Saturday, 24 October 2009

The Rise of Women Artists @ Walker Art Gallery

Lady artistes seems to be in vogue at the moment. Angels of Anarchy is making waves over at Manchester Art Gallery, and, apparently timed to coincide with their Bridget Riley micro-retrospective, Walker Art Gallery presents The Rise of Women Artists.

Though prominently asking questions - Does the gender of an artist matter? Should artists be labelled? Are decorative arts any less significant than paintings? - this exhibition stoically refuses to make any kind of argument. It is like a rather earnest, rambling, but not well developed, discussion of the possibilities art holds for the fairer sex.

Frankly, for me, the whole thing got off to a pretty poor start. Right by the entrance, a corner of tapestry seems to imply needle work was automatically creative art and the women who practised this craft automatically artists. To begin an exhibition with such a un-nuanced and wrong footed statement doesn’t inspire. At the end of the day, even though undoubtedly some women found creative output in stitching dainty napkins, isn’t it a bit like stating that all children working in Primarni sweatshops are somehow fashion designers?

Laying aside the oppressive curatorial notes, this is both a beautiful and pointless exhibition. Beautiful, because it brings together an incongruous collection of art and objects from a broad selection of periods and practises, with nothing more than the impossibly broad remit of gender. Pointless, because it evokes one of my favourite types of gallery space: those small regional collections where works are placed together without the stifling dependency on movements, periods and themes. Art for enjoyment, rather than didactically forced interpretation.

If this exhibition serves to illuminate anything, rather than the subject of females who make stuff, it is the tension between art and culture. Teapots and needlework may not be art, but they are certainly cultural objects. Neither, I'm certain, is it historically accurate to designate the decorative arts as women's work. It’s just unfortunate that this delicious oscillation has to be sidelined by a clumsy faux-wave-feminist essay.

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