Exhibition Review: re: birth by Spilt Milk

Spilt Milk is a Scottish social enterprise whose main goal is to promote mother artists and give them more opportunities. Anyone who identifies as a mother can become a member, and all members can exhibit in their members’ show. This year’s theme “re: birth” has inspired the artists to submit a variety of works, ranging through an incredible array of media and subject matters. It invited many interpretations, with works addressing questions on pregnancy, breastfeeding, one’s relationship with a child, or one’s identity (or loss of identity) as a mother. Themes of domesticity underlie this exhibition, highlighting the complex ways that motherhood and domestic spaces go hand in hand in our collective imaginary.

‘We Used to Be So Much Closer’, Laura Ajayi

In the first corner of the exhibition, Suzanne Little’s Discharged (2019), with its crochet-ed stains on white cotton knickers, tells the story of a difficult pregnancy; Kasey Jones’ round belly contrasts with her pyramidal cage in Patriarch Confinement: The Business of Birth (2015), condemning the unnatural, sometimes damaging ways modern medicine manages childbirth; The Birth (1997) by Josie McCoy is a blunt depiction of a wrinkled child’s head coming out of a vagina. In the middle of these visceral considerations of childbirth lays Laura Ajayi’s intriguing sculpture We Used to Be So Much Closer (2017), a cord she weaved with lint she collected for eighteen months from her family’s dryer. Meaning is created and nuanced in the interaction of all these different creations treating different facets of such a complex topic as motherhood. Surrounded by these images of pregnancy, Ajayi’s soft sculpture invites questions about labour (birth) as well as domestic labour, and the sometimes-difficult negotiations a parent and a child must make around their relationship as it develops.

‘Unfold’, Charlene Scott

It is worth listing all the “ingredients” that make up Charlene Scott’s Unfold (2019): household paint, ink, graphite, milk, natural dyes and inks – made from cabbage, avocado, rowan tree bark, charcoal & sandstone – on satin, calico and canvas. Elements from one of Scott’s former projects were cut and stitched together to create this new piece. The textiles were transformed through various colouring processes involving everyday food scraps, household paints, and inks the artist created from charcoal and local sandstone. Given the nature of the dyes, the colours and patterns will inevitably keep changing through time. The artist says she likes the idea of the piece evolving beyond her. It is easy to draw parallels with the domestic work involved in raising a child who will also evolve beyond the parent’s control.

Mya Cluff explores what it feels like to occupy a body as a mother with Offering in White (2019). The uneven ceramic shows a body covered in stretch marks, surrounded by what looks like a white blanket. The series of photographs Ritual (2019) by Alexandra Knox also explores themes of the mother’s body as food, but in a very different manner. Whereas Knox’s piece is sexual, provocative and humorous, Cluff just confronts you, softly, with the fact that a mother makes a gift of her body and this will leave marks on her body forever. Similarly, Jill Skulina’s ceramic And Repeat (2018) shows a woman lying on her back, a tired look on her face, surrounded by breastmilk pumps. Skulina tells the story of how her baby was taken to the N.I.C.U and a nurse told her that her breastmilk would give her daughter better chances of survival. She had to pump regularly everyday for weeks, and this story is represented in the vessel. The many meanings of the word vessel make ceramics a perfect medium to discuss the role of a mother’s body as food. The way the mother is presented, with a stylised nimbus around her head, is reminiscent of the imagery of saints. The shape of the bowl vaguely resembles the shape of a baby’s body, but also calls to mind a baptismal font. The tedious, almost mundane task of pumping milk is elevated to a spiritual, sacred status. 

[From left to right] Toni Pepe, ‘Via Lactea’; Victoria Smits, ‘A Doll’s House: Nora’s Acumen’; Jill Skulina, ‘And Repeat’; Imogen di Sapia, ‘Chromosome 17’

What unites most of these pieces beyond the theme is the importance of the medium, the materials, in conveying affects and meanings. There is a physicality to them. We can sense the body involved in domestic labour or taking care of a child; it is palpable in the artwork. The last two pieces I want to discuss best embody this. Imogen di Sapia weaved Chromosome 17 (2019) as a reflection on her craft in relation to her matrilineal heritage. She discovered that her grandmothers were weavers as well and it posed questions about heritage, even when one is not aware of it. Drawing from both tradition and technology, she weaved her DNA into this tapestry; each line contains information about her and her ancestry. Di Sapia encourages the public to touch and smell her pieces, get physical with them. Finally, the piece that dominated the exhibition room was Interruptions, an installation by Mother Art: Revisited. Two texts intercut one another: a stern voice recites a manifesto, demanding good living conditions for all, while another says “it could have been my brother/cousin/neighbour/etc.” Footage from a laundrette is projected onto a wall; between the projector and the wall is a laundry line. On the line hangs an accumulation of textiles, textures, colours and messages: the manifesto’s text on a tablecloth, a jacket saying “Mexico”, a kitchen apron with paint stains, a baby blanket with crosses stitched on it, a child’s political questions on handkerchiefs.  This overwhelming set-up forces the spectator to analyse each detail in isolation in order to reconstruct meaning. The ensemble gives the impression of mothers organising politically as they perform domestic tasks. A home is a complicated, messy, layered place. Interruptions shows us how politics affect our domestic lives, and vice versa. This sentence has become a cliché but still holds truth: the personal is political.

Mother Art: Revisited – Interruptions

Find out more about Spilt Milk here.


Words by Alessandra Leruste

Navigating Cultural Liminality: Private Rooms by Ghada Amer

Image result for ghada amer private room

Offering a critique of imperialist thought, Edward Said’s Orientalism created a paradigmatic shift in understanding the relationship between Western (Occidental) and non-Western (Oriental) cultures. Yet Orientalism still pervades mainstream representations of non-Western cultures, which oscillate between intense fetishization and demonization, often in almost the same breath. See for example Dalia Dawood’s description of the Aladdin remake, released this year, as ‘yet another example of Hollywood constantly misrepresenting the Middle East either as a barbaric place of war and terror or exoticised as one full of allure and belly dancers.’[1] Self-Orientalism, then, is when the East or non-Western individuals represent themselves through the eyes of the West, reflecting the unequal cultural relationship. Cross-cultural representation is therefore fraught with difficulties, and culturally liminal artists are often tasked – willingly or unwillingly – with negotiating these difficulties.

Ghada Amer was born in Egypt but moved to France at a young age where she was then educated, she now lives and works in New York City. This background places Amer firmly within the precarious culturally liminal zone. In Private Rooms (1998), Amer negotiates the danger of eliciting the Western desire for the culturally Other whilst simultaneously employing explicitly cultural material for Western art consumption. The piece explores the themes of culture and sexuality, both sites of intense Orientalist interest, further complicating Amer’s negotiation task in avoiding the pitfall of self-Orientalising.

Private Rooms is emblematic of Amer’s oeuvre in its use of embroidery, calligraphy and allusion to the female body. These material and visual techniques all speak in some way to Amer’s thematic concerns surrounding sexuality and culture; a sculpture comprised of fifteen suspended satin garment bags, dyed with rich saturated tones of blue, pink, green, orange and grey whose shape mimic the body of a woman in chador. The satin of the garment bags shimmer responsively to the light and are offset by the clinical white gallery walls. These material characteristics lend the piece a voluptuous beauty and life-like presence within the gallery space. On closer inspection, one will find embroidered across the satin garment bags all of the sentences that speak about women in the Qur’an, translated into French.

Embroidery

By using the medium of embroidery Amer participates in the tradition of feminist embroidery art which aims to elevate the medium of needlework, a medium which has been historically feminised and thus not considered a ‘high art’ form. Rozsika Parker aptly describes how embroidery ‘has provided a source of pleasure and power for women, while being indissolubly linked to their powerlessness.’[2]  We can see clearly how this consideration might be applied to the female body and sexuality, a site of both power and oppression. Thus, by applying embroidery directly onto the chador-like figures, Amer brings this allegorical comparison into sharp relief.  However, Amer complicates the Western focus of the feminist embroidery tradition. Whilst Amer’s use of embroidery has been discussed in reference to English sewing practices, we should note the historical Orientalist interest in oriental carpets that it also connotes. This complicates Amer’s allusions through embroidery because they come to represent not only the relegation of female arts, but also the Orientalist fascination with Eastern craft products, an interest which was served and perpetuated by an unequal system of cultural and economic imperialist relations.[3] Rather than reinforcing oppositional notions of Us and Them, Private Rooms through its use of embroidery unites diverse experiences of oppression which occur in both Western and Eastern cultures. Rather than using Eastern cultural imagery/material to cultivate an Orientalist sense of ‘authenticity’ or intrigue for Western art consumption, she situates her materials within a universal framework.

Calligraphy

Through use of the embroidered word, Amer makes reference to the calligraphic tradition which is so central to Islamic art. However, Amer interferes with the visual language of Islamic calligraphic traditions through her use of heavy-handed stitching, inclusion of loose dangling threads and use of capitalised roman script.[4]  This unorthodox use of the calligraphic medium reveals the possibility of operating within the aesthetic boundaries of a culture whilst inflecting it with a unique sense of identity. Another dimension is added to the calligraphic element of the work by the fact it represents words from the Qur’an: due to the special reverence for the Qur’an in Islam as being both miraculous and inimitable, this could be considered inherently subversive. However, within the Islamic tradition, once the Qur’anic word is translated it no longer possesses the uniquely sacred character of the Arabic original. Amer therefore simultaneously demonstrates cultural respect, or desire to avoid offence, by not using the original holy Arabic, whilst gently challenging the tradition by asserting her right to use and reflect upon the text (and to assert a specifically gendered reflection through the inclusion only of verses which refer to women). Thus, Amer demonstrates the ability to be simultaneously respectful and critical of a culture through her ambivalent use of the Qur’anic word. Furthermore, the use of translation foregrounds an important thematic concern: that of the inevitable translation effect in encounters between different languages, and more broadly, between different cultures.

Female Dress and The Female Form

Whilst not being a figurative piece Private Rooms is saturated with allusions to female dress and the female form. As Fereshteh Daftari perceptively observes, the loose threads in her embroidered works evoke ‘the reverse side of a highly finished sartorial item.’[5] As previously mentioned, the suspended figures evoke an image of chador clad Muslim women and the use of clothing bags as the primary material only serves to make this link more lucid. A multiplicity of meanings are latent within the sartorial body imagery of Private Rooms. The female form is symbolised as hanging lifelessly, as closed within a metaphorical chador, evoking a claustrophobia that is enhanced by the use of bags which create a symbolic double enclosure. This claustrophobic imagery is then further enclosed with textual embroidery. We must peel back many layers to reveal the physical body which lies beneath. In this way, Amer successfully reflects the layers of coded social meaning, as well as physical layers, which wrap the female body. This is particularly pertinent within the framework of the Western fascination for Islamic veiling practices, as well as revivalist Islamic movements’ emphasis on the same. Amer demonstrates how women are encased within sartorial expectations, as well as the weight of tradition. The Western art spectator adds a final layer of ideologically coded wrapping as they view the piece.

Even in her use of Oriental cultural material then, in this instance cultural sartorial material, Amer is able to avoid over-simplification by consciously questioning the layers of meaning which are piled onto the female form. Furthermore, she brings the Western art consumer into the process of meaning-making, encouraging them to question their complicity in the process of ideological entrapment of women in general, and Muslim women in particular. Additionally, the sensual beauty of the fabric and colours used in the piece act to offset the dark and heavy image associated with Islamic restrictions of dress and thus undermine Orientalist perceptions of the traditional Islamic woman.

Through her use of embroidery, calligraphy and imagery of the sartorial female form, in Private Rooms Amer presents a nuanced and sensitive vision of cultural difference. She avoids reasserting tropes from the ‘Occidental script’ and thus reinforcing oppositional notions of Us and Them. Instead she unites diverse experiences of oppression across cultures and undermines Occidental notions of Islamic womanhood in various ways such as through presenting diverse Qur’anic views on the subject. Furthermore, she universalises her materials, as can be seen in the use of embroidery, or shows the potential to adapt cultural material, as can be seen in her subversion of the Islamic medium of calligraphy. Importantly, she demonstrates consciousness of the Western consumer of her work, and consciously creates room for this viewing dynamic within the piece and in doing so takes control of this viewing dynamic: the very antithesis of self-Orientalising. The piece thus utilises Amer’s status as a liminal artist between cultures to bridge the cultural dichotomy between Us and Them rather than reinforce it.


Words by Alis Shea


[1] Dalia Dawood, ‘The new Aladdin film is shot in Surrey, but that’s the least of its problems’, Gal-dem (28 May 2019) http://gal-dem.com/the-new-aladdin-film-is-just-as-orientalist-as-the-last/ [accessed 24th October 2019].

[2] Laura Auricchio, ‘Works in Translation: Ghada Amer’s Hybrid Pleasures’, Art Journal (2001), p. 27. 

[3] Brian Spooner, ‘Weavers and dealers: authenticity of an oriental carpet,’ in The Social Life of Things, ed. Arjun Appaduri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 224.

[4] Fereshteh Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, Anthropology and Aesthetics (2003), p. 177. 

[5] Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, p. 177. 

Review: Breaking Down Doors with Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202)’, 1970-73. Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls 133 7/8 x 122 1/8 x 185 in.

The Tate’s first large-scale exhibition of artist Dorothea Tanning for twenty-five years offers one hundred works from her incredible seven-decade career and leads the viewer from room to room. This is rather apt, as Tanning’s paintings hinge on the transitory. Doors are often left ajar, hanging open with light peeking through in ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, or leading to a mise en abyme of other doorways in ‘Birthday’, or literally protruding from the canvas in ‘Door 84’ as two female figures push against the frame. As the gallery-goer wanders from room to room, through doorway after doorway, they transverse deeper into the unsettling, disturbing and brilliant wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser, the eight rooms vaguely follow the chronological trajectory of Illinois-born Tanning, from her early engagement with gothic oil-paint tableau that saw realism collide with fantasy, to flamboyant costume designs for the ballet and theatre, to her later paintings which are looser, more abstract and gestural, where body parts merge into unintelligible, uncanny dioramas of colour and affect. Throughout the later rooms soft, fabric, textile and oddly tactile material sculptures (created on Tanning’s sewing machine and stuffed with wool) burst through wallpaper and protrude from stands; a disembodied pregnant bulge here (‘Emma’), a curved leg there.

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Deux mots (Two Words)’, 1963. Oil on canvas 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.

Tanning first encountered surrealism in the 1930s, having moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist. She described and embraced surrealism as a ‘limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY’, with a profound ‘effort to plumb our deepest subconscious to find out about ourselves’. This impulse to engage with the deepest and often darkest parts of human nature can be seen across her phenomenal oeuvre. Walking into the first room, her famous ‘Endgame’ stands to the right of the entrance, denoting a surreal chessboard and a stamping glass slipper. This playful piece, the curators state, ‘represents intellectual and artistic interplay with members of the surrealist circle, as well as her romantic link with Ernst.’ The vague story of Tanning and the surrealist painter Max Ernst’s meeting has been told many times; he would name her self-portrait ‘Birthday’ (many critics have cited this as the ‘birth’ of her as a surrealist painter) , play a game of chess after the exhibition they met at, and then would marry in 1946. Ernst and his influence is often discussed in conflation with Tanning’s artistic practice; but, walking through the many rooms in this brilliant exhibition, thoughts of Ernst barely make it through the first door.

What overwhelms the exhibition is Tanning’s engagement with the female body and desire. Bodies are often depicted in movement, flux or transition. Whether it’s a liminal lingering on the precipice of a doorway (‘Birthday’), dancing (‘Tango Lives’), or caught in a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of oil paint where you can just about make out the shape of a torso or an arm (‘Deux Mot’); the paintings are sensual, sinister and evasive in their depiction of space, movement and embodiment.

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Tango Lives’, 1977. Oil on canvas 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.

Perhaps this fixation with movement or motion within her painting is a means of resistance,  flight and freedom. These paintings move away from or outside of the hegemonic, patriarchal constraints of convention, gender stereotypes, tradition, marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Tanning’s soft sculpture of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is ‘Emma’ is a stark and startling commentary on motherhood and tradition; a huge cushiony pregnant stomach that protrudes from dirty, tea-stained Victorian frills and lace. Tanning’s ‘Maternity’ is set in a harsh, overwhelming and infinite desert where a despondent mother cradles her child and a small, Pekingese dog looks out to the viewer with a human child’s face amid the fluffy dangling dog ears. Tanning’s depiction of maternity is odd, affronting and ominous. Room Three shows Tanning’s many depictions of a sinister ‘Family Table’. She subverts traditional notions of a family dinner table, stating these paintings are ‘generally a comment on the hierarchy within the sacrosanct family’. A huge, towering and authoritarian father figure looms in the background in ‘Portrait de Famille’, and ‘Some Roses and Their Phantoms’ scatters wilted, decrepit petals over dinner plates.

The most striking is the installation piece that awaits around a corner in Room Seven: ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202’. A dusty french hotel room with soft fabric limbs, bellies and shapes that capture a startling yet sensual sense of the uncanny valley as bulges of stuffed fabric are contorted in what might be pain or pleasure. Whether it’s an episode of Stranger Things with demogorgons bursting through walls, or perhaps a line from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper: ‘I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?’, or the song that Tanning named the installation sculpture after; this piece is hugely evocative and haunting. The odd material limbs extend out of the walls, merge with the furniture and encroach on one’s very own sense of materiality. Caught in motion between object and subject, alive or inanimate, Tanning reflects that she wanted the dingy hotel room to look as if ‘the wallpaper will further tear with screams’.  

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Emma’, 1970. Fabric, wool, and lace 11 11/16 x 25 3/8 x 21 5/8 in. (body: 11 1/4 x 22 x 12 1/2 in.)

Through these eight rooms, through the doorways in and protruding out of Tanning’s work, and through this collection spanning her seven-decade career, this exhibition demonstrates and celebrates her profound contribution to surrealism as a movement, and explores the ways her subversive approach to craft, practice and feminism dismantled the reductive tyranny of the patriarchal family portrait, motherhood and allowed the female form to launch itself chaotically and gloriously through new doorways to explore, as Tanning desires, ‘unknown but knowable states’.

Dorothea Tanning is at the Tate Modern, London, until 9 June 2019. Book tickets here.


Words: Polly Hember, a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London.


All artwork by Dorothea Tanning, images courtesy of https://www.dorotheatanning.org/

Spotlight: Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė

OBJECTS TO COMPARE. 2009. Iron details, cotton. Cross stitch, drilling

The embroidery works of Lithuanian artist Severija Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė takes texture to a new level. She takes metal as her starting point – buckets, spades, even cars – and stitches into them. Challenging the domestic association with embroidery, these found objects are placed into the public realm. The kitsch cosiness that Inčirauskaitė-Kriaunevičienė associates with cross-stitching is given a twist as she pokes through metal gives new life to discarded objects. She draws on a post-Soviet landscape in Lithuania in her work, as she writes on her website “in the postwar years, our grandmothers stitched tablecloths in the villages, and the paths were so decorated, and in the Soviet era, our mothers made crossed cushions and napkins through household lessons”. This intergenerational skill-sharing is then developed in her practice, to question sentimentality and access to embroidery practices. She doesn’t want to make “private kitsch for private interiors” but rather expose the work, patience and mindfulness that goes into the cross-stitch practice. Taking the floral designs from hobby magazines, these “popular culture citations” make us look back at the origins of the techniques. These established traditions recontextualise the objects they adorn – whether that’s on broken gun shells or metal spoons. Imbued with new use, these forgotten objects might tap into a nostalgic aesthetic but actually point us towards history in a new way.

WITH LOVE FROM…”. 2018. WWII FlaK anti-aircraft gun shell. Cross stitch embroidery, drilling.
WITH LOVE FROM…”. 2018. Detail

Every Stick Has Two Ends, 2012. Shovel parts, wood, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
MORNING TRIO. 2014. Metal pan, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
MORNING TRIO. 2014. Detail
Greed, 2012. Metal spoon, cotton, Cross stitch, drilling.
After Party, 2013. Tin can, cotton. Cross-stitch, drilling.
Between City and Country, 2009. Metal bucket, watering can, milk can. Cross-stitch, drilling. 

Words: Jade French

All photos: Modestas Ežerskis.

http://www.severija.lt

Pinkie McClure Makes Stained Glass Sing

Pinkie McClure is an artist using the allegorical power of medieval stained glass as a vehicle for contemporary expression. Stained glass was invented in the 12th century to communicate to a largely illiterate population, its vivid colours having a seductive quality that’s hard to resist. However, its narrative role has been largely abandoned in recent years, which is something she hopes to change by making work that reflects the world around us today.

Artist Statement: On ‘Beauty Tricks’

My goal is to seduce the eye, but crucially, to deal with contemporary subject matter, telling darkly humorous stories from modern life.  When I started work on ‘Beauty Tricks’ I wanted to make something beautiful. This led me to question interpretations of beauty and immediately a multitude of thorny contradictions popped up.

I decided to explore the way the beauty industry affects us and our environment. The central figure is based around a classic madonna, but she has liposuction lines on her torso and  hypodermic needles and scalpels adorning her halo. Her nipples have been censored. Two little girls gaze up at her beautiful pink frock from a grey world of abandoned plastic containers. Above her, medieval scales traditionally used to symbolise the ‘weighing of souls’ refer to  the long-running L’Oreal ad ‘worth it, not worth it’. A woman fires a gun at a mirror, smashing it to smithereens. To her left, a ‘kindly’ grandmother knits a web of Barbie dolls and to her right is a bulimic Rapunzel. The palm trees refer to the palm oil industry, the roses symbolise feminine beauty. At the top, Satan is hopping across the towers of Oxbridge with a pile of books heaped on his back, stealing all the knowledge while the women are distracted.

Other work:

‘Landfill Tantrum’ (2013)
Self-portrait Dreaming of Portavadie (2019)
‘The Storm’ (2017)
‘Stop Go.’ (2015)
Rewilding at the Clootie Tree (2016)

https://www.pinkiemaclure.net

Geta Brătescu: The Dance of Form

Geta Bratescu – The Line, 2014 from Stefan Sava on Vimeo.

At the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Romanian Pavilion, Geta Brătescu’s exhibition ‘Apparitions’ cemented her status as a rising star on the international art scene. Aged ninety-one, Brâtescu was something of an unusual art world darling, yet she was well-known in her native Romania for a rich, multidisciplinary body of work that she would develop up until her death in September 2018.  Subsequent exhibitions of her late work have emphasised the surprising ways that Brătescu continued to add depth to her innovative oeuvre. The drawings and collage pieces on display at Hauser and Wirth London’s exhibition The Power of the Line offer a vibrant display of bright shapes, jazzy geometric patterns, and lines that romp across the paper making manifest the physical ‘gestures of the [artist’s] body’. Her collages recall the energy of Matisse’s late cut-outs and the colourful verve of Miro; yet they express a kinetic and performative zest that is uniquely Brătescu’s and that threads, in various guises, throughout her seven-decade-long career.  

Geta Brătescu Courtesy the artist, Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and Hauser & Wirth

 ‘Armstrong’, the first piece that greets visitors to Hauser and Wirth’s The Power of the Line, is a joyous introduction to Brătescu’s musical, mercurial form. A collaged photograph of musician Louis Armstrong is followed by a concertina sequence of colour and pattern that bursts from his trumpet. Vibrant yellow and red tones evoke an ecstatic explosion of music; jagged, rhythmic lines of thick crayon dance through each section, occasionally merging to form flailing Keith Haring-esque figures. Brătescu drew ‘Armstrong’ with her eyes closed, channelling her own inner visions in a manner that recalls Surrealist automatic drawing. This method demonstrates Brătescu’s absolute faith in the line’s expressive physicality; like singing and dancing, the act of drawing lines on the page communicates the rhythms of the physical world around us. She worked across many mediums, but the line remained a fundamental part of her artistic vision and practice:

“The spider’s thread borne away on the wind is a flying line. Drawing owes a huge amount to the energy with which the hand traces lines and the character of this energy is determined by the character, the mood, the culture, the vision of the artist. In fact, it is a mysterious phenomenon. To trace a line, a simple line, with the feeling and awareness that you are producing expression; that line is necessary to you beyond reason.”

Although her work has a clear relationship with non-objective abstract art, Brătescu creates an embodied art that is in dialogue with the material, ephemeral everyday world. Works assembled from discarded objects, such as crumpled paper, coffee sticks, matchboxes, netting, nod to Kurt Schwitters; in her journal, Brătescu described Schwitters’ Merz as the epitome of the conflict ‘between the ideal of the gesture and the perishability of the matter caught up in the gesture’ – an impression that gains a particular resonance when viewing pieces created by a housebound artist at the end of her life. Like Brătescu’s earlier performance art and work with fragile textiles, the drawings and collages on display at Hauser and Wirth express a sense of the finite. Many bear the traces of the artist’s labour: faded lines where the marker pen begins to fail, patches of glue, the trace of pencil marks. This also speaks of the spontaneity of Brătescu’s approach, which is evident in Gestul, desunul (‘The gesture, the drawing’), a wonderfully engaging film of Brătescu working and reflecting on her process with fellow Romanian artist Stefan Sava. She is shown seated at her desk, utterly absorbed by the paper she works on; her hands shake and, at times, struggle with the pen. As she inks in blocks of colour, she jokingly acknowledges the painstaking effort, asking first Sava and then the pen in her hand if they ‘have the patience’ for her process. This hands-on, slow method is essential for an artist who understood drawing as a gesture of the body; a physical act, like a dance, through which she explored and captured the world around her. Brătescu’s reading of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu offers an insight into her own perspective: she describes Proust’s world as one of ‘absolute tactility…full of forms and colors, not so much seen as traversed’, words that could easily be applied to her own creations.


Geta Brătescu, Medea’s 10 Hypostases, 1980, Collection of Adam & Mariana Clayton, London. Photo: Stefan Sava

Brătescu shied away from politics: she dismissed feminism as ‘a uniform’, played down the experience of life under Romania’s repressive communist regime, and declared her studio to be an ‘apolitical’ space. Yet, the centrality of the body throughout her oeuvre hints at a certain political intent. For a series of works inspired by Medea (the Medeic Forms of the late 1970s), Brătescu used her mother’s old clothes and created a method she called ‘drawing on textile with sewing machine’. These unsettling abstract textile works suggest the violence and conflicted desires of womanhood, as well as the stifling strictures society places on them. Aesop, another mythological figure, featured prominently in Brătescu’s work as a joker; her fondness for him and for the more modern fool Charlie Chaplin suggests a similarly disruptive design behind her ludic lines. In the late drawings, they impishly morph into smiling faces and shapes that evoke breasts, ova, and sperm, evoking a defiant joi de vivre that mocks autocrats and old age alike. Following Brătescu’s lines lead us into a space both playful and profound, where our expectations of avant-garde culture, age, and gender are upended and a joyous chaos of form reigns.

Geta Brătescu: The Power of the Line was on display at Hauser and Wirth London, 27 Feb – 27 Apr 2019.

Words: Lottie Whalen