Exhibition Review: Photography meets Feminism. MGA

Monash Gallery of Art, Victoria
Until 7 December 2014

In any epoch, it was easier to be male. In the 1970s and ’80s, for example, a male painter could feel supported by a feeling of greatness, as if his daub carried the canon forward in landscape or abstraction, popism or neo-impressionism.

To be female in the epoch meant living alongside this self-sustaining fantasy of grandeur, which even reached into ideological practices. All enlightened fields were full of charismatic boys, who swiftly embraced non-material genres, like performance, social sculpture and installation.

The period brought special pressure upon art history. As feminism took on among intellectuals of both sexes, art history would sometimes be interrogated to account for the reasons why there were relatively few great female artists.

While art historians would create reasonable apologies and impute the deficit to centuries of disadvantage to women, it was left to women artists to construct a view of art that redefined the stakes. They sought a vision that didn’t see art as line-honours in transcendent inventions but a conversation that furthered the sympathy and consciousness of the community.
A well-curated exhibition at the MGA lets us examine the epoch through women’s eyes. Called Photography meets feminism: Australian women photographers 1970s-80s, the exhibition is one of those huge undertakings that could always have been huger.

Much of the photography belongs to a documentary genre but it usually manages to make a point. An example is Helen Grace’s images of Women at work from 1976 and her wilfully monotonous washing lines with a wicked title: Women seem to adapt to repetitive-type tasks from ’78.
A touching expression of female solidarity is Ponch Hawkes’ series Our mums and us from ’76. It portrays female artists together with their mothers, mostly in unglamorous suburban locations. The first-name titles, like Margaret and Micky, reflect usage among family and friends.

These unassuming pictures are also profound in defying the archetypical hostility by which psychoanalysis defines the mother-daughter relationship. Instead of castration, we have unabashed intimacy. This inter-generational sweetness is also seen in Christine Godden’s works like Joanie Lynny and baby from the early ’70s, where an artist or artist’s friend is the mum.
Perhaps because of a wariness of greatness, few of the works are iconic, including the uncomfortable and messy visions of Julie Brown-Rrap as a kind of crucifix. Rather, most women in the exhibition used photography to reach out to people.

Photography is the ideal medium to connect with the community generally, not just women, because photography ranges inclusively across different classes. An example is Ruth Maddison’s Vehicle Builders Union Ball, Collingwood Town Hall from ’79.

There are clever pockets of critique. The collection of popular imagery by Sandy Edwards is witty, putting sexualised women in a box, where the stereotypes are secreted in a kind of photo-tomb.

The series by Virginia Coventry is also conceptually challenging. Titled Miss world televised, Coventry’s images from ’76 capture portraits from a beauty contest on TV. Alas, the high shutter speed doesn’t sync with the cathode-ray tube on the old television set, and a blank glitch intervenes in the field. This coincidental defacement seems somehow poetic, as the organ of mass-diffusion of a tacky female stereotype turns out to be a black mark against natural beauty itself.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the show is that many of the best works are not about feminism. Pat Brassington’s photography is psychologically profound and symbolises much unconscious discomfort; but it isn’t political in any dimension.

Another artist with photographic monumentality is Robyn Stacey, whose hand-coloured photographs are both historicist and transfigured. The uncanny country picnic with an FJ Holden seems like a memory, both extremely sharp and present as an experience and yet remote as a historical reality.

Perhaps it’s a record of childhood, which in other ways Stacey possibly sought to re-create by going on a tour of country towns as a mature woman together with her mother. Her itinerary of shacks and stores is again touchingly hand-coloured, with a glow of pathos that could almost sum up the gesture of so many female artists to connect in an alienating world.

From The Age