The Art Diary February 2023 – Revd Jonathan Evens

Big Women

2023 begins in Essex with a focus on female experience and perceptions of life changes, embodiment, and the world around them. The largest focus for images and experiences is the Firstsite Gallery in Colchester which is hosting BIG WOMEN, an exhibition curated by Sarah Lucas.

This exhibition “of sculpture, painting, film and fashion,” Lucas says, is “both an endorsement and a celebration of women’s achievement in the creative field” in an increasingly ageist society where the “older woman is often overlooked, irrelevant, without currency.” The exhibition “aspires to be thought-provoking, funny, serious, attractive and fun”, With Lucas claiming we need all those “in these times dominated by male aggression, politicking, greed, war and pig-headedness.”

Following on from the SEÑORA! Exhibition in Vienna in 2020, this exhibition featuring 24 British women artists, in the words of Sally Shaw MBE, Director of Firstsite, “celebrates the many female forms, the transformations women experience all through life, and how these changes provide freedom of expression.” Creativity, she says, has no age limit and “this amazing group of artists show how growing older can be liberating, and something to be revelled in.” The exhibition shows the  strength and resolve, inventiveness and imagination required to ride those “big ‘body events’ – in particular, the momentous shift which occurs in body and mind during peri-menopause and the menopause.”

Lilith, Eve and Salome
Renata Adela, Lilith I – Hammerhead Venus, 2018, © Renata Adela, courtesy The Artist

BIG WOMEN is bold, brash and brazen, as is needed to embrace the oversized and curvaceous nature of the crescent-shaped Firstsite building. Yet, the variety and diversity found within this exhibition means it is by no means only a one-trick pony, with sensuality and spirituality, as well as satire, also be found in the mix. The main galleries begin and end with fashion statements from Pam Hogg and Yoko Brown. Hogg’s Prophecy began with an altar cloth from an Italian church which, amid its many embellishments, asks the question, ‘Will there be a morning / Will there be a mourning’. Brown’s dress, by contrast, simply turns its wearer into a flower. Merilyn Humphries and Renata Adela create new and positive images of Eve and Lillith, while also exploring Eden and Christmas (Humphries) and death (Adala). Rachel Howard’s St Veronica Reads the News has been well described by Craig Burnett as “a veil applied and withdrawn from the world’s anxious brow”, anguish “transformed into a kind of beauty, or understanding, by becoming a picture.”

Complementing BIG WOMEN is The (Un) Holy Trinity by Laura Jean Healey on Big Screen Southend, a purpose-built display screen adjacent to Focal Point Gallery in Southend. These three films take a deep dive into an ancient legend to explore the biblical notion of the ‘fallen woman’.

Healey’s inspiration comes from three legendary women inspired by the Bible

– who, throughout history, have been vilified for their ‘unwomanly’ ways and used to caution men as to the destructive nature of female sexuality if left unchecked. The three filmed performances explore these so-called ‘fallen’ women in their moment of defiance to both challenge the male gaze and to question the demonised perceptions of the so-called “unnatural” woman.

Visual artist and filmmaker Healey uses the visual language of cinema to create large cinematic installations that explore the nature of the cinematic experience. In particular, she examines the camera’s inherently voyeuristic ‘male’ gaze, the role and objectification of women within art and film, and the desire such representation raises within the spellbound spectator. As such, each of these three films celebrates these women for their supposedly ‘unwomanly’ ways and draws upon the moment in which each woman asserts her own will; revealing her true inner strength in order to achieve her own sense of autonomy and defy the traditional, suffocating role that has been allotted to them throughout history. By extension, the films seek to force the audience to question why these ingrained perceptions still exist today.

Canadian artist Liz Magor
Oilmen’s Bonspiel, 2017, Liz Magor, courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery New York

Upcoming at Focal Point Gallery is the first major solo exhibition in an English institution by Canadian artist Liz Magor. She is well known internationally for work that resurrects uncared for items and moments from the recent past, creating a visual doubletake of things appearing one way but being quite another. The centre of her work is to be found in the peripheral, often replicating the overlooked trappings of daily life and re-presenting them in new contexts. Things such as blankets, containers, clothing and toys are found in relationships that generate a sense of care and meaning beyond their original use or need.

Liz Magor: The Rise and The Fall offers a focused selection of work from the last five years that considers her understanding of the presence of ‘agency’ within inanimate, material objects and her enquiry as to the source of their intrigue and emotional resonance. Creating new and expanded associations by transforming ubiquitous, manufactured objects that often go unnoticed, Magor draws attention to the objects’ original intentions to satisfy our need for protection, comfort, and affirmation. The way in which her work draws attention to discarded and apparently mundane objects seems particularly relevant to current discussions about the economy of things and the role of material in our social, political and psychological lives.

Bridget Smith Harvest
Bridget Smith, Harvest I, 2022, Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Bridget Smith hails from Leigh-on-Sea and was, in 2019, commissioned by Focal Point Gallery to create a public artwork celebrating two former industrial laundries, The Albany and Sunlight, found in two locations along the Prittle Brook Greenway in Southend. Working in photography, video and installation, she interrogates the relationships we have with our environment, exploring the spaces in which we seek connection and transportation. Her latest exhibition – Field Recordings at Frith Street Gallery – considers the natural world using a range of mediums, all connected by circular motifs which may evoke the sun and the moon.

Claire Cansick Double Moon
Bridget Smith, Double Moon, 2022 (still), Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Weather Report is an ever-expanding sculpture that documents the changing seasons with their fluctuating weather and light. The work takes the form of a disk woven from freshwater bulrushes created over two distinct periods. Harvest is a series of new photographs depicting sculptural piles of harvested rush. Silver Moons is a series of tintypes depicting twelve luminescent spheres. Each luminescent sphere hovers in what appears to be the deep black of space, conjuring thoughts of the moon and its phases. A set of smaller, postcard-sized tintypes and ambrotypes capture and document unclassified natural objects, recalling still unknown realms such as the depths of the ocean or outer space. Double Moon is a 14-minute film of a moon rising in the evening sky, its reflection mirrored on the earth below. In this film, we observe the changing relationship between the two moons, the land and sea, during the transition from twilight to complete darkness until all that remains is a central, mesmeric dance of circular light. Through this exhibition, the viewer is asked to consider the universe from a multitude of perspectives, being present at the moment while contemplating the passing of time. As the exhibition progresses, the circular becomes cyclical, referencing an endless turn and return.

Claire Cansick’s work is associated with paintings of nature’s dynamism and humanity’s imprint on the landscape. She is particularly conscious of climate change and its threat, having observed and recorded this through her work based on travelling in Asia. Influenced by Joseph Albers ‘Interaction With Colour’, which had a profound effect on how she viewed the palette the world presented, the idea that colour is more than science and has a magic quality is emblematic in her work.

Nick Stone writes: “Nature is her primary subject, with an emphasis on the beauty and power of elemental forces; her focus has been primarily on water in its reflective capacity, but also the earth and the growing environment, air, and the play of light and dark within skies and cloud, and more recently the power of fire … Her work delves into our perceptions of the relationship between nature and us, reflecting her own interactions and merging them with emotional responses and memories, while manipulating colour to transform reality into an almost hypnotic dreamlike state, exploring how the mind adjusts reality into a reflection of wonder, filtered through the enhanced and embellished hazy distortion of memory.”

Alongside Cansick’s work are complementary ceramics – unique, hand-built sculptural vessels, which are first biscuit fired and then Raku fired or smoked – by Ursula Stroh-Rubens. Her visual language has been shaped by the evidence of cultural origins and the land, as well as nature and architecture, found in Greece. Birds, trees, skies and land all emerge out of the slips, pigments and fire, which form the process of building the pot for Stroh-Rubens.

Finally, Well House Gallery, the first purpose-built gallery in Thurrock, has revamped its exhibition programme to host a continuous and ever-changing exhibition while expanding its portfolio of exhibiting artists. Among the female artists currently showing work are: Jude Caisley, whose paintings are full of energy, vibrant colour, movement and freedom, her aim is to uplift and inspire life in the viewer, and Judy Logan, who explores her intuitions through images that are sometimes colourful, contemporary and figurative, and sometimes mediated via the dark antics of crows and ravens.

Top Photo Courtesy Firstsite

BIG WOMEN: Curated by Sarah Lucas, 11 February – 18 June 2023, Firstsite.

Big Screen Southend Associate Programme: Elleanna Chapman, Laura Jean Healey, Joe King and Rosie Pedlow, and David Valentine, 11 January to 3 March 2023, Big Screen Southend.

Liz Magor: The Rise and The Fall, 5 March to 10 June 2023, Focal Point Gallery.

Bridget Smith: Field Recordings, 27 January to 11 March 2023, Frith Street Gallery.

Claire Cansick: A collection of drawings, 4 to 26 February 2023, Chappell Galleries.

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