What it is to be a woman speaking to and about women is a central question for feminist art and criticism. The title of the inaugural exhibition ‘Women Look at Women’ at Richard Saltoun elicits this very question, and yet reflects the diversity of a series of overlapping, representational strategies – role reversals, cultural ‘heroinism’, a celebration of the female body in its ‘difference’ – witnessed throughout the 1970s and 1980s in the feminist art movement and in the works of art it encompasses. The show opens with Renate Bertlmann’s ‘Transformations’ (1969/2013), a series of 53 black and white photographs which address an analysis of gender-specific social roles through the role-play sequence of staged photography. Indeed, the importance of inventing alter-egos in performance seems significant throughout the exhibition. Eleanor Antin appears as the King of Salana Beach in ‘Portrait of the King’ (1972), a photograph taken during the height of so-called essentialist feminist art. Bearing facial hair and men’s clothes, as well as having breasts, the character’s unkempt and messy appearance questions gender, privilege and whiteness. Antin demanded perfect freedom to pursue alternative identities, stating ‘f autobiography is fiction – and it is because it is history, the past – you don’t have to be restricted to your own past. You might come up with someone else’s fiction. One of my selves is a king’.
In a different sense, Francesca Woodman’s photographic project is one of self-depiction, so often is her own body the ostensible object under her camera’s gaze, as seen in the inclusion of her photograph, ‘Early’ (1972–75). As in the many of her five or six hundred photographs produced, self-representation is subverted by her attempts to evade photographic capture, cropping her face and distorting her own naked torso with clothing pegs and other objects or materials. Another work by Woodman, ‘Untitled (from Swan Song series)’ (1978), provides an excellent example from her undergraduate thesis exhibition at Woods-Gerry Gallery. Adopting a vantage point not seen in previous work, the photograph offers the perspective of an omniscient and invisible onlooker and yet, Woodman’s face again obscured, she refuses to engage directly with the observer, heightened by the artist’s naked form merging seamlessly with the animal fur surrounding her.
As well as the inclusion of artists who worked from an intentionally feminist perspective to reach a specifically feminist audience, the exhibition also presents works that both challenged, and intervened within, mainstream art practice, especially alongside an emphasis on domesticity and labour. Alexis Hunter’s ‘Secretary Sees The World’ (1978) and Friedl Kubelka’s ‘Tagesportrait: Lore Bondy am 9.8.1976, 7:30–22:15’ (1976) are notable examples. The latter, a photo-narrative piece, investigates the image of the artist’s mother through a series of domestic operations. In Hunter’s series of hand-coloured Xeroxes, the fragmentation of the objectified female is seen through the depiction of a pair of disembodied, well-manicured hands. The aggressiveness lurking in these gives the image much of its tension. Instead of a specific face or body, Hunter’s use of the hands is intended to make it easier for the viewer to identify with the subject in the photograph. Also depicting bodily fragments, Jo Spence’s ‘Body Parts’ (1978), a series of black and white slides depicting extreme close-ups of organs and feet, such as the splitting of a tongue and the dry skin of a pair of toes, are reminiscent of the work of medical practices. In an interview with Jan Zita Grover in 1990, Spence was critical of physicians and the increasing pressure on women to sustain an ideal female form: ‘It starts with beauty culture – women’s imaginary relation to their bodies, how we are pushed to improve on that – and then goes into body fragmentation by the medical profession to make a parallel set of statements about our lack of whole-body medicine in this culture’. In stark contrast to Spence’s work, situated on the opposite wall is Elisabetta Catalano’s portraits of famous actors and society figures, which use parodied glamour imagery such as fur and luxury fabrics to shed light on the commercial and fashionable vision of the classic female.
Despite the importance given to photographic self-portraiture in the exhibition, the works on display are not limited to two-dimensions. Geometric plywood sculptures from Helen Chadwick’s 1983 project ‘Ego Geometria Sum’ are littered throughout, using photographic emulsion to project a ghostly image of Chadwick’s naked body onto the forms. Determined by what is on the outside, each piece narrates the passage of an individual body through certain points in her life, from birth to the age of thirty. One of the final pieces in the show, Annegret Soltau’s transitional fetishistic series of photographs, complements the first work by Bertlmann, both seemingly cinematic in their arrangement, redolent of enlarged film-strips. In ‘Selbst II, 1–12 (Self II, 1–12)’ (1975), Soltau’s head is seen from slightly different angles in each frame, and is progressively seen embroidered with thread patterns over her face, the painful, tangled layers of which complicate the singular, illusionistic photograph. Using once-debased materials, the cutting of the thread in the last frame becomes an overriding metaphor for freedom. The exhibition could be criticised for not addressing the intersection of race, gender and sexuality, particularly the various positions within black lesbian feminism and the problem with race privilege during the same period as the works on display. Yet it successfully demonstrates the historical significance of these artists’ works and, moving beyond a singular facet of feminist art practice, the various representational positions that were carried out by and for women.