Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s – The Photographers’ Gallery 8.10.16

NOTE – struggling to get photos off my phone at present so putting this up as is.

I visited this exhibition by myself. I had no real idea of what to expect and ended up a bit stunned by the size of the exhibition, comprising over 200 works by 48 artists. It was only the second day that the exhibition was open and hence was quite busy. The works were arranged over two floors and comprised artwork, photography, performance, sculpture, film, video. The exhibition was supported by a very good free booklet which had a page on every artist together with a photograph of some of their work and plenty of space for notes. The official catalogue looked superb but I may need to look for a slightly less expensive way to own it.

The scale of it means that I am struggling to do it justice in a blog post without writing reams. I’m going to write about just three areas, and put my annotated programme in my paper learning log for reference.

Francesca Woodman

I was reading an essay about Francesca Woodman in the train on the way to London (Riches, 2011). The chapter was about playfulness, and I was smitten with Woodman’s work. There was something very Alice -like in the curiosity, the scale, the trappedness. I was thrilled to see a display of her work at this exhibition. There was something fantastically ethereal but also very strong about her swinging from a door-frame, or glancing into a mirror as she crawled past. “Talking to Vince” was very Alice indeed, in the same way as Anna Gaskell’s work – with a tight crop in a confined space and an open yet soundless mouth. I would like to explore this idea a little, with domestic spaces such as under the stairs, under the sink, in the utility room, loft and garage. Maybe shed too, although that tends to be a more masculine environment.

Identity – how we see ourselves and how others see us

Identity was a huge theme running through the exhibition. Some artists looked at the tropes and stereotypes available to women. Martha Wilson’s series of self-portraits considered herself as Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother and Lesbian. There was text to go with each, which I occasionally found rather simplistic. I also wondered what the tropes would be now, since we now have a whole new raft of mothering stereotypes to address (helicopter, tiger, SAHM, part-time SAHM (really? who on earth gets to mother part-time regardless of the other demands on her time?), MILF, working….). Her work reminded me a bit of Cindy Sherman but with simpler costume/make-up. Marcello Campagnano worked similarly with roles including wife, young lady, working woman, mother, student, love-struck girl, lady, pregnant woman, prostitute, bride, paramour (list taken from booklet). Interestingly, older women (ie beyond early middle age) were not represented except as a projection in Ewa Partum’s “Change”. They didn’t exist even as stereotypes.

A simple set that I found very thought-provoking was Alexis Hunter’s  series “Identity Crisis”. She asked several friends to photograph her as they saw her, as well as a self-portrait that she made of herself. This work was engaging because of the slight and subtle but definite differences in both how she looked and how I responded to the different portraits. It was almost like seeing the same the same woman through varying prisms. It made me think of my different roles – mother, wife, friend, musician, student, sister, daughter, crafter. The work was less obvious and constructed than Sherman’s entire cast of characters, but equally effective.

Cindy Sherman turned herself into an entire busload of people, each carefully constructed and photographed in isolation on a plain chair. For me I often get so distracted by the scale and theatricality of some of Sherman’s work that I miss the message or forget to look for it. Not so for her film Doll’s Clothes, which I came across in my FIP studies and runs at this exhibition. This sings out for me with messages of manipulation, loss of control, living life in two dimensions rather than three, and the multiplicity of possible identities.

Domestic tropes were considered too – cooking, ironing, reproduction but I consider these tasks rather than identities. That said, it was interesting to wonder how much has actually changed since then, especially when considering Renate Eisenegger’s High Rise No 1, showing a woman cramped in a high-rise corridor completing some Sisyphean ironing and comparing the mountain of shirts and martial arts uniforms in my spare bedroom.

The last of a huge selection of identity themed work was Lynn Hershman Leeson who constructed an entire fictional identity, from cosmetics to bank account. The construction was elaborate and extensive. I very much liked the photograph showing a “Roberta Breitmore Look Alike Contest”, which offered a signed portrait of Roberta as first prize with the signature lending authenticity to a very elaborate fake.

Alexis Hunter “Approach to Fear: Voyeurism” 1973

This is the set of pictures that I saw when I closed my eyes on the train home. It reminded me of the photobooth work that I’m doing for A2 in terms of format, and I loved the mono colour scheme with flashes of green from the dress. It’s cinematic in terms of how it tells its story from one frame to the next, and I found the final frame both sculptural and seductive.


Riches, H. (2011) ‘Girlish Games: Playfulness and “Drawingness” in the work of Francesca Woodman and Lucy Gunning’, in Grant, C. and Waxman, L. (eds.) Girls! Girls! Girls! In contemporary art. Bristol, UK: Intellect .



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