Desperate Artwives Exhibition is an exhibition of many voices; it is a collection of imaginative and engaging artworks made by members of the Desperate Artwives group. The works are brought together through the artists’ shared insistence on drawing the audiences’ attention to overlooked aspects of women’s lives. Caring and maintenance had been a central theme in the work of leading Feminist artists in the past, as in the seminal performance work Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside where artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles washed the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut in 1973 and in her collaborations with the New York sanitation department workers. Laderman Ukeles’ work drew attention to care work but avoided the inclusion of her personal experiences. In contrast, many of the artists participating in Desperate Artwives at Lower Marsh, make their personal everyday experiences as mothers and wives a legitimate and important subject for their creative work. In many of the works on show, the artists celebrate and interrogate aspects of their every day, playfully representing the complex demands of childcare and domestic responsibilities, while other works challenge the viewer presenting raw expression of trauma and loss of personal identity brought about by the transition to motherhood.
Already at the entrance to the gallery, Susan Merrick’s Statements in Semaphore is insistent on making meaning and articulating a message, combining socially engaged, participatory practice, the work is the result of a collaborative practice where Merrick’s participants present themselves to her camera and become part of a language which is expressed through visibility, presence, and the body.
Desperate Artwives, as collective forms a legitimising framework, which celebrates art that focuses on the lives of women.
Further in, we encounter several works that challenge perceived notions of domestic and maternal experiences. Dagmara Bilon’s 69 soft toys performance and photographs, Katy Howe’s Becoming Birdgirl video and installation and Eti Wade’s Jocasta invite the audience to re-think dominant ideology and maternal bliss. Bilon’s performs with a pile of soft toys, attaching them to her one by one, gradually overwhelming her physically as she turns onto a woman-soft-toy-chimera. Bilon is compelled to fuse with more and more soft toys until she becomes unrecognisable and her sight and movements are obstructed. A process alluding to the gradually suffocating and overwhelming demands and identity loss brought about within the domestic.
Howe’s use of a Cindy-Shermanesque blond wig combined with her sculptural high-heel resin shoe-like objects, and the video in which she is trying to balance in them, expresses a doomed painful struggle to stand up and keep going. In Wade’s work, similar desperation is expressed, a maternal push-pull is illustrated through facial and physical gestures played out onto her child’s body in large paper prints pinned and flowing along the gallery walls.
Other works engage with the maternal and domestic in different ways, Bernardete Blue’s Mufti Day is a child’s costume made out of bread. Standing underneath it, where the flying child’s body would have been one is enveloped with the scent of freshly baked bread, invoking the homely but at the same time drawing our attention to the varied and confusing demands on mothers.
Rachel Fallon’s Our Lady of Picky Eaters is a sculptural installation playfully and powerfully invoking the drama sometimes experienced in regarding to nutrition and feeding of young children. Mieke Vanmechelen’s Eilid 1 Eilid 2 and Damh beautifully drawn watercolours, explore transformation, becoming and inner worlds, through symbolism and metaphor and Mira Ho’s photographs re-present the imaginary subjectivity of the domestic in black and white prints.
Amy Dingam’s Memory Box 2015, elevates a selection of small ordinary plastic toys, often found in large quantities in homes with young children. Covered in gold leaf and carefully displayed in a little cabinet they are turned into precious objects. Re-thinking the excess, a by-product of western consumerism by turning them into memories, lifting them from mendacity into mementos of the preciousness of the everyday.
In Christine Thomas’s Untitled 2016, small smooth and white porcelain babies dwell in fibrous organic, containing and body like hand felted textile, the contrast between the textures and tactility of the materials drawing our attention again to challenges, conflicts, and struggles.
Maternal and domestic everyday is clearly and unflinchingly expressed by the Desperate Artwives artists including Esther Geis, Sharon Reeves, Alison O’Neill, Golnar Malek, Louise Nevett, Jane Hellings, Natasha Stanic Mann and Magdalena Jachimiak who also offer the viewer personal and powerful commentary on the complexity, challenges and creativity emerging from women’s lives, using personal experiences as source material and presenting important social commentary.
Previously overlooked these themes are powerfully represented in many of the works, sometimes designed to make the audience uncomfortable, sometimes just insisting on recognition and visibility.
Historically feminist artists expressing what would be considered mundane and sentimental would present aspects of women’s experience through an intellectualising prism or using distancing techniques to shape the work so it could fit art world institutions. Such as in Mary Kelley’s Postpartum Document and Mierle Laderman Ukeles Sanitation works.
Desperate Artwives, as collective forms a legitimising framework, which celebrates art that focuses on the lives of women as a central theme.
Practice and subjects considered too petty for high art or too sentimental for the gallery wall, the mothers, wives, and artists of Desperate Artwives come together to validate one another’s experience, and collaboratively insist on the significance of women’s lives as a subject for art.
Words: Eti Wade © Artlyst 2017