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Sexism, defamation and Australian art: the struggle of women to be seen in a world dominated by men | Australian books


The creepy yellow jacket with bold black lettering in art historian Anne Marsh’s heavy 2021 tome screams one thing for art lovers and feminists alike: This is not a coffee table book.

Although the Melbourne University Publishing volume (weighing 3kg) features nearly 400 beautiful, confrontational and thought-provoking illustrations and photographs in brilliant color, Doing feminism is a rigorous and scholarly critique of how women’s art has influenced and changed the landscape of contemporary Australian and international art from a feminist perspective.

Sprinkled with artist statements, curatorial writing, and criticism, Doing Feminism is arguably the most comprehensive literary immersion on Australian women making art since the 1970s.

It took Marsh more than five years to compile, although the author of five other books and research professor at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of Arts says the idea had been emerging for a decade. The subtitle, Women’s Art and Feminist Criticism in Australia, is significant, she says.

“There are many women in the book who would not be card-carrying feminists, so I was interested in making a juxtaposition between what was happening in critical literature, in catalogs, etc., and what artists were doing on the ground. . “

In addition to celebrating the accomplishments of individual artists, the book is dotted with stories of women’s struggles for recognition in the male-dominated art world of the 20th century.

Vivienne BinnsThe first solo exhibition at the Watters Gallery in 1967 elicited howls of outrage from both male and female artists and critics, and its controversial Phallic Monument and Vag Dens were the subject of special mockery.

Phallic Monument by Vivienne Binns (1966)
Phallic Monument (1966) by Vivienne Binns. Photograph: Courtesy of Sutton Gallery

According to Melbourne Potter Art Museum, the art historian and collector Stephen Scheding wrote that the Binns exhibition “would be the least professional work I have seen in a well-known gallery.”

Binns gave up painting after the exhibition, began experimenting with enamel, and began calling herself a craftswoman. “I took all I could,” she revealed in a 1975 interview in Refractory Girl, Australia’s first women’s studies magazine, and revealed the toll the works had taken on her personal life.

Anne Marsh
Anne Marsh, author of Doing Feminism. Photography: Sonia Payes

“I isolated myself and withdrawn from the nicer things in life… I had made people fear me. My images touched them in areas that they didn’t want to touch. I felt like there was a glass sheet between me and people. I was very lonely … I had aged about six years, my face had changed. For other people, I had lost my sense of humor. “

A decade after its inception, the National Gallery of Australia bought Vag Dens. In 1993, the NGA also bought Phallic Monument.

‘His works offend me’

“Misleading, awkward, misleading, gloomy, fake, unappealing, incomprehensible, seedy, disgusting, empty” were just a few of the adjectives critics and the public used to describe the works of artist Jenny Watson when she was emerging. the scene in the 1980s.

Reflecting on the reaction in a 1999 Art Monthly essay, artist Virginia Fraser joked, “After a while, you start to think, folks, what is this about?”

Fraser quotes one of Watson’s fiercest critics: Peter Timms, former editor of Art Monthly. “If I’m honest with myself, I have to say yes [Watson’s] jobs offend me, ”Timms told Fraser. “And it’s because they seem to be saying ‘you’ to me as a spectator. Looks like I’m being fired … “

Six years after the 1987 public pillory of his seminal seminal work The Key Painting, Watson represented Australia at the 45th Venice Biennale. In 2017, the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art and Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art held major retrospectives of his work.

The Key Painting (1987) by Jenny Watson.
The Key Painting (1987) by Jenny Watson. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

‘A powerful contribution’

In 2018, comedian and University of Tasmania art history graduate Hannah Gadsby chose Marsh’s brain for her ABC documentary miniseries Nakedy Nudes, the same year that Gadsby drew international praise for her live Netflix special. , Nanette.

While primarily known as a historian, scholar, and critic of contemporary art, Marsh is also something of a statistician, processing data on the gender imbalance in the Australian art scene. In some ways, the trend seems to reflect the trajectory of Australian writers, who have dominated prestigious competitions such as the Miles Franklin Award for the past decade.

The data on the representation of Australian female artists at the Venice Biennale, for example, shows an encouraging trend. Female artists were represented at only three Venice Biennials throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Rosalie Gascoigne in 1982; Jenny Watson in 1993; and a joint exhibition by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Judy Watson in 1997), But since 2001, Australia has been around. represented by a female artist in eight of the 10 Venice Biennials.

At the first Sydney Biennale in 1973, the work of only one female artist was exhibited, and she was not even Australian. In 2014, women represented more than half of the works exhibited in the show.

But when it comes to collections and retrospectives at many of Australia’s leading public galleries, Marsh believes more affirmative action is needed.

“A retrospective show for a living artist is the most significant … and you see male artists getting those retrospective shows, but you don’t see female artists,” she says.

“Making sure our public galleries have as many women as men in this field would really change the public’s perspective.

Anne Marsh's book on Australian women's art and feminist criticism, published by Melbourne University Press 2021

“When I talk to people around a barbecue and none of them know much about art, when it comes to female artists, they’ll say, ‘Oh, we know about Margaret Preston,’ and that’s it. They can go to a gallery two or three times a year, but every time they go, there is a guy.

“If one out of three times it was a major display by a woman, then they would know more names … so I think that’s a failure on the part of most major institutions, they really need to get back in the game.”

Marsh says it was encouraging to see major institutions like the NGA recognize this oversight and act to rectify it. Know My Name, Australia’s largest female artist exhibition, opened at the NGA last month and runs through July 2022.


www.theguardian.com

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