Thursday, 3 November 2016

Woman’s Work - Reflections From Invigilators

Reflections from Tom Verity:

Women’s work is an exhibition of a wide range of practices mainly centred on the mediums of craft. The show aims to address the imbalance of representation for women both in history and the arts. Printed in the gallery hand out is a long list of female makers from the midland who were active in the 19th century. The exhibition acts as memorial to their legacy and offers contemporary counterparts who produce art in the same area today, it highlights their practices in a way unfortunately unavailable to the women listed in the catalogue. The list of names was put together by one of the artists, Claire Hickey, whose work defies the out dated ideas of females producing feminine art by working with materials like cement and rebar. She lists the names of prominent women in the arts on to bricks which are laid on the on the floor. The work investigates the power of and desire to simply write your name where everyone can see it, a desire which runs through civilisation from stamped coins to graffiti but which rarely features the names of women. Here the names are carved into bricks paralleling the power of the name with the weight and structure of the brick.

What the list does not take into account but is explicit in the exhibition is homage to women in the artistic workplace.  As the large wall text at the back of the space states, “70% of the workforce at the factory were women”. In the ceramic factories women clearly showed a high level of skill in making that surely would have translated into artistic talent had they not been hindered by the patriarchal system.  Joanne Ayre looks into the double standards and how they were applied to prominent women in the industry. Investigating how women were thought of as the executants of the designs created by men rather than creators themselves. It would be incredibly hard for women to push through these stigmas being disqualified from a fine art education instead encouraged to focus on arts and crafts and even then women were excluded from excluded from influential arts and craft guilds like the Guild of Handicraft (active in Birmingham) and Art Workers’ Guild until 1972. Ayre highlights three women from Stoke-on-Trent who worked in the potteries and tries to fill in the blanks of there under documented careers.

Women’s work does a good job bringing together the work of contemporary female artists as well as photographs of women in the creative workplace taken by Stephanie Rushton and comparing it with the work and roles of women in the past. Much of the work plays with the practice of craft asking how the materials like clay and sewing can be used to question how women are perceived and perceive themselves in the twenty-first century. The photographs act as a link between past and present showing the strong tradition of female creatives in the area.

Reflections from Emilie Atkinson - Strength & Woman’s Work

During the time spent talking to visitors of Woman’s Work I was often asked one question. Is the show really showing the full breadth of woman’s work? The strength required for many jobs women undertake, many thought was not illustrated - and they thought that that was an issue. The show does have a focus on creative practitioners and mediums often associated with the feminine. “Dainty’ work one visitor said – “embroidery and ceramic flower making”. 

Whilst some aspects of this is true it’s hard to look at Claire Hickey’s work - large concrete casts of large and her handmade clay bricks - without thinking of her body dealing with these heavy materials in the studio as well as the female body and it’s changes due to pregnancy that the work comments on. Both these aspects of the work depict the (perhaps underestimated)  strength of women and the female body. Similarly Stephanie Rushton’s piece Women Workers, generously illustrates the breadth of industries that employ women and the tasks that they carry out - women heaving heavy buckets of slip, or clambering in skirts on heavy-duty machinery, for example. And then there’s the work of Monique Besten, despite documenting her work through embroidering suits, Besten uses walking as her medium to reflect on life. The artist takes long durational walks of 100+ days carrying all her own possessions  illustrating huge strength and independence.

However, I think this show also demonstrates other forms of ‘strength’ associated with women’s work - mental strength as opposed to physical. Phoebe Cummings work talks of the night, a time to work alone once the children are asleep. After completing the work of mother during the day, huge motivational strength must drive this desire to extend the hours she works. Same in seen Jo Ayre’s work Jessie, reflecting on Jessie Tait’s studio pottery that she made outside of her paid design work. Monique Besten walks alone, independently for days, without a plan, which must draw on huge amounts of mental strength, focus and drive. Women have always taken on the responsibilities of homemaking and nurturing children alone, only now are we starting to see changes. These jobs whilst seen as less strenuous as male work come with equal responsibilities and the threat of isolation and loneliness that requires mental strength to overcome. The labelling of strenuous work itself perhaps needs challenging if we are to see the work both men and women do as equal.

Reflections from Jack Waddington:

Gender inequality is still evident in the arts. There is a longing for equality within a patriarchal art society and things are moving forward, with a considerable amount of female fine artists being recognised and working in respectable roles. This year, three of the four nominees for the Turner Prize are female, and with the annual prize being one of the most recognised in the world, it is a forceful statement. Within the institution, the majority of fine-arts graduates are female which is similarly encouraging. Woman’s Work mainly seeks to celebrate female practitioners past and present, showcasing an involved group of contemporary female artists who offer commentary on the history of gender concerns.

Monique Besten welcomes the public to the gallery with her ‘Waking Suit’ hung in the window display. Her nomadic excursions invite conversations and dialogue that she records through embroidering her hand-stitched suit.

Claire Hickey’s sculptural works are self-referential in their exploration of the female condition. She combines materials such as clay, wax, plaster and concrete to form moulds and casts that respond to topics of personal tensions and historical struggle. Elevated slightly from the ground by a traditional plinth, sits the first of her sculptural collection. A stack of found bricks and concrete blocks interact with small soft blobs, one of which is encased within the womb of the concrete block, a metaphor of Hickey’s experiences of the duality of being a sculptor whilst also nursing an infant. Three clay tablets that lay on top of a shelf reveal clay forms that respond to various emotions or sensations.

Her two other floor based sculptures expose a firmness and sense of solidity as she loudly celebrates and recognises the ‘female practitioner’. Hickey shares a grid-like collection of bricks that are dedicated to forgotten female practitioners of 19th century Birmingham, imprinting their names on the bricks in ‘Untitled (Equivalent)’.

Surrounding Hickeys sculptures are more representational works on the gallery walls. Stephanie Rushton presents ‘Looking at the Overlooked’, a series of photographic prints mounted on Aluminium. She shows environmental portraits depicting various female creative practitioners in their studios and workshops. Taking up the end wall, ‘Workforce’ is a billboard print of the Spode workshop, whilst a slideshow of archival monochromatic imagery from the Potteries Museum of females in their workspaces loops beside it.

Phoebe Cummings displays a delicate clay bouquet of flora of natural forms. The temporality of the sculpture reflects a women’s multipurpose workplace and it’s transient existence. Often female ceramists would work from home, at night whilst their children sleep, on a kitchen table, which would function as a temporary workshop table.

Joanne Ayre’s work occupies the enclosed darkened room at the end of the gallery, offering her initial thoughts for her year long Woman’s Work Residency. She invites us into her own cabinet of curiosities, staging intimate responses to the lives and truths of three women who worked in the Potteries.

From the content of the show, it is clear that there is an array of talent amongst existing and preceding female practitioners. Women have unjustly not had the opportunity to be recognised as often as men have within the art realm and this has narrowed their possibilities to be noticed and appreciated by a wider audience. Historically, A gender has been overlooked, most prominently in manufacturing where most female practitioners would have to work, in turn abandoning a prospect to use their artistic skills within the fine arts. The exhibition flourishes in its attempt to protect and expose the unobserved.

Woman’s Work is a partnership project between AirSpace Gallery and The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Woman’s Work seeks to make visible the hidden and unsung labour carried out by women in the home, the workplace and public life, and in particular seeks to redress the imbalance in history and the arts, where work made by women has been undervalued, or simply not recognised.

The exhibition is open at AirSpace Gallery 11am - 5pm, Thursday - Saturday, 30th September to 5th November 2016. The evolving Woman’s Work programme at Potteries Museum and Art Gallery runs through to November 2017.

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