Time to paint the town

Jane Norrie

Is women's art 'different'? Jane Norrie visits three new exhibitions in search of an answer. A couple of years ago Rachael Whiteread hit the headlines with her controversial cast cement house. The structure, on a piece of wasteland in east London, split the critics and stimulated heated discussion in the press but won her the Turner Prize.

Now under the title Shedding Life a major survey of her work has opened to acclaim at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool. Like "House", the Tate sculptures turn domestic architecture inside out. The spaces inside a wardrobe, round bookshelves, or surrounding a bath are cast in materials such as rubber, plaster or resin to produce works that are familiar yet strange, have a strong physical presence yet speak of absence and loss. The show includes numerous works that have never been seen before in Britain and has already been pronounced unmissable.

Intimate yet substantial, Whiteread's sculpture has been described as "making monuments from the everyday". This year she has also won a commission to design a historic public monument - the Holocaust Memorial sculpture which will be inaugurated in the Judenplatz in Vienna in November. A model of the Memorial, which will take the form of the cast interior of a library, can be seen in London next month.

Whiteread's success comes at the end of a period which has seen strongly felt protest by women artists about statistically proven inequalities compared with male artists. Chief among their complaints has been that they have been under-represented as lecturers in art schools and so as role models, and under-exposed in terms of solo exhibitions. A culmination was reached in 1992 with the setting up of the Museum of Women's Art, a charitable trust dedicated to celebrating the art of women past and present.

So can Whiteread's high profile be taken as a sign that women artists have finally gained equal status with their male counterparts? Judging by two women-only shows opening in London next week, the answer must be no. At the Whitechapel Gallery Inside the Visible presents an alternative reading of the traditional male-dominated view of 20th century art history.

Taking the work of 37 international women artists, the exhibition examines "hidden themes" which have concerned women this century. Women who because of their gender, geographic location or "different" artistic styles have been working on the margins. Among their themes are questions of identity, gender, race and difference. The artists include the French surrealist Claude Cahun, Brazilian Lygia Clark, whose work is designed to be worn and to heal, and this year's Turner prize nominee Mona Hatoum who has contributed a site-specific piece made from her own hair.

Why is there still thought to be a need for this kind of women's survey show? For answer I went to the Whitechapel's education officer Janice McLaren. "Though it draws on feminist and post modern theory this is not a show of women's art per se. It's much broader than that. The idea is to challenge the accepted canon of art history and to represent another way of telling the story. To show women defying then re-casting the dominant phallocentric gaze. To this end, the exhibition includes names like Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero whose ideas have only recently found their time, others like Canadian Emily Carr who are famous in their own countries but not known here, and rising contemporary stars such as the American Ellen Gallagher."

Many of the exhibition's themes about race and the body have now been adopted into the mainstream, yet male artists are excluded from this exhibition. Doesn't this put women artists in a ghetto suggesting their work needs special consideration? Refuting this, gallery director Catherine Lampert, says: "The curator decided to display the art of women because their roles as active agents of culture have too often been minimised, delayed or ignored. The concentration is a stimulus to debate and is neither discrimination nor compensation just as the artists aren't intended to be the elite of women working this century but rather those relevant to the themes."

The Whitechapel, which has a high reputation for its community education service, has devised an extensive educational programme around the exhibition. But will questions of identity, of social, sexual and racial difference not prove difficult for younger pupils? Janice McLaren thinks not. In the case of the workshops an artist-tutor will take individual works as a starting point for discussion and for the students' own making activities. With tactile pieces such as Cecilia Vicuna's installation of woven threads leading to practical weaving exercises she is confident that pupils will easily be able to interact with the work.

More narrowly focused Rubies and Rebels at the Barbican Concourse Gallery features work by contemporary Jewish women artists living in Britain, among them the celebrated portraitist and landscape painter Sarah Raphael. A touring show organised in collaboration with the Museum of Women's Art, Rubies and Rebels is also accompanied by an ambitious education programme. This is by no means the only link between the two shows. Both, for instance, deal with questions of gender and displacement so it comes as no surprise that Griselda Pollock, the feminist professor of art history, has contributed essays for both catalogues.

Again I asked Monica Bohm-Duchen, co-curator of Rubies, what is the need for such a women-only show? "I see this as a pioneering project. In contemporary British society the Jewish artist is an outsider. The case of the Jewish woman artist is even more complex - seen as 'other' in multiple ways, as Jew, woman and artist. The title is taken from the Biblical verse claiming women's price is 'above rubies'. In the matriarchal Jewish culture this is a double-sided coin. Women are prized highly in regard to their role within - but not outside - the family. Women artists are rebelling against this." More specifically the show can also be seen as a riposte to the major exhibition From Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in 20th Century Art held in the Barbican in 1990. Women were under-represented with only 11 women out of a total of 133 artists.

Is this just a case of positive discrimination then? "Not at all. The exhibition is not making excuses for Jewish women artists, not just showing artists because they happen to be Jewish and women. These are women with particular positions and specific things to say about being Jewish and female in late 20th century Britain. It's a thematic exhibition set up to explore Jewish female identity. It coheres and cross-fertilises round that theme. The work is technically and stylistically varied but of a high calibre aesthetically.

"One strong thread is a sense of rewriting history through the female line as older people, for instance, have come to tell their stories of the Holocaust. " Barbara Loftus, for example, has transmuted her mother's memories into paint and film recapturing the day when the Nazis confiscated the family's porcelain collection. Using a family photograph album from 1915 Rachael Lichtenstein has excavated her family's past and re-cast it in a striking mosaic floor piece.

Other strands of the display pose questions. How can an immigrant find a place but still retain her own identity? What is the relationship of the Jewish diaspora to Israel? How can female spirituality be expressed? "The work", claims Bohm-Duchen, "subverts the norms of patriarchal society in general and of the Jewish patriarch in particular. In addition to exploring the position of the outsider the issues are relevant to wider ethnic groups."

Though it sporadically breaks out in the knowing and blatant provocation of self-confessed Bad Girls, the militant tendency of early Seventies' feminism appears to have mellowed. Perhaps because women's ideas have come into their own, staking a place for women artists in the mid-nineties is a less strident affair. Janice McLaren, for instance, insists that the Whitechapel show is not intended to be oppositional. While Monica Bohm-Duchen concludes "Many women are happy to be known as artists without any other label. On all fronts there has to be respect for difference."

Art and politics, however, continue to collide. Rachael Whiteread, for instance, has attracted fierce criticism from some quarters for accepting the Holocaust Memorial Commission when she is not Jewish. Contrary to what some would like to believe, art has an explosive potential that cannot be politely contained on sitting room walls.

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