The Women’s Work exhibition is one which, at first glance at least, seems to blend into its surroundings. Curated by Shiri Shalmy on behalf of Rowan Arts, these pieces are unassumingly placed on the café walls. As such, customers find themselves sitting alongside Victoria Haviland's stunning 'Duchess' series dealing with issues of appropriation linked feminine form, and Jane Musgrove’s Marking Time whose series of tiny crosses can only be spotted close-up. Upon looking a little closer one also discovers Phoebe Smith’s strong yet simplistic Irony and Nadya Mahdi’s original re-appropriation her Iraqi/Irish heritage with her ‘Take Away Poetry’ menus . But whilst these are not installations which impose on us, they nonetheless command our attention. Featuring work by emerging and established female artists, Women’s Work presents us with a conscious unravelling of the ordinary and the everyday. In providing highly personal insights into women’s social, political and domestic lives these pieces transform us away from pre-conceived ideas about gender specific behaviour, allowing the work to consciously play with our perception of both the women and their work.
It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the notion of undoing is central to key pieces within the Women’s Work exhibition. In what is perhaps an ironic nod to the exhibition title, Hannah Bushell’s striking piece The Space Between (composed entirely of white fabric and thread) could initially mistake for a piece of intricate embroidery. On closer inspection we discover that the ‘neatly’ stitched circle in the centre of the canvas is a representation of a brain scan, composed of ragged threads, which spill out beyond the confines of the frame. In treading such a delicate line between the contained and the uncontainable, Bushell’s has an oddly haunting feel- especially when viewed alongside Natasha Bhatia’s Grace and Blessing and Nandita Ghose’s Bag for a new Mum.In projecting a photograph of a wall adorned in peeling layers of posters and fabric with the face of a woman staring strongly out, Bhatia’s work presents itself as a bold challenge to the stereotypes regarding how women are perceived in public places. Yet what is inherently compelling about Grace and Blessing in that the female face situated at the top of the piece is just one of a series of layers; a detail in amongst snippets of exposed brick-wall, fabric and Denegari slogans. Both veiled and at the same time projected, the representation of women within Grace and Blessing celebrates an image of femininity which is as complex and multi-layered as the work itself In Bag for a new Mum, Ghose manages to capture a similar sense of isolation. Her torn up shredded handbag hangs suspended from a pillar, with keys, chain and dummy spilling from its torn centre. The sense of disjuncture between the outward image of ‘containment’ and security evoked by the presence of the handbag and the inner turmoil it conceals provides an interesting echo with Nicola Jayne Maskery’s Ophelia Series. Using an over-exposed photograph of an anonymous female, Maskery seeks to explore the edges of sanity and emotional turmoil. Although on the one hand still and peaceful, Ghose and Maskery nonetheless succeed in bringing an unmistakable air of violence to their work which see conventional notions of the feminine being ruthlessly unravelled.
The theme of violence (both towards the notion of womanhood and towards women themselves) is once which becomes surprisingly prevalent as the spectator progresses through the exhibition. From Jo Taylor’s ‘deconstruction of gossip’ where questions are stitched over bold vintage fabrics, severed from any answer or sense of resolution, to Ella Phillips’s striking portrait of a historical witch Mother, conventional symbols and signifiers of femininity are placed under attack. We see this thread progress though to Andrea Morreau's Will We/Will it, to Noga Shatz’s bold pencil line drawings of dinosaur skeletons adorned with delicate bows and Sharon Adkins and Zoe Douglas-Cain’s collage which juxtapose birds and measuring tapes with rusting clocks and bold black lines. This attack becomes much more overt by the time the spectator reaches the works of Emma Bayley and Aylia Chondry, who seek to manipulate depictions of women in public and private settings. Bayley’s portrait of a woman taken against a plain background has an unmistakable air of vulnerability to it; despite being dramatically made up the subject attempts to shield herself from the camera, obscuring her face with her hands as she seeks to bring some privacy to a very public setting. By contrast Chondry’s black-lipped and cigarette-smoking subjects defy the conventions of the space they are in. Although clad in intricately adorned saris, and sat upon floral sofas in an obviously domestic setting, their body language exudes an overt and very public rebellion, as their eyes remain fixed defiantly upon the camera. However it is Sally Jones’s “I had to come up with a story”(the figurehead for the Women’s Work Exhibition as chosen by Rowan Arts) which presents the most violent assault on the spectator themselves. Composed of a rich palette of colour that provide a strong visual parallel with her other piece “Do what you like, I don’t care”, Jones’s portrait of a woman is one which is inherently compelling. The prevalent use of blues and greens to represent bruises is one which can initially be overlooked, dismissed as shading or a development of contrasting tones. It is only once the piece is viewed in conjunction with its title that the spectator is forced to acknowledge the troubling truth behind the portrait. In deliberately unveiling the violent reality behind her work, Jones’s piece opens up the possibility for both the exhibition and ‘Women’s art work’ as a whole to bring down the obstacles which have previously obscured women’s experience, allowing the truth to finally be laid bare.
Official Link: http://therowanartsproject.com/whats_on