Gender is not a Genre: “We See You, We Hear You” Exhibition Review

Water Me by Lana Prins. Courtesy of Subject Matter Art.

We are entering the age of the female artist. That is not to say that women are equal to men in the arts — that is far from the truth. Rather, it is to say that the market is beginning to embrace work by female artists like never before. And if there was any doubt before, this past week in London has solidified the idea that arts institutions are beginning to give women artists the recognition they have deserved for centuries.

Unfortunately, dangers accompany all uncharted territory: Here be dragons. And while the movement itself represents positive change, there are dangers involved in celebrating a group of artists based on classification of race or gender. Museums, galleries, and fairs may have good intentions when promoting female artists, but the fear of tokenizing a diverse group of artists based on gender is still present.

There is a fine line to walk, and this past week in London has seen success and failure in equal measure. Behind every triumph — Jenny Saville setting the record for the highest price paid for a female artist at auction — is disappointment: less than 10% of the lots were by female artists. And anyone that went to the curated section “Social Work” at Frieze has experienced disappointment first hand. Careful and thoughtful curation comes to the fore in all-female shows because the category of ‘underrepresented female artists’ is incredibly vast. Rounding up a random group of female artists doesn’t cut it. Plaudits received by showing female artists does not excuse nonsensical curation.

This weekend’s exhibition of 15 contemporary female artists entitled, We See You, We Hear You (Thursday 11–14 October) at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden is both transparent and genuine in its efforts to support women artists. The show is curated by Subject Matter Art, an online art sales platform founded in 2014 and managed by female entrepreneurs Liezel Strauss (creator of Art Girl Rising) and Kitty Dinshaw. The duo aims to inspire new collectors to buy work from emerging artists and wants to inspire and support a new generation of female artists.

The exhibition’s strength is in the simplicity of its message, and its insistence on the variety of work made by women artists. The curation does not force the works into a dialogue with an overarching feminist message; gender is not a genre the curators explain. Entering the exhibition, there is no immediate indication that all of the work was created by women. Language here is essential — it’s art by women, not “women’s art”. With the wall text destroyed, it is simply a group of 15 talented artists.

Clear Thoughts by Lana Prins. Courtesy of Subject Matter Art.

The exhibition shows a number of young artists who are currently studying or have just finished their degrees, and although their practice is in its early stages, the potential that these young artists show is refreshing. Dutch artist Lana Prins (b. 1993) presents a body of work that resemble the oeuvre of an artist twice her age. Mixing fashion photography with snapshots from everyday life, Prins crops the female form in a way that turns flesh into abstract lines and jutting angles. Behind the muted color palette and highly aesthetic quality of Prins’ work is a reference to a more sinister reality. Seeing her photography as stills from a movie, Prins work is what a young Cindy Sherman’s work might look like if she had grown up with Instagram.

Rinse, Relax, Revive by Camilla Bliss. Courtesy of Subject Matter Art.

Camilla Bliss (b. 1989) is one of the strongest voices of the show, presenting work from a variety of mediums, from photography to ceramics. Currently studying for her post-graduate sculpture degree at the Royal College of Art, Bliss presents a mature body of work that is inspired by the link between modern cleansing rituals and those in ancient tribal ceremonies.

With a studio next to the British Museum, Bliss uses the museum’s library to study the ethnographer Victor Turner and his accounts of the Ndembu tribe in Africa. A traditional cleansing rituals consists of stripping an individual of their clothes and belongings and covering them in mud, “leaving them naked as in birth, and covered in mud as in burial.” Turner coined the term “liminality” — standing on the threshold between two different and distinct spaces or ideas. “Rinse, Relax, Revive” takes symbols of modern beauty standards, such as cucumber slices and over-plumped lips, and reconfigures them in the context of ancient tribal rituals. Bliss’ comparison makes us question whether our participation in modern day beauty rituals is healing us or harming us.

Atonement by Yambe Tam. Courtesy of Subject Matter Art.

Certainly the gutsiest work I’ve ever seen shown in a commercial exhibition, “Atonement” by Yambe Tam is a large installation piece that compares and contrasts the taboo sexual practices of BDSM to the sacred practices of Buddhism. The object at the foot of the red hanging net is a replica of a Buddhist fish drum. Originally carved in wood, Tam 3D printed it and coated in in polyurethane, a texture that mimics human skin. Tam artfully blurs the line between sacred and profane, and explains the unexpected juxtaposition by commenting, “Both practices are similar in that they are marked by a sense of complete surrender to some sort of higher power.”

Overall, Tam’s practice is inspired by cognitive science, theoretical physics, current environmental issues, and Buddhist philosophy. Her interest in creation myths, specifically the figure of the spider as creator, recall Louise Bourgeois’ famous spider sculptures, while the repetition of the net motif in her work brings to mind the infinity net paintings of Yayoi Kusama.

Elastic Cosmos by Yambe Tam. Courtesy of Subject Matter Art.

The strength of Tam’s practice is in its universality, and its ability to transcend both the time and place of its creation. I strongly believe that it is only a matter of time before we see Tam’s work in a major arts institution.

Overall, “We See You, We Hear You” is an exciting example of thoughtful curation of emerging female talent in the art world. And as the wall text states, “This is only a tiny portion of what women can do”.

We See You, We Hear You is open until Sunday 14 October at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden.