Directed by Susan Steinberg
sds productions, 2015
by ANNA McNAY
The issues of sexism and gender inequality in art are back centre stage – if they ever went away – with the June 2015 issue of ARTnews, guest-edited by curator and author Maura Reilly, presenting an array of improving, but still far from satisfactory, statistics about the percentage of female artists shown in galleries, at biennials and art fairs, and their success at auction and inclusion in “great artist” lists. The stage is thus set for Emmy award-winning writer Susan Steinberg’s new film, Mirrors to Windows: The Artist as Woman. Made over three years, this candid documentary follows 10 international female artists from three generations, who are now based in London, discovering what makes them tick, where they find their inspiration, what keeps them going and how they are forging their careers in an arena still dominated by men.
Described as “a compelling collective biography” and “a cross-generational coming of age story”, the film brings together a selection of artists ranging in age from 22 to 82. Split into three chapters, according to generation, their stories are threaded together as they prepare for exhibitions and reflect on their life and work.
Chapter one, Reflections in the Mirror, dealing with the three youngest artists, is by far the most interesting, since it does not appear to have any underlying agenda to which it must adhere. Instead, it looks at how difficult it is to get a foothold in the art world while still searching for your unique language and means of expression. British sculptor Jodie Carey (b1981) talks about the need for self-belief and persistence, having been rejected multiple times from the “alpha-male” Goldsmiths, before finally securing a place. “I stuck my heels in,” she says. But, over the course of the three years of filming, Carey is nevertheless seen to scale down her sculptures from the monumental yet incredibly decorative (immediately post-graduation) to the simpler, more sensitive and more poetic. While her early works comprise paper flowers stained with blood; large sculptures made from bones; and floral stencils made from cigarette ash, her later works are sparse and carefully coloured (by hand, with pencil) pastel walls. “You can tell it’s made by a woman when you look at my work,” she says.
The work of French-British sculptor and performer Alice Anderson (b1972), if anything, seems to grow in confidence and scale throughout the film. The personal becomes public as others become involved in helping to actualise her grand ideas. Starting out with video work, she now primarily works with copper wire – reflecting the flame colour of her hair – wrapping objects, furniture and even buildings in a ritualistic, obsessive manner. “It’s quite addictive,” she says of her mummifying habit. “I’m obsessed with repetition. [It] is the key to going beyond things, beyond perception.” For her, being understood or appreciated by the public is a bonus, not a prerequisite. “You wake up in the morning and you want to do something; there is this necessity of making something. It doesn’t really matter if people understand it or not.” Clearly a level of self-belief that is key to her success.
When we first meet British painter Sarah Lederman (b1986), she is painting herself, using a mirror, creating dripping nymphs and Lolita figures with large eyes and red nipples – Egon Schiele meets Georg Baselitz. “As soon as I got boobs, I was like, ‘I’m going to draw myself’,” she says. Her naive but intuitive paintings are beautiful and beguiling, disrupting traditional representations of the feminine, and winning her the Catlin Prize in 2009. But then she, too, goes to Goldsmiths, has her mirror taken away, and is told to look beyond herself for her subject. This is a shame – rational masculinity enforcing itself on a sensual female artist, suppressing her voice and trampling on her style. I hope, with time, it will resurface.
The middle chapter, Breaking through the Glass, focuses on artists in the mid-phase of their career, and, sadly, falls foul of the very stereotyping it is seeking to break down. It speaks of the artists as “torn between artistic and domestic life, filled with roles and obligations”, and reports how British collage and ceramic artist Charlotte Hodes (b1959), Egyptian visual artist and photographer Nermine Hammam (b1967) and American sculptor Helaine Blumenfeld OBE (b1942) have juggled motherhood and work, and how, in the case of British digital artist Susan Collins (b1964), who would have loved to have had children but “stupidly thought it would just happen if it was meant to”, diligent work and a directorship at the Slade have been used to fill this gap. Hammam speaks of “walking a tightrope” and “changing hats”, while Blumenfeld explains how, when her children were young, she would spend three weeks at home as a mother and one week in Italy, working 20 hour days, as an artist. For her: “There is no greater paradox than the demands that are made on you as an artist and the demands that are made on you as a mother.”
While these are enlightening insights into how different artists have coped with this challenging juggling act, an act that brings many to a standstill, forcing them to choose between career and motherhood, it still seems somewhat narrow-sighted to focus so much on this one element of these successful artists’ lives and work, when, surely, other issues must also play a role and there could be so much more to discuss.
Similarly, in chapter three, Beyond the Glass, British painter Rose Wylie RA (b1934) laments how she and her husband, also an artist [Roy Oxlade, 1929-2014], had to decide which of them was to be allowed to be an artist and who should run the household and raise the children. Naturally, she filled the latter role, coming to be seen by the neighbourhood as “an appendage” and “a floozy”. It is only in the past few years that Wylie has become a successful artist in her own right, winning the John Moores Painting Prize in 2014, age 80. Describing her method of working on the floor, often using domestic equipment, she says: “It’s close to housework, sort of, in a way. But it’s not, because you keep the finished product, whereas housework just keeps getting undone again.”
While some of these artists do set out to destabilise traditional views of the feminine – Iranian artist Maliheh Afnan (b1935) and German sculptor Almuth Tebbenhoff (b1949) in particularly striking ways (Afnan through her use of a gauze “veil”, challenging western ideas of the Arabic woman, and Tebbenhoff through her powerful and typically “masculine” steel sculptures) – it seems they are still very much living within the constraints of their gender. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that female artists are failing to achieve better statistics of representation, sale and art world success.
Whether this is inevitable or a question of the lens through which things are viewed (for example, how ought “success” to be defined?), I am undecided – perhaps it is a bit of both. But I do feel that by presenting this documentary in the chapters that it does, there is some level of telling a story that is bound to be told: that of naive pubescence progressing through a phase of questioning one’s calling in life – motherhood v career – to a latter stage of reassessment, when, typically, a female artist might be “rediscovered”. The film offers an interesting insight into each artist’s life and work, but, sadly, it relates them more to gender and generation than to theme or media, reinforcing many of the essentialist ideas that hold female artists – and women generally – ensnared. As Tebbenhoff declares: “Tear up the rule book, start afresh and see what happens.”