It turns out that despite ourselves, even the most urbane and politically correct audience can still love a beauty pageant. The sequence of young women in swimsuits could not be more easy on the eye
It is obvious what heterosexual men might get from this. But women too were enjoying it. There were no shortage of volunteers to strip off, while their fully clothed sisters looked on with vicarious pleasure.
But context is everything. Each of us knew this was a performance by a feminist artist, Sarah Maple, and a feminist curator, Beverley Knowles. So that was okay.
Also, the swimsuit, sashes, and tiaras were balanced up by the fate of each Miss America. After parading past the extensive glass windows of La Scatola, they went to stand facing a wall.
Here they reminded the viewer of children in disgrace. It was as if they had blown their moment in the limelight by using their platform to make an off beam comment about the recession or the war.
About 20 women took part, only coming to life every five minutes when a burst of Sinatra or maybe Bert Parks cut through the silence and then cut out with just as much abruptness.
When the music played and the girls were up, it was all eyes in their direction. The rest of the time they were to be seen and not heard. The choreography was impersonal and brutal.
As the title of the piece and a corresponding handout suggests, to be crowned Miss America or Miss World entails a year of hard work. Just like artists, their levels of dilligence might surprise the public.
Gallery director Valentina Fois is not sure how this glass box of a space was used before. But last night it was not hard to imagine a car showroom, with bonnets for the girls to drape themselves over.
Clearly we have come a certain distance since the time men crooned about beauty queens and no car ad was complete without a dolly bird. But not so far we could not recognise our role in this piece.
Bob and Roberta Smith have called their forthcoming show The Life of the Mind, and the last notable person who offered to demonstrate that burnt down a hotel.
The title is a quote from the 1991 movie Barton Fink with the arsonist played by John Goodman. He is very annoyed to have become the subject of a writer’s work.
“I think artists are extraordinary people but they’re people just like anybody else,” Bob and Roberta Smith say. “There’s this idea that because you’ve got access and you’ve got power that you can interpret how the world works and what’s going on in somebody’s head, and so that image of John Goodman setting light to the hotel, he’s saying I don’t want to be patronised any more.”
Now 26 artists who seem to be in a similar position have been gathered for the show at The New Art Gallery Walsall. Curators and contributors Bob and Roberta have looked for pieces which resist a white, male hegemonic viewpoint.
In some ways this is Roberta’s show, I suggest, and Bob agrees: “It is a sort of proto feminist statement, but I am a bloke,” he naturally confirms, speaking via phone from an intercity train. The pseudonymous duo are brother and sister, and to me it sounds like Bob is doing most of the talking.
“I think that thing of being hemmed in is common to all people, so although I’ve got a lot of women artists in it and it’s meant to be saying something that is feminist, it’s also saying something about mental health as well and both things are a bit overlapped and a bit merged.”
So alongside work by Louise Bourgeois, Annette Messager and Lucia Nogueira, you will be able to glimpse the interior worlds of outsider musician Daniel Johnston and post-impressionist visionary Vincent Van Gogh. (“I do tend to think he was an incredibly talented artist who was dogged by mental health rather than somehow a great genius because of his mental health,” say Bob and Roberta.)
The touchstone for all works included in the show is a bronze bust by Sir Jacob Epstein, whose archives can be found at Walsall. A defiant look on her face resonates with the sad story of her life. This is Epstein’s daughter, Esther, who committed suicide.
“I wouldn’t hold him personally responsible for Esther’s suicide,” say Bob and Roberta. “It was part of a culture of parenthood in the upper classes which still continues. They send their kids off to get them out from under their feet.” But the artists do add that both children may also have been at the “wrong end” of their father’s pre-occupation with art and studio time.
The Smiths became seriously interested in the controversial sculptor during a residency at the Gallery. “Basically all of my work prior to working on this archive has been one version or another of painting the first thing that came into my head,” laughs Bob. “But actually working on this project I suddenly realised the value of a bit of research and having a different source for one’s ideas.”
In fact a liking for Epstein goes back to formative encounters with The Rock Drill at Tate: “I always wondered how this person could have made this amazing sort of robotic figure and also made these kind of more figurative straightforward kind of busts. It perplexed me even as a little child.”
But even one of the biggest names in 20th century British sculpture was in his way resistant to hegemonies of the time. “He made a lot of stone carvings in situ,” Bob and Roberta tell me. “There’s one in St James’s [Park], Night and Day, and that almost caused a kind of riot because he thought he would break convention by carving it himself rather than getting assistants to do it for him.”
Talking of hegemonies, Bob and Roberta are currently included in a show of works from the Government Art Collection. If anything, the artists seem amused: “It’s a funny thing – the Government Art Collection was set up so that MPs could have something to put in their office and I think it’s good that the government collects art. They are trying to encourage politicians to think about it, in a way.”
It should come as no surprise that Whitehall has a life of the mind, but you do have to wonder what John Goodman’s character in Barton Fink would make of these shows. If you see him in Walsall with a can of petrol, do alert the authorities.
The Life of the Mind: Love, Sorrow and Obsession is at The New Art Gallery Walsall from January 21 until March 20 2011. See Gallery website for more details. Works from the Government Art Collection can be seen at Whitechapel Gallery until September 2012.