A Fake’s Progress

Prompted by Sarah Taylor and Magali Nougarède’s forthcoming exhibition, Labour Exchange at Bay Art Gallery, Cardiff I wondered how I might combine this celebratory event with something cringe-worthy? I had the greatest of pleasures assisting with the install of Sarah Taylor’s work at Crescent Arts. We shared a mutual Green Shield Stamps interest, she turned me on to “Landscape for a good Woman” by Carolyn Steadman and “Imperial Leather” by Anne McClintock. She told me it was ok when I was floundering with my perceptions or projected perceptions of Feminism. We spent an memorable evening with Stuart Cameron over the road…look out for those pics on my Flickr. I wrote about Taylor’s work for a writer’s prize. The bastards didn’t even reply to my submission. I figure the writing excruciating but here it is below, unedited…it isn’t my fault, I inherited a gregarious use of words from my mum…if i can use a millionty where one would suffice I will. Thanks mum!

Queen for a Day Recycled fabric oil on linen various dimensions 2011

A Fake’s Progress: An Allegory

Visual art making and appreciation in the twenty-first century is, of course, gender- and class-less. Whilst the cannons of art history cannot be re-written, what was heralded as the dawn of A Golden Age is celebrated matter-of-factly. This is the Age of Equality.

But we know that story is fictional.

Sarah Taylor’s tender exhibition A Fake’s Progress, shown recently at Crescent Arts[1], sought to recognise the marginalised position held by women artists within a class-conscious and historical context, commenting on cultural and socio-political extremities. We can argue that polarisation is ingrained as part of the English cultural fabric: what has changed, or more importantly, what is changing is for history to decide. The abstract paintings selected from two powerful series of paintings, Prior Arrangements and The Backside of Labour, generate dialogue relating to aspiration: to count as painting, the most aristocratic of art forms.

Unlike Hogarth and engaging in a post-modern catharsis rather than focusing on a direct figurative narrative Taylor selects and presents windows of nuanced, allegorical abstract imagery.

Queen for a Day, and Aspirational Beauty, both from Prior Arrangements,  reference Coronation Street and imperialism, profiting in their composition by using various items of domestic culture. Mark Twain’s observation “the clothes make the man” applies and Taylor directs the viewer towards feminine territories, namely decoration and domesticity.[2] Queen for a Day, using a formal presentation of found materials individually stretched over painting stretchers or painterly reproductions of found photographs and objects, is laden with symbolic references and arranged in ‘lots’ as in auction houses.

Queen for a Day, Aspirational Beauty and Well Red lavishly yet casually adorn richly pigmented English Heritage ‘museum green’ walls.[3] Nobly Well Red, the first painting encountered on entering the exhibition space, and made for the exhibition, revisits The Royal Academy’s Great Room circa 1780 when leading male academicians jostled for their pictures getting as near as possible to the “line” (traditionally a wooden moulding running around the walls about 8ft from the floor)[4]. The paintings reserved for the “line” were of historical subjects or portraiture. Well Red in fact looms, albeit majestically, somewhere between eye-level and the ignominious ‘skied’ position, for the viewer must look up slightly, or stand back, to experience it fully.

Well Red towers opposite the floored Aspirational Beauty: together they triumph as indicators of associative gender positioning. Both are tactile in their use of material. Well Red depicts flock wallpaper, the motif appropriated from a bottle of bathroom air freshener vaguely evocative of the Rorschach test. Who looked out from the mirror metaphorically buried behind the faded flock? Do women shield themselves behind an aspirational mirror of propriety? Historically the estimation of propriety clearly only carries any clout having conceded to rules operating under patriarchal governance. Propriety indicates the dainty steps once expected from women artists and acceptable patterns of behaviour from the ‘fairer’ sex.[5]

Crescent Arts, a 30-year-old charity organisation housing artist studios and accompanying gallery resides in the former kitchen underneath Scarborough Art Gallery. The building, former residence of John Uppleby a solicitor and developer of The Crescent, maintains something of its ‘upstairs, downstairs’ heritage and whilst the master / servant relationship has thankfully been quashed here, the two establishments face unresolved contention between traditionalism, conceptualism and the place of contemporary art in the Art Gallery. This also remains an issue between gender and class: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisioning herself walking and weeping.”[6] The painting depicts two shades of the same pseudo- Morris wallpaper inspired by that covering the grand staircase in the Art Gallery above. The reality indicated by the painting is that vital and repetitive female characteristics are continually denied whilst patriarchy demands ‘wall flowers’ of women.[7] Enveloping the gender and art historical imbalance is, of course, the striking issue of class (“…defined by a father’s occupation”[8]) as satirised by Hogarth.

Back to our pitiful antihero the misguided Rake, sordid spendthrift spawn of the mercantile, aspirational class.[9] The paintings forming the series The Underside of Labour, including Dunn & Co, American Pillowcase and It’s a Dream it’s Harela critique the cloth industry, presenting abstract images composed through study of the underside of embroidered clothing labels. These labels also provide a parody, visually mimicking the ‘great masculine tradition’ of American Abstract Expressionism. American Pillowcase, for example, unlike the spiritual gloom serenaded by Rothko’s mega canvases, is soft, shy, fluffy and bursting with faded machismo.

The fashion house producing garments, with the label prominently displayed, marks quality today. The wearers worth, determined by the brand, is emblazoned (think of the seemingly stellar rise of “Jack Wills – University Outfitters”). This relates to the basis of Taylor’s research – post-war desire: “Changes in the market place, the growth of real income and the proliferation of consumer goods that marked the mid-1950s, were used by my mother to measure out her discontent: there existed a newly expanding and richly endowed material world in which she was denied a place.”[10]

Dunn & Co, a large canvas, allegorises on the arrogance of male virility: white drips likened to abandoned, reckless, weeping, machine-gun ejaculation arouses suspicion and frames the central motif, a sickly yellow flaccid phallus. Dunn & Co suggests patriarchy as an authority meted out not just through gender dominance but also by the upper class towards the working class.

The ‘out-of-reach’ nature governed by gender inequality is neatly demonstrated by the curatorial decision to place Informal Education (an education in form and colour) riding atop the mantelpiece of the magnificent cast-iron oven, an intriguing focal point dominating the workshop space in Crescent Arts. The composite image Informal Education is gallant and iconographic, satirising middle and upper class affectation and superiority noting the mantelpiece as a place where a clock, figurine or social engagement invitations might be self-consciously displayed. Traditionally ‘the heart’ of the home, the oven signifies her nurturing role. What happens when a woman challenges a male-centric world? From an historical perspective, how has the art world accommodated women artists? The following quote points to an answer: “Often the only way critics can praise a woman artist is to say that ‘she paints like a man’, as Charles Baudelaire commented on Eugénie Gautier in 1846.”[11]

Informal Education is made up of six squares, utilizing recycled fabric and painted linen, of varying dimensions. The overall image is the legacy of Suprematism through Op Art and satirises Alfred H. Barr Jr’s proclamation: “Each generation must paint its own black square.”[12] The proponents of geometric abstraction feature and politely criticise the role bestowed on women artists within a hierarchical, predominantly male dominated world. Bridget Riley’s popularity here is bound to design, assimilation into popular culture and market profitability.[13] The image incorporating former headscarves and t-shirts balanced alongside unemotional original oil paintings, referencing Malevich and Martin, may spuriously recognise Hogarth’s Marriage A-la Mode speculating on balancing morality with aspiration, envy, desire and possession[14] and of interpreting the history of art sequentially: a tradition that emphasised painting over printmaking, for example, or history painting over, say, still life.

Informal Education, a gridded equation to be pondered[15], engages in a dialogue regarding the hierarchy of genre, the future of the market place, class and gender. “Informal Education is Taylor’s interpretation both of her inheritance and her desire as a painter, including at the level of materials – the dishcloths, silk scarves and head-squares – feminism’s challenge to the exclusion of high modernism: the domestic, fashion, popular culture.”[16]

The striking immediacy of A Fake’s Progress is of paramount importance whilst the hash tag Aspiration Nation, as bandied about following this year’s budget, desperately flails alongside an attack on humanities subjects in schools and cuts to arts organisations. “Like going to sleep by contrasting a bed with a pavement, I sometimes find myself thinking that if the worst comes to the worst, I can always earn a living by my hands; I can scrub, clean, cook and sew: all you have in the end is your labour.”[17] Whilst an all-is-not-lost attitude or the ability to look at things from different perspectives is advisable practice, some people take the time to practice philosophical rationale within an art context. Malevich conveyed this through a visual language based upon “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling.”[18] A Fake’s Progress, in comparison, pairs down the emasculation of society, culture and the ‘nature’ of art. This twenty-first century fairy-tale ends at the beginning and our heroine capitalises on adornment and decoration in Well Red and bluntly utilises her feminine charms, masking interpretation of her work, with a perfume so alluring, dignified and enviable. Her perfume is unisex and Airwick is the new heraldry.

 

[1] A Fake’s Progressfollows a previous configuration of Sarah Taylor’s work for an exhibition at Leeds College of Art where she currently teaches.

[2] “Within recent history decent clothing has been a necessity for any woman or girl child who wants to enter the social world: it’s her means of entry, and there are rules that say so.” Carolyn Steedman, A Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (London, 1986): p. 89.

[3] On museum display and function see The White Cube and Beyond by Charlotte Klonk, Niklas Maak and Thomas Demand in Tate Etc. (Issue 21 – Spring, 2011): pp. 78 – 91.

[4] Young, Robin., ‘British art’s golden age draws the line’ in The Times, Saturday October 13 2001, p. 22.

[5] “…the women’s intellect is not for invention or creation but sweet ordering, arrangement and decision. Her great function is praise.” (Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, vol. XVIII, 1905, p. 122.) in Roziska Parker & Griselda Pollock., Old Mistresses Women, Art and Ideology (London, 1981): p. 9.

[6] John Berger., Ways of Seeing (BBC/Penguin, 1972) p.46 in Steedman A Landscape for a Good Woman: p. 24.

[7] “John Ruskin’s book Sesame and Lilies (1867) is a clear statement of Victorian ideals and the rigid division of roles for men and women; men work in the outside world and women adorn the home, where they protect traditional, moral and spiritual values in a new industrial society.” Rozsika & Pollock., Old Mistresses Women: p. 9.

[8] Steedman., A Landscape for a Good Woman: p. 55.

[9] “…a person of acquired wealth and no breeding could find a social apparatus ready and willing to support his social climbing. The Rake’s rise rests on the premise that he is able to buy his way to an enhanced social status.” Bindman, David., Hogarth and his Times, (1997): p. 44.

[10] Steedman., A Landscape for a Good Woman: p. 36.

[11] Parker & Pollock., Old Mistresses: p. 8.

[12] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/arts/design/malevich-and-the-american-lagacy-at-gagosian-review.html?_r=0

[13] “You mean the hijacking of my work for clothes and the design industry? That upset me very much. My paintings were made to work against a flat surface and very particularly at a certain scale. This is completely destroyed when wrapped around a human figure, rendered completely pointless.” Bridget Riley in interview with Martin Gayford Pitching Opposites, Modern Painters (Summer 2003 Volume 16 Number 2): pp. 32 – 5.

[14] “…the notion of patriarchal law has to be seen within the framework of ownership and possession.” Steedman., A Landscape for a Good Woman: p. 69.

[15] http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/grid-checkpoint-modernity

[16] Roly, Alison., A Fakes Progress, A Fake’s Progress, Companion Essay (Crescent Arts, 2013)

[17] Steedman., A Landscape for a Good Woman: p. 43

[18] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suprematism 28/04/13

 

 

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