Monday, July 09, 2012

Three free female exhibitions

Three free retrospectives by three iconic female artists have opened recently, two in London and one in Oxford. All are worth a look.

Yoko Ono: To The Light (Serpentine Gallery)
The 79-year-old conceptual artist has never been much liked by critics or public. Critics call her work either too facile (her anti-war pieces) or too obtuse (everything else) and the public hate her because John Lennon fell in love with her. Go figure. Me, I quite like her. Controversially, I find her music more exciting than Lennon's ever was. I love her last album, 2009's Between My Head And The Sky. Oko was actually an established artist before she ever met John, so she's been producing art and music for some fifty years now. She's had an amazing life and is now a cultural institution more than anything else. See it and smile.

Madge Gill (The Nunnery)
Outsider artist Gill was born in East Ham in 1882 and grew up in an orphanage before spending her teens in Canada. She married her cousin and got very ill after giving birth to a stillborn baby, losing the sight of her left eye. During her return to health Madge became increasingly interested in spiritualism and became possessed by Myrinerest, her spirit-guide. Under the spirit's guidance she produced all kind of art, including drawing, knitting and weaving. In the 1930s she became a medium, conducting seances in her living room. She never sold any drawings in her lifetime (though she did exhibit), fearing it would anger Myrinerest. After her death in 1961, thousands of drawings were discovered in her home.

The small retrospective at the Nunnery, near Bromley-by-Bow tube, shows a selection of her intense, intricate pen and ink drawings.

Jenny Saville (Modern Art Oxford)
Jenny Saville's unflinching large scale paintings will be familiar to most via two Manic Street Preachers' album covers, 1994's The Holy Bible and 2009's Journal for Plague Lovers.

Even though she's been a professional artist since the early 1990s when her entire degree show was bought by Charles Saatchi, and she had her work exhibited with the YBAs (Young British Artists) at the controversial 1997 Sensation exhibition, amazingly this is the first time Saville has had a solo UK exhibition. If you're wondering why it's in Oxford, it's because she lives there (or, as the publicity blurb says, she's 'based' in Oxford. People don't 'live' in places any more, they're 'based', implying some detachment, a lack of commitment, the possibility of uprooting at a moment's notice. Maybe it just sounds cooler. Either way, it comes across as poncy and I don't like it).

Anyway, I love her paintings. Though obviously a figurative painter, in the documentary which accompanies the show, Saville surprisingly describes herself as an abstract and landscape painter. But standing in front of the paintings, it's not so surprising. They're monumental in size (a nipple the size of my head), the folds of female flesh evoking hills and dales. Up close, the large paint strokes appear blotchy, splattered and abstract.

Saville also has two large drawings in the nearby Ashmolean. Almost doing a Banksy in Bristol, where the graffiti artist planted artworks amongst the other – more traditional – exhibits in the gallery, Saville has likewise placed her drawings alongside traditional Italian Renaissance paintings. The comparison doesn't really work, as Saville's are drawings and the rest paintings but her technique is brilliant – one drawing is based on Leonardo's cartoon in the National Gallery and Saville's looks as good as the master's.

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