Archives for category: National Institution

I was early to meet a friend for this little art trip, so I lurked in the bookshop. I picked up a copy of Matt Houlbrook’s ‘Queer London’. The blurb contained the following line:

He also describes how London shaped the politics of queer life; and how London was in turn shaped by the lives of queer men.

Queer men, everyone. Not queer people, or the queer community, you’ll notice. This level of erasure of queer women (hello) and non-binary folk did not instil me with great hopes for the exhibition. I was livid before I’d even got through the door.

So I went in thinking it’d be a bit shit and fall short of what the British Queer community deserve. Tate seems to be aware of how easy it is to mess up shows like this. The wall text set out a lot of boundaries and caveats – the show looks at the specific time period 1861 – 1967, the dates of the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy and the partial decriminalisation of sex between men respectively. These dates don’t refer to gay women and it was highlighted throughout the show that gay women were largely ignored by the law. This isn’t the Tate’s fault, obviously, but it irks me nonetheless. The text did contain this nice little phrase ‘this is a history punctuated by bonfires and dustbins’, which succinctly encapsulates the violence experienced by the queer community throughout history. But they’ve also claimed that there is ‘little surviving material’ for some aspects of queer life, which increased my apprehension about whose perspectives the show would platform.

Simeon Solomon’s ‘The Bride, the Bridegroom and Sad Love’ 1865

Like queer history, the show focuses mostly on gay men. Tate did well to try to show a diverse view of queer identities, including two lovers identifying as one person, and various relationships of three people or more. But it is largely a show about white cis gay men.
Diversity of experience aside, the multiplicity of feeling in queer life is shown well. Aubrey Beardsley’s uproarious, erotic and high lols drawings depicts men with massive cocks literally bigger than them. Homoeroticism, sex and humour are at the forefront of these images. Compare these to Simeon Solomon’s The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love, a devastating drawing showing the heartbreak of a homosexual entering into a heterosexual marriage, and leaving behind former lovers. There’s a richness of sexuality and emotion in the works on show.

Aubrey Beardsley ‘The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors’ 1896

Rooms 3 & 4 are nicely juxtaposed, showing two opposite sides of queerness living side by side. ‘Theatrical types’ in room 4 showcases the camp and the glam of queerness, our love of feathers and tiaras, how the theatrical arena has long been a safe space for queer people. This room, with its costumes and photographs of Vaudeville cross dressing stars, is the art historical equivalent of Pride and Drag Race.

Leaving behind the glitz and glamour, the next room, ‘Bloomsbury and Beyond’, is filled largely with images of domesticity, of afternoon tea and vases of flowers. Ethel Sands’ Tea with Sickert shows a warm domestic scene with the table laid for tea, and is hardly an explicit or erotic depiction of homosexuality. Here is the deeply mundane, sheer normality of queer life. In the words of comedian Susan Calman, it’s not all sex swings and dildos.

Ethel Sands’ ‘Tea with Sickert’ 1911-12

A blockbuster show of Queer Art in a major institution is quite something. Undoubtedly it demonstrates the relatively new openness that surrounds the LGBT+ community, and is something to be celebrated as a mark of ‘how far we’ve come’. It’s also easy to get wrong. Tate has managed OK, there are numerous portrayals of non gay-cis-white-male aspects of queerness, and Tate has addressed some shortfallings directly, such as pointing out Edward Wolfe’s racist exoticisation of his black male models, but failed entirely to reference any gay women of colour. Filling the last room with Hockney and Bacon underlined the prominence of white cis gay artists on the queer art scene. Perhaps this is why I found the show a bit dull. If the remit of the show extended past 1967 maybe Tate would not be able to hide behind history as a reason for omitting aspects of queer life.

 

This event was mad educational. I’m not particularly hot on my art history, but this 2010 film highlights how pretty much nobody is hot on women’s art history, and how women’s art is consistently undervalued and under-documented.

The At one point in the film, pundits outside an art gallery were asked to name 3 women artists. One of them managed to name Frida Kahlo, and everyone else drew a blank. A succinct summary of the state of affairs. 

Artist Sarah Turner’s introductory talk raised an interesting argument about the difference between women’s and men’s art during the feminist movement. Turner argues that female artists were outward looking, their art consistently relevant to and fighting against the real life conditions of the day, whereas male artists were concerned with their own legacy. She described this as women’s art being about content as much as form. This necessary outward engagement is the reason that for years there was a black hole in art history where there should have been women. White male artists’ privilege allowed them to focus on themselves and on art itself to ensure their own place in art history – they didn’t have to spend their time fighting for their bodies and their rights. Women had to address the real world in their art because the real world was treating them like shit.

I learnt so much about women artists and the feminist movement from this evening. The film discussed the art of Ana Mendieta, exiled Cuban American artist, whose work dealt with the body, feminism, and displacement. I had never heard of her. She fell to her death from a 34th story window, with her artist husband, Carl Andre, accused (and acquitted) of her murder. Her art was used by Andre’s defence as evidence that her death had been suicide. 

Liv Wynter, poet and representative of WHEREISANAMENDIETA, gave an enlightening and inspiring introductory talk. I got all fired up about her work making art available to everyone – she works with youth groups, reenacting performance works performed by Ana Mendieta, who herself had been reenacting another artist’s performance. There’s some beautiful rebirth in this.

!WAR does not shy away from the conflict within the feminist movement. There are tales of Judy Chicago making other women cry. B Ruby Rich is visibly and verbally angry at the Guerilla Girls’ lack of response to Ana Mendieta’s murder. The film shows that the feminist art movement was the most important art movement in the 20th century, but failed to solve the problems it raised. So it is down to female artists now to continue the fight. 

As I say, I learnt loads watching this. I would have liked to see more discussion of the role that race and sexuality played in the feminist art movement. Introductions by Club de Femmes mentioned queerness but it wasn’t raised at all in the film, and I think only two artists discussed their race, and that was briefly. From an intersectional perspective this film was missing those key elements. 

I feel like I have a whole side of art history to learn.

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[Disclaimer – I whizzed round this exhibition because so little of it grabbed me.]

Robert Rauschenberg may have been the father of pop art but I was less than head over heels with this exhibition. His Red Paintings seemed dull rather than revolutionary, and the wall of his collage-esque silkscreens was uninspiring. These were new and innovative when Rauschenberg first made them, but their visual aesthetic is now so ubiquitous that it reminded me of the way we covered our GCSE art sketchbooks with various related images to make them look cool and arty. Although maybe that’s the point – his revolutionary has become our ordinary.

I did enjoy the goat. It’s pleasantly fitting that Rauschenberg really struggled to fit the notoriously stubborn goat into his art. He tried many goat compositions with none of them working, until he rammed it through a tire and voila.

I found the first room  by far the most exciting, showing his experimentation with everyday materials and the role of the artist in the creation of work. Rauschenberg barely contributed physically to the John Cage, Automobile Tire Print (1953), a long thin black tyre tread. Rauschenberg poured the paint, but Cage drove the car and made the image. So who made the work?

I picked out Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) from afar for the aesthetics of the work, but totally lost my shit when I realised what was going on. Ostensibly just a grubby piece of paper in a gold frame, this is a work of conceptual genius. Rauschenberg had asked de Kooning to make a drawing which Rauschenberg could then erase. This work is a collaboration with de Kooning, or an ex de Kooning, an authorised undoing. A destruction and a creation. I’m still fangirling over this.

I can appreciate that Rauschenberg’s work has incredible artistic value, but alas many of his pieces were just not to my taste. Having said that, his experimental work where there is a blur around the question of markmaker as artist absolutely blew me away. Maybe with a little more understanding I’ll warm to him as an acquired taste.