The Women’s Gallery & Maeve
by Bridie Lonie
It is awkward to say, in a devious sort of way, that the small baby (luckily female) who is sitting between my knees as I type this, would not have been so easily produced if I hadn’t worked out my angst in the [Women’s] Gallery. From broken self-images/mirrors and eggs and hay, through a hangmans noose and a strangling/fucking clay couple, to a cool recognition that what one wants should be got, my messy artistic procedures meandered.
Shared preoccupations with different solutions are part of the mixed loving and alienating experiences one gets, come hell or high water, in a place like this. The water is amniotic, the hell political.
Bridie Lonie, a member of the collective which started the Women’s Gallery in 1980, later worked as co-ordinator for several exhibitions, including Women and the Environment. This statement and poem were made for a second exhibition of work by women who founded the Gallery, September 1982 and was published in Spiral 5.
Making art or talking about my own fills me with panic (Pan was the Greek god who caused terror in the countryside, the untamed element)– art for me is either a rite de passage or an excercise in contemplation, the function of which is to calm. As a child I was always encouraged to paint or draw…The mechanics were necessary only in so far as they were useful to me…later in my adolescence, I painted about difficulties without self-consciousness: later, when sexuality became too evident a subject, my work embarrassed me…As an intellectual discipline [anthropology] freed me from the feeling that art was an exalted provice. It didn’t however make it any easier for me to talk about my female self explicitly: The climate at Elam [art school] was inimical to that. It snuck in sideways, with alizarin red dots towards my menstruation[…]
When I started working, at various library and teaching and bookselling jobs, I painted big silhouettes of myself along wiht hands in symbolic gestures, tools of trade, words and things. There never seemed to be an audience for these and I didn’t understand them fully myself (though one never does or need). They ended up cut into bits, or used as roof repairs. I still painted the big abstracts I’d painted at Elam, but their obliquity no longer satisfied.
In 1977 Joanna Paul asked me to participate in A Season’s Diaries…
The next year some artists started the Wellington artist co-operative in a big warehouse and had a show–I made a double spiral of eggs, which I bought and at the end of two days took to the Home of Compassion, where the nun who took them said she’d pary for me. Real eggs, a real double spiral: the obduracy of found or co-opted objects prevented me from the destruction I’d been enacting upon my paintings, which were confusing me. The whole thing, from their purchase, through the destruction of some of them by the poet who walked across the spiral, to their finish as food for the children I wasn’t having, was one process: again I still saw the central issue as me making the spiral, isolated in my role as artist.
In late 1979 Marian proposed the Women’s Gallery. It opened with a group show; participants formed the first collective. There were to be no solo shows; we wanted group exhibitions based on themes of interest to women.[…] It was a space where I felt able to make art about things that bothered me: to use it as a place for art to fulfill its cleansing, developing function: the achievement of new understanding and growth, marked by the rite de passage. This function is at odds with any intention to make a living from art by making saleable objects.
The first piece I did [at the Gallery’s Opening Show 1980] followed on from the double spiral and from the menstrual red that had inserted itself into my abstracts. It was a combination of choices, a claustrophobic corner with a chair, hangman’s noose, red curtains, a mirror, hay, a nest…white stocks nearby.
[Tiffany Thornley: I remember one night at the Women’s Gallery, Allie Eagle talked with Bridie Lonie all one night through about Bridie’s piece; they went on and on until they had worked it through. It was amazing to see and hear that kind of support.]
Later in the year I drew Marian’s and Anna’s hands, as part of Journingher’s piece walking the crack between worlds, and painted a floor, red dots again. Then Heather McPherson coordinated Women and Violence (1980) and I confronted the domestic violence I had come to know: this piece combined the functions of catharsis and development. I think now it has some of the qualities my abstracts have: a deliberate ordering and distancing, a concentration on tone rather than colour. I placed a clay figure, which appeared to be that of a couple making love but was in fact a man strangling a woman (who lies acquiescent, even collusively), in front of a wall of xeroxes of my brother Angus’s and my hands. They were variously affectionate and angry, twisting a teatowel between them until it became a taut rope.
With these I used images from Ghiberti’s bronze doors from the Baptistry in Florence: a calm woman, a troubled man. Around the corner was a vertical row of xeroxes of my hands making shapes such as hearts, behind a metal cage.
I think now that what I wanted to describe, exorcise, explore, analyse — all those things — was the aspect of collusion there can be in domestic violence. It was a piece about my own experience which I was able to do something about, and it didn’t speak for women who have children and live in economic dependence upon their violent men. It was one aspect of the problem.
At the end of that year, in a show called 3 Sculptors I exhibited with Rosemary Johnson and Di ffrench. I traced silhouettes of Anna Keir and my sister Jenny Black on the walls of a small room, placing beside one of them an outline derived froma mannerist painting. Rosemary, when she had made her own installation, added a circle of broken mirror pieces on the floor which maybe made the piece more explicitly angry; I wondered about it but left it.
It was about being a woman artists surrounded by male angels: the woman’s face and womb are made of broken mirror: she’s turning away from the angel but evidently needs assistance and is watched from the other end of the room by a more stalwart woman who stands alone, except for a little dolphin-like shape. The piece seems quite clear to me now: when I made it it baffled me but it had a life of its own which was the main thing.
Since then I have had a child, painted, drawn and worked on various projects with Marian. The plantings, which continue directly from those I did at art school, still satisfy my more contemplative needs.
From A Women’s Picture Book: 25 Women Artists of Aotearoa (New Zealand) eds Marian Evans, Bridie Lonie Tilly Lloyd — A Women’s Gallery/Spiral group (1988, 167–170; and 16, Tiffany Thornley statement).
In the years since I have mainly taught, first at high school and then art history and theory at an art school, with some periods of management. I did an MA about art therapy because I wanted to understand the ways meaning is formed in that relationship, and I am currently doing a PhD on art and climate change because we are now experiencing a new set of paradigm changes and I want to understand what roles art can play in that. But I am still teaching, as my parents did, and that has in the end been my life’s focus.