Herstory review – a surprising, alarming odyssey through art by women
Source:theguardian Author:Adrian Searle Date: 2018-08-01 Size:
For a long time, a painting by Jessica Etchells hung in Rochdale Art……

Full of echoes... Untitled (Not Ugly Enough), 1997, by Barbara Kruger. Photograph: Collezione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

Gallery was presumed to have been painted by her brother, artist and architect Frederick Etchells. Jessica, born in Stockport in 1892, had studied at art school, moved to London and worked both for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and, later, Wyndham Lewis’s Rebel Art Centre. It was only in 1980 that the painting was identified as being her work. Now, this lowering still life hangs next to two works by the American artist Sherrie Levine – one is a photograph titled Untitled (After Walker Evans), the other a drawing “After” Henri Matisse. The Matisse is a direct, watercolour copy of a Matisse drawing, while Levine’s photograph reproduces a famous Walker Evans, rephotographed by Levine from a catalogue of the late photographer’s work.

Levine’s appropriations of Matisse and Evans are plays on authorship and originality, and on the supposed singular vision of the male artist. There is something poignant about the juxtaposition of Levine and Etchells. There’s a lesson here, retold and expanded in Herstory, an exhibition of work, all by women artists, combining loans to Rochdale by the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo collection in Turin, and works from the museum’s own collection.

Rochdale (the gallery was renamed Touchstones in the 1990s) has a minuscule exhibition budget, and these major loans by Italian art collector and philanthropist Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo to an institution, in what the Arts Council of England calls a “cold spot” for arts provision and participation, give the Lancashire gallery a major lift.

Untitled (After Walker Evans 6) by Levine Sherrie, 1990.

Featuring works from the 1970s to the present, Herstory is an often surprising, touching and occasionally alarming exhibition. American photographer Catherine Opie’s 1994 self-portrait has her in the most conventional pose imaginable – seated, hands clasped, facing the camera: except her face is hidden in a leather mask and collar and the word Pervert is tattooed, with decorative flurries, above her naked breasts. Precise rows of needles pierce both her arms, from shoulder to wrist. The stillness of this image, in which Opie is somehow at once both objectified and self-possessed, passive and aggressively confrontational, is a kind of bomb in the gallery, a BDSM queering of conventional portraiture. Across the gallery, Shirin Neshat’s portrait of a woman in a chador points a revolver at the viewer. Her exposed skin in the photograph has been over-drawn with fragments of poetry in Farsi script. Made almost 25 years ago, this image has accumulated unforseen power in the last quarter-century.

Neshat’s theatrical image of empowerment hangs next to Polish artist Paulina Olowska’s terrific painting of an Ouled Nail Woman. A parody of 19th-century orientalism, Olowska’s portrait is full of painterly jokes and stylistic collisions, as well as references to larger cultural upheavals under French colonialism. It takes as its source a photograph by the National Geographic correspondent Maynard Owen Williams, of a dancer of the Ouled Nail, an Islamic tribe in Algeria. Until French colonisation the female Ouled Nail dancers were a liberated group, unveiled and allowed to travel freely, unaccompanied by men. They were later forced into prostitution.

Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait Pervert, 1994. Photograph: Collezione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

Sarah Lucas’s woman made of tights, sitting open-legged on a chair, finds an echo in African-American artist Senga Nengudi’s 1977 RSVP, again made from her own used tights, the feet filled with sand. RSVP presages Lucas’s art and the pendulous mesh and sand-filled sculptures of Ernesto Neto. Nengudi’s work is sexy and funny, taut and stretched, showing what gravity and pregnancy do to the female body. I don’t know what stresses Berlinde De Bruyckere’s La Femme sans tête has been going through, but this headless, cold and waxy figure, crouching at one end of an otherwise empty vitrine, appears to be sinking into herself. She’s a museum piece. Perhaps she doesn’t want to be looked at.

Romanian artist Andra Ursuta’s Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental, is a life-size marble figure of a woman, based on a newspaper photograph of a Roma woman being deported from France. Ursuta had the figure sculpted in China in the plodding style of communist-era public sculpture (again, the references proliferate the more you look), and she stands on a little wheeled platform, as if to suggest her indeterminate status, to be pushed here and there. Her apparently folkloric jacket is decorated with hundreds of euro centimes, British pennies and American cents. There’s an Adidas logo on her cape. If the symbolism seems obvious, one might say that perhaps it needs to be.

Nearby is the late Scottish-Ghanaian artist Maud Sulter’s photo-portrait of black poet Dorothea Smart, dressed as Clio, muse of heroic poetry. One of a series, produced for an exhibition at Rochdale in 1989, Sulter’s photograph debunks western photographic and art historical convention with a celebration of black creativity. Smart looks out at us, wryly, while Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s painting of a black woman in a gold skirt has her back turned on the viewer. So too does Joey, in a Nan Goldin photograph. Is Joey a woman or a man in women’s underwear? Does it matter? Is Joey posing, or just caught unawares by the camera? Joey is being Joey, whoever they are, leaning into the night.

Herstory is full of echoes, back and forth. People turning their backs, and facing the viewer down. Herstory feels a much bigger exhibition than the two rooms it occupies. Full of variety, humour and confrontation, women objectified, invisible women and women refusing to disappear, its stories have no end.

Herstory: Women Artists from the Collection of Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is at Touchstones Rochdale, until 29 September.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern