There are two major subsets of the art world which have grown in visibility in recent years: ‘women in art’ and ‘contemporary crafts’. For reasons below, a venn diagram of their relation would be heavy on the overlap. Add another circle labelled ‘domestic production’ and you might find textiles in the central corral. Given that women-making-textile-based artwork is the subject of a current show, Turner Contemporary in Margate has hit a timely, thematic sweetspot.
If nothing else, textiles are the thread that binds together a group of artists whose previous point of comparison has been merely making art of any kind in a man’s world. Louise Bourgeois and Anni Albers both used textiles, as have Annette Messager and Susan Hiller. And then, as this show also demonstrates, there are the many many talented women who have been overlooked for making art that was just too homespun for contemporaeneous tastes.
Sidsel Paaske is a jewellery maker, for example, and never before shown in the UK. Working from an enamel kiln which she built in her kitchen, she got serious about beads, and the belief that one of her statement necklaces could have occult, protective powers. She collected materials from the natural world, both in her native Norway and from her travels all around the world. The results, be they made with bone, feathers, or even lizard skin, have a look that is at once primitive and sci-fi.
There is also something macabre about the sculpture of Christiane Löhr. The German artist made her Horse Hair Column on site after several visits to local stables in search of source material. The installation is breathtaking in a literal sense – you feel as if a sigh could tear it down. And yet it spans floor to ceiling becoming invisible as it goes. When you think of the bold statements of male minimalists, you realise that a whisper can be as powerful as a shout.
But this talk of whispers and of magic is liable to entangle this review in some of the stereotypes around women’s art, stereotypes which may be responsible for the way in which the art system has overlooked so many of the forty five artists on currently on show at Margate. “Excellence has no Sex,” as the post-minimalist Eva Hesse famously said. Her abject cheesecloth and masking tape sculptures sit around on their raised dias and, despite hinting at body forms, defy you to ascribe them a fixed gender.
Susan Hiller, meanwhile, has worked with canvas and likewise has no interest in being either cosy or pretty. In the 1970s the American-born artist made an attack on painting, by cutting up canvases to make sculptural blocks, or by stitching them back together to make grids. Too messy to be considered minimal, Hiller waded into the world of conceptual art where there is hardly any sex, and as little desire. Her painting blocks are among the driest works in the show.
There is more pain than pleasure in the work of Louise Bourgeois. HAND is an oversized red glove with coarse stitching that resembles the suture of a wound. The materials may be fabric and wool, but the presentation (within a vitrine on four steel legs) is as grave as a museum exhibit. The work has an uncanny power and, if you consider the hand in question to belong to any given artist, the evident dismemberment is a bleak comment on the power of the creator.
In 1930s Germany, for example, was no place to be an artist and when the Bauhaus school was shut down in 1933, Anni Albers went through her own symbolic castration. But a consoling thought about fascistic regimes is this: one of Albers tapestry designs from 1926 gave rise to a fresh piece of work in 1967 (by German artist) Gunta Stölzl and still has the power to seduce in a show in 2017. This particular example of women’s work long outlived several dictatorships, and may yet continue to thrive.
National Socialism spurred Hannah Ryggen to make a tapestry with an enduring sense of agony. ‘6. oktober 1942’ is a monumental piece which narrates with the execution of a theatre director the day after the dress rehearsal of his pollitically charged production of The Wild Duck by Ibsen. This is the first time this memorial has been seen outside of the UK, but you get the feeling that if Ryggen had had a Y chromosome, this cri de coeur could have been another Guernica.
“Oil paintings were initially poor man’s tapestries, so it has a long and distinguished history,” says Kiki Smith of this medium, as interviewed by show curator Karen Wright in the catalogue. But it is peace rather than war which Smith depicts in her soulful tapestry, Sky. A female nude reaches from the earth to the heavens as a sextet of doves flutter past and moths crawl towards the starlight. This image has the power of a pleasant dream to impart a good mood that stays with you for the visit.
Costume is another aspect of women, threads and making. Along with the jewellery here by Sidsel Paaske, we find a tapestry jacket by Arna Óttarsdóttir, a ballet costume by Sonia Delaunay and a tutu by Annette Messager. The latter is suspended from the ceiling and buffeted by a fan. So it spins and pirouettes in a way that Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Edgar Degas fails to. One is reminded of the oft quoted proviso of another celebrated feminist, and anarchist, Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” The 21st century has seen something of a revolution in attitudes to women in art, and this show partakes in it, and binds the visitor fast to its progressive agenda.
Entangled: Threads and Making can be seen at Turner Contemporary until May 7 2017.