of terror in Bustin's work - screaming mouths, spiky hands, clutched and bound, menacingly humanoid trees, birds with sharp squawking beaks, the jagged aggressiveness of zig and zag.

BIANCA van RANGELROOY Emblazon 1984
acrylic on paper with brass rod, 1400 x 870 x 200 mm.

In comparison Bianca van Rangelrooy's brass rod and paper constructions seem tidy and insubstantial. On the other hand, Ingrid Banwell's painted custom-wood constructions have a robustness and a controlled energy that is very pleasing. In these wall-mounted pieces Banwell layers thickly encrusted cut out shapes in an essentially two-dimensional exploration of space. In Border Management free forms are controlled, if not contained, by geometric 'borders'; whereas in Space Invader the exuberant curving forms burst out from a jagged central ring. Though her repertoire of forms is similar to Bustin's - the zig-zag, the spiral, the front, the jagged tooth - Banwell's have more solidity and weight; her patterns are more geometrical, her colours more restricted, muted and rich - pink-reds and orange-reds, a whole forest of greens, yellows, green-blues, black and white.

PAULINE THOMPSON Molesworth Street in winter 1981
oil on canvas board, 508 x 610 mm.

Finally, Leonie Arnold's Five Heads - life-size terracotta heads, with the marks of their making clearly visible, and partially glazed in bands and circles of red, white and black - have a new gutsy quality as well as something of the enigmatic characteristic of her work.

The skill and the intensity which most of the artists bring to their work, and the variety of media included make New Women Artists a very interesting exhibition. With a sharper focus it could have been outstanding.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 32 Spring 1984