Editorial 4: Materiality & Making

‘Craft’ is a broad term. It encompasses a myriad of disciplines and numerous techniques. It might be hand-made or machine guided. It might start life as a utilitarian object before becoming a historical artefact. Craft is always evolving. But something all crafts have in common is tactility. Through acts of weaving, sculpting, stitching, layering, piecing together and unravelling, craft foregrounds its own materiality and invites us to enter into it, touch it, live with it…

Touch is explored in Briony Hughes’s ONE PORTION LIES REVERSED, which brings to life archival documents in a book that is creased to reveal and conceal different information. Our hands are invited to unfold different elements to create an interactive dialogue with the original letters used as source material. For example, uncovering a letter from Virginia Woolf to Gladys Easdale mimics the way that Easdale would have handled the letter, opening the envelope before peeling back the paper down carefully creased folds. From carefully unfolding to ripping it all up, Izzie Beirne’s collage work explores how beauty cultures merge with porn industries, and questions the effect this has on self-perceptions. For our new feature ‘Practice-Based’, Izzie tells us in her own words about her methods, using a heat press to imprint the collages before folding and scrunching the fabric they’re printed onto.  

In Nadja Gabriela Plein’s artist statement she writes: ‘I work with my fingers, with brushes, paper towels, silicon shapers, sand paper… I work with oil paint, pencils, colour pencils, crayons, oil sticks’. Plein maneuvers a myriad of materials as she pushes and pulls the colours with her hands over the canvases. The physicality of her artwork is reflected on in her essay for this issue, as she questions the gendered adjectives we apply to the simple movement of the brushstroke. In her article, she calls for a ‘radical non-essentialism’ that might untangle gender from the materials and artistic actions used by artists. Sharon Haward picks up on a similar tension between the masculine/feminine and how this dynamic plays out materially in her interview with Jade French. Haward’s practice explores the ‘contrast between rigid structures and fluid forms’ and the recent project HOMEWORK filtered this through an exploration of women architects, contrasting Le Corbusier’s, concept of architecture as a “machine for living” with Eileen Gray’s personal take on the role of architecture as a “protective shell against the world”. 

Emma West’s review of the recent exhibition Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, curated by Sacha Llewellyn, highlights the ways women artists used varied materials from painting and collage to woodcuts and sculpture. Drawing on her own research interests in women muralists from the first half of the twentieth century, West suggests that through knowledge exchanges and teaching networks, materials were passed down by women through specific traditions. As a public art, murals alter the texture of the shared built environment. They become a part of the community and the very creation of these large-scale works is a labour-intensive, collaborative process. Like craft, public art intervenes in everyday life, bringing us closer to art’s textures, materials, and forms; yet this closeness and familiarity can lead to neglect and a failure to understand the complex cultural and sociopolitical power structures that underpin this work. In an exploration of contemporary attitudes to public art, artist Martina Morger and writer Isabelle Thul ask how we can care for public sculptures made by women artists in ‘Cleaning Her.’ (2018). This concept was initially developed for an open call by the sculpture park Graz last year, a place where only 15.3% of the installed artworks are by female artists. This piece, finally performed in Glasgow, highlights women’s labour (paid and unpaid), as well as the attention that must go into caring for materials laid bare to the elements. 

In an article considering craft’s disruptive role in contemporary art, Katarina Kelsey demonstrates that craft objects are always in the process of becoming: ‘with ceramics there’s an oozing; in textiles there’s a fray’. We are implicated in this intensely physical process, our lives and bodies unfolding, being constantly stitched together, unpicked and repaired, alongside the art object. Craft is close to us, occupying space in our homes, against our skin, but its place in the market economy as well as in the lasting colonial legacies that allow museums to co-opt indigenous art, can also speak of alienation and violence. Craft can cause discomfort, laying bare troubling questions: as Julia Bryan Wilson reminds us, ‘some [craft] is vastly undervalued but central to the mechanisms of capitalism, while some is triumphed as ‘revolutionary’ and posited as a form of economic refusal.’ Multimedia artist Enam Gbewonyo strikingly explores the permeable boundary between closeness and estrangement present in man-made objects; in her art and performances, she works with tights to reveal how textiles enclose us in ways that can be protective or alienating, depending on gendered and racialised power structures. 

What kind of future can we imagine for design materials? That’s a question posed by a special issue journal ‘Other Biological Futures’. Our review explores the different articles, as well as how the practical meets conceptual; from shrinking humans, to decolonising edibility, and molecular time machines. From mushroom leathers to DNA dyes, the makers, curators, and scientists featured in the journal are all thinking through the way the materials of the planet might ‘better’ our lives. 

Review: Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950

In 2015, the novelist Kamila Shamsie issued a provocative call to arms to publishers: let’s make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women. What would happen, Shamsie asked, if publishers refused to publish any books by men during the centenary of women’s suffrage in 2018? In the end, only one publisher took up her challenge: the indie publisher And Other Stories, who published books exclusively by women in 2018.

Shamsie might be heartened, however, to see that things are changing, albeit slowly, in both the literary and art worlds. This autumn sees the launch of a new series of books by women about women artists from Eiderdown Press. In London, Soho’s The Second Shelf bookshop has now joined Persephone Books in showcasing books by women: The Second Shelf sells rare and modern first editions by women; Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction by (mostly) women writers. Last month, Baltimore Museum of Art announced 2020 Vision, a year of exhibitions and events dedicated to the ‘presentation of the achievements of female-identifying artists’.

In all of these examples, I’m struck not by what’s lost or left out, but what’s gained. Far from being restrictive, the emphasis on work by women or non-binary artists and writers represents an exciting opportunity to discover new voices.

This sense of excitement and discovery permeated the recent exhibition Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, curated by Sacha Llewellyn. Designed as a ‘corrective to the exclusion of women from the “master” narratives of art’, Llewellyn assembled an extraordinary cross-section of women’s artistic output during the first half of the twentieth century, from painting to collage to woodcuts to sculpture.[1]

Installation view of Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900–1950, Leeds University Library Blog

In an art world often dominated by modernism, it was refreshing to see a wide variety of styles on display, with realist works placed alongside experiments in abstraction, Surrealism and Vorticism. Even as someone who works on this period, many of the names were new to me. What a delight to discover Marion Adnams, the ‘leading Surrealist in Derby’ and Joyce Bidder and Daisy Borne, two sculptors who shared a studio for over fifty years.[2]

Two paintings which particularly spoke to me were Anna Zinkeisen’s All the Colours of the Rainbow (1942) and Winifred Knights’s Edge of Abruzzi; Boat with three people on a lake (1924-30).

Anna Zinkeisen (1901–1976), 
All the Colours of the Rainbow, 1942, 
oil en grisaille
Collection of Rose Grimond / © The Artist’s Estate

Winifred Knights (1899–1947), 
Edge of Abruzzi; Boat with three people on a lake, 1924-30
oil on canvas
Private Collection / © The Artist’s Estate, Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn

Both paintings are characterised by an extraordinary stillness, one that vacillates between a calm serenity and a creeping sense of eeriness. There is something so strange about the contradiction between Zinkeisen’s title and her monochrome palette; looking at Edge of Abruzzi, I was left unsettled by the flat, unruffled water. These are works which ask or invite questions. They encourage dialogue. They draw you in.

In the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Knights’s son John Monnington writes poignantly about being ‘totally ignorant’ of his mother’s ‘true abilities’ when he was growing up.[3] These commentaries, written by academics, artists, writers and family members to accompany each artwork, constitute perhaps the most inventive part of the exhibition. The commentaries are variously enlightening, mysterious and intimate. I loved Griff Rhys Jones on what entrances him about Edith Grace Wheatley’s The China Cupboard (1910), and Frances Fyfield on her encounter with Amy Glady Donovan’s Self-portrait (1926), a work she rechristens as ‘Girl with Buttons’.[4] This mix of biography, autobiography and criticism is innovative and inspiring. It’s a useful reminder to those in academia that human and emotional responses to artworks are as valid as the intellectual or critical.

Useful, too, are the artist biographies, collected and collated by Llewellyn and Alanna Jones. These are a veritable gold mine for future research projects: could anything be more tempting to a researcher than the phrase ‘little is known about…’? Alongside Llewellyn’s introductory catalogue essay, these biographies give a sense of the professionalisation of women artists during this period, and the career opportunities available to them. Some of my favourite works at the exhibition were designs for murals, such as Barbara Jones’s The Resort (1950), Doris Zinkeisen’s [‘Work’] Artist’s record of mural designed for the Arts and Crafts exhibition (1916) and Margaret L. Duncan’s Reigate and its Environments (late 1930s).

Barbara Jones (1912–1978), 
The Resort,1950
tempera on panel
Private Collection / © Tony Raymond

Margaret L. Duncan (1906–1979), 
Reigate and its Environments, c. 1920, 
egg and size tempera on fine cotton, mounted on wood panels
Private Collection / © The Artist’s Estate

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching women muralists from the first half of the twentieth century, including Dorothy Annan, Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge, Mary Adshead, Nan West, Evelyn Dunbar and Olga Lehmann. I’ve yet to establish what drew so many women to the mural form, but I’m beginning to piece together networks of women muralists, especially those working in art education. Before visiting the exhibition, I spent the morning in the University of Leeds’s Special Collections reading Athene, the journal of the Society for Education in Art. In it, I’d come across a 1942 article by Peggy Angus on her use of murals with children evacuated from Streatham High School to Chichester. Angus describes working with students, teachers and fellow artists to produce a series of four murals depicting local scenes, designed to instil a sense of civic awareness and appreciation for the new landscape in which they found themselves.[5]

‘Finishing touches to the painting of Dell Quay, on the West Wall’, in Peggy Angus, ‘Studios at Work’, in Athene, 2.1 (June 1942), Brotherton Collection. Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library. 

Angus’s account hints at hidden or forgotten matrilineal exchanges of knowledge, in which women artists taught the next generation of women artists in primary and secondary schools. This exchange is something which still continues today: just this year, the University of Leeds partnered with artists and the Hyde Park community to produce a new series of murals, five out of six of which were designed by women. Workshops were held at Brudenell Primary School, in which children created artwork inspired by their experiences of Hyde Park; in turn, this artwork inspired Emma Hardaker’s and Fem Sorcell’s murals.

A greater awareness of women’s historical involvement in the mural form would no doubt inspire future projects like the Hyde Park or Streatham High School murals. By introducing viewers to the range and diversity of women’s artistic expression in modern Britain, Fifty Works creates a space for new conversations, research projects and exhibitions. I only hope that other galleries will follow suit.

Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, curated by Sacha Llewellyn, appeared at The Ambulatory at The Mercer’s Company, London, 3 December 2018 – 23 March 2019 and the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds, 9 April – 27 July 2019. The exhibition catalogue, including a commentary on each work, is out now. Images courtesy of Liss Llewellyn and University of Leeds.

Dr Emma West is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She is currently writing her first book, Art for the People: Democracy and the Arts in Modern Britain


[1] Sacha Llewellyn, ‘Introduction’, in Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, ed. by Sacha Llewellyn (London: Liss Llewellyn, 2018), pp. 10-11 (p. 10).

[2] Minoo Dinshaw, ‘Marion Adnams’, in Fifty Works, p. 55; Ayla Lepine, ‘Daisy Borne’, in Fifty Works, p. 67.

[3] John Monnington, ‘Winifred Knights’, in Fifty Works, p. 121.

[4] Griff Rhys Jones, ‘Edith Grace Wheatley’, in Fifty Works, p. 145; Frances Fyfield, ‘Amy Gladys Donovan’, in Fifty Works, p. 89.

[5] Peggy Angus, ‘Studios at Work: Streatham High School, Looking at Chichester’, Athene, 2.1 (June 1942): 17-19.

Performance: Cleaning Her

Though conceptualised for the sculpture park in Graz, the performance piece Cleaning Her by Martina Morger was first executed in Glasgow’s Merchant City in 2018. In the run-up to the performance, the concept for Cleaning Her evolved to relate to the industrial past of Scotland’s largest city more specifically. Historically a point of intersection for international merchants and local retailers, Glasgow’s eastern city centre is now busy with bars, restaurants and cafes. Glasgow’s industrious past remains, however, written into the fabric of Merchant City’s architecture and cityscape. In this environment, Martina Morger chose to focus on the themes of both work and legacy. Being specifically interested in women’s history and domestic labour, her investigation centres around sculptures created by women artists. Within the performance, the artist cleaned the following five sculptures: Gorbals Boys by Liz Peden; Slow Down by Jacqueline Donachie; Mercat Cross by Margaret Findlay and Edith Burnet Hughes; Thinking of Bella by Shona Kilnoch and Dug-out Canoe Found AD 1871 by Louise Crawford and Ian Alexander. With three hours of labour ahead, the artist set out with a tin bucket of water, a household cloth and blue worker’s dungarees. Most of the sculptures were in poor condition and clearly in dire need of care. Assuming the guise of a maintenance worker, the artist traced the surfaces of each sculpture in both a caring and cleansing act towards these forgotten legacies of Merchant City’s female sculptors. The performance was not officially publicised, the authorities had not been informed and thus, this carefully devised work process went largely unnoticed.

Though the blue overalls are dissimilar to and thus distinct from those worn by the council’s employed maintenance workers, nobody stopped to question Martina’s Morger’s position. It seemed as though the blue work-wear suit rendered her largely invisible to the public eye. Wishing to utilise as little foreign objects as possible for the performance, the “costume” was kept as minimal as possible. The carefully devised aesthetic, however, allowed the artist to play with the tropes of an archetypal maintenance worker, a role which, as exemplified by the artist’s performance, goes mostly unnoticed by urban society. The fact that the artist herself is female draws further associations between this public service and domestic services which were traditionally (and are statistically still) performed predominantly by women. Through this association, the performance piece aligns with a history of female artists performing maintenance work in public spaces to draw attention to hidden and undervalued labour. Despite the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles having framed maintenance art as feminist practice as far back as the 1970s, the themes then addressed are still more than relevant in 2018. By cleaning the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum museum for example, Mierle Laderman Ukeles drew attention to the large number of women in service roles in stark contrast to their lacking representation amongst the museum’s management. Furthermore, the labour-intensive practices of both Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Martina Morger bring into discussion the many roles which female artists in particular must adopt to sustain themselves. Through the arduous and repetitive labour of cleaning, parallels were and are thus drawn between artistic practice, the hidden labour taking place within the home and the labour of maintenance workers caring for public spaces and buildings.

Arguably, the cleaning of public objects has gained new relevance in the age of social media. As the artist, Martina Morger states, our society has become even more obsessed with material values and aesthetics. Public artworks now feature as backdrops to pictures circulating on Instagram and the value of the works is thereby reduced to their outward aesthetic. Though the artist’s work is likewise focussed on the surface of the sculptures through her symbolic cleaning and maintenance, the time and care that has been given deliberately to sculptures made by female artists points towards a more focussed engagement with the history of the objects. The time taken to clean the sculptures somewhat mirrors the time and labour invested in their making. Questions arise around the identity of the sculptor, their intentions and the process by which the individual objects came to be. By tracing the objects with the cloth, the artist engages with the sculptures through a bodily experience that goes beyond the visual. Martina Morger describes her interactions with each sculpture as highly individual and intimate. From having to climb up onto the plinth of Thinking of Bella, reaching through a construction fence protecting The Gorbals Boys to being hindered by the fortress-like plinth of Mercat Cross the engagement with each sculpture is individual and physical.

The performance piece was concluded by the artist demonstratively pouring out the bucket of now filthy water. The layers of dirt that had gathered on the surfaces of the sculptures had become a testament to the negligence towards these public artworks. The process of cleaning within Martina Morger’s performance is best described as spiritual labour rather than maintenance work as the sculptures were thereby neither repaired nor revived. The artist does not propose that her performance breathed new life into the objects but rather sees her process as an act of care. By caring for our material possessions, we assign value to them, what then happens when public possession such as sculptures are no longer cared for? Would they have been better maintained had they been made by male artists? The performance piece Cleaning Her gives no answers to these questions raised, but rather proposes a heightened engagement with public art, particularly the still very few commissions given to female artists. The opportunity to engage with public sculptures in this manner is not to be limited to the artist and thus she has chosen to publish a score encouraging others to re-iterate the performance in a location of their choice.

You will need:

A tin bucket

Filled with clean water

A bright neon cloth

Your work uniform

Go and clean public art

made by female artists.

written by Isabelle Thul

score & performance by Martina Morger

images by Wassili Widmer

Martina Morger is a performance artist who also works with multimedia. She reflects on femininity as a device, and claiming space as a political body. Through her work, one discovers an engagement with the limitations of individual freedom in regard to technology. Her main practice is inspired by cyberfeminism, body, code and biopolitics. her work is primarily concerned with women’s placement within society, but also queerness in regards to cybernetical hybridisation.Exploring female and queer voices – or lack thereof – domesticity, repetitive action and labour she works primarily with performance and enjoys investigating the borders to other media. her embodiment of different personas speaks to fluidity and its possible implications in society. 

Isabelle Thul is an independent curator from Germany working in Glasgow and Berlin. Within her practice, Isabelle researches and implements an environmentally conscious and ethically driven approach. Furthermore, Isabelle looks to make artistic practices approachable to a wider range of audiences by becoming aware of and tackling the obstacles, which may stop individuals from feeling that an exhibition or project’s audience may include them. Isabelle is also active as a writer and journalist with published articles on ArtMag.com and in the magazine Vegan Connections. Employed by the arts organisation WAVEparticle since early 2019, Isabelle works with a team of artists and cultural producers to lead urban regeneration arts projects and creative workshops for community consultations. 

Disruptive craft in contemporary art: ‘A quilt is an art object when it stands up like a man’

‘Kalba’, MH Sarkis. Image courtesy of the artist.

There is a craft inclination in art that can put people at unease. It ebbs in popularity. Three years ago at an event at the ICA I was speaking to a sculptor who, when asked if they were still working on the same body of work, replied oh no, they only wrote now. It was one of several similar encounters I had, and whilst it can be common to move away from art after art school, we all seemed embarrassed that we had once been making. This idea was enforced by artists like Katrina Palmer, who moved from installation and sound sculpture, to published texts and plays. I’ve since been told in turning-point tones that Katrina Palmer is making objects again. 

The ‘Live Form’[i]of an object – the awareness of its having been made that survives in its visual seams or pressed shape – provides a hook for us to lean into and place ourselves and our ideals into. What survives is its becoming: with ceramics there’s an oozing; in textiles there’s a fray – from fricare meaning ‘to rub’, or affray meaning ‘to disturb’. This threat of active non-existence also carries the possibility of the object to exceed itself and its boundaries in our direction, and that is how we lose ourselves in it, how we are alienated towards it.

I came to what I had seen as a domestic – craft – lean in art exhibitions over the past two years with discomfort. As something that was looking inwards, I saw it as concurrent with millennial pastel: the rise of ‘millennial pink’, Pantone’s colour of 2016, adopted by luxury and high street brands. These shades’ strong relationship to the market spoke of home at a time of growing consumer and environmental crisis, in a way that felt soft and obfuscating. If this were to be my only reaction to the rise of craft objects, I would miss the uncanny through this tenderising and the addendum to the actuality of domestic.

Images and news reports of disasters such as the industrial fires in Karachi in 2012 cemented textile manufacturing in the UK’s mindset as gendered and racialised to little or no effect, with fast fashion still being the norm, and no alternatives providing solutions to those workers manufacturing in dire conditions. This is not an issue for artists to solve any more than it is one for all of us. To make works strongly linked with craft, however, is to work with a highly political, capitalised object: ‘in the context of early twenty-first century discussions about the supposed evaporation of handmade things, it is essential to ask questions about whose handiwork, exactly, is at issue: some is vastly undervalued but central to the mechanisms of capitalism, while some is triumphed as ‘revolutionary’ and posited as a form of economic refusal.’[ii]

‘Sprout’, MH Sarkis. Image courtesy of the artist.

MH Sarkis’ art, headlined as ‘rugbiotics and techstyles’ on her website, sits with the tech that is embedded in contemporary textiles manufacturing. ‘Motherboard’ uses rug pulling that invites touch to produce soundscapes. This interaction between user and object grounds ‘use value’ in the work. Blurring the distinction between high art object – with its own frame of cultural and economic capital – and low craft object (all rugs are interactive) as useable, potentially affordable, readily available and anonymous. In returning to the familiar object in her work, we then find it other.  Keying in to the human interest in creating artificial life forms whilst using internal, bodily colours, and referring to her work as ‘born’, rather than made, forwards the procreative, domestic narrative of gendered making. The crisis of self in a technologised legacy, with AI seen as both technologically vulnerable and threatening, unravels in tendril-like forms. Its corporeality, with titles such as ‘Medium Rare’, troubles the separation of object and self further. Sarkis’ work expresses a feminist speculative futurism: envisioning a ‘soft power’ that presents objects with the capacity to respond to those around it, it is as if the work exists in a received, technologised future. Her work cuts an oppositional narrative through a feminised craft medium.

Lindsey Mendick: The Ex Files, photograph by Corey Bartle-Sanderson, courtesy of Castor

The value of craft in art and its association with women’s work, as ‘taught by women aimed at men’[iii], is something of a cliché. Anne Carson has written about silence, evident as catastrophe, as a confrontation of cliché. It’s a kind of noise that exceeds– as an answer to, or evasion of – the sense of a question that merely seeks affirmation[iv]. In Lindsey Mendick’s show The Ex Files, work pushes its forms and bursts into kitsch – an excess where the narrative that the work is taken from, here a breakdown of a relationship, is repeated back in fragmented surfeit. A standard and contemporary office is strewn with ceramic smashed marmite jars, disembowelled t-shirts and a textile, bi-corporeal, headless, self-fucking office chair sprouting an arse, legs and heels. The walls are covered with ceramic post-it notes, hand-written. The glazing techniques strongly ground the work in the twentieth century, where it can move in and out of relatable nostalgia and memory. Being within temporal reach and within the mundane, it has a greater scope to move through its cliché. The blurring of domestic and office environment, ornament and textual creates boundaries to then seep through, embodying the ‘Live Form’ that is emphasised through explosive objects and the detritus of a has-been relationship.

‘You’ll Have to Pay for That’, Lindsey Mendick: The Ex Files, ceramics. photograph by Corey Bartle-Sanderson, courtesy of Castor

When we use kitsch there is a risk we snub or fetishise what we deem as ‘low’ culture. However, the choice of what is deemed low can also be a political act: the refusal of an excluding notion of success, as queer theorist Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure explores. Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson voices the artist Harmony Hammond’s claim that in existing between public and private, ‘ “the instability of textiles” … in some instances might be felt to be queer – that is, how they propose different sorts of bodily orientations and create volatile interfaces between public and private selves’ [v]. Of course there is no universal in this, and the crux is in who chooses what. 

The Live Form and frayed bodies of Mendick and Sarkis’ work goes across the boundaries of high and low. As shifting narrators, they disrupt our reading of these bodies through hazed and broken memory and speculative futures. These haptic and seeping qualities confront the cliché of the gendered body within craft- they move in a constant, disruptive unanswering of the same tired question. 

Words by Katrina Kelsey


[i]Jenny Sorkin, Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, University of Chicago Press, 2016 p74

[ii]Jenny Sorkin, Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, University of Chicago Press, 2016 p10

[iii]Anne Carson, Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, artandcrap.com/ensayos/anne-carson-variations-on-the-right-to-remain-silent/

[iv]Julia Bryan Wilson, Fray, p28 

[v]Anne Carson, Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, artandcrap.com/ensayos/anne-carson-variations-on-the-right-to-remain-silent/

Query: The Un-Gendered Brushstroke

“I had asked myself, in a depressed mood: Is it even possible for a woman artist to be the one who marks?”

Laura Owens

Is the brushstroke so hopelessly entangled with male subjectivity that the female painter cannot, unless she is willing to adopt at least a partial male subjectivity, make a gesture with a brush? Does she have to invent a feminine brushstroke? Or, might it be possible to un-gender the brushstroke?

die Lautkraft des Mensches/the loud-strength of the human
2018, oil on dibond, 80 by 120cm

Shirley Kaneda, in her 1991 essay “Painting and Its Others – In the Realm of the Feminine” proposes a “feminine” abstract painting that disregards the gender of the maker in response to a “masculine” one.[1] She describes gender differences in painting in relation to responses to the sublime: “The masculine response (to the sublime) is conceptual, as if “knowing” or explaining improved the situation. A “feminine” view is no more or less optimistic than the masculine, but the response (to the sublime) is from a sensuous perspective.”[2] She characterises the masculine as being aligned with reason and the feminine as aligned with sensation. This dualism has been existent in Western thinking since the ancient Greeks. It became strengthened when Descartes declared the fundamental difference between mind (aligned with reason) and body (aligned with irrationality and sensation) [3]. Kaneda continues her explanation:

The perfect examples of this difference are Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, both of whom addressed the sublime, one in a “masculine” way and the other in a “feminine.” While Newman address it from a purely intellectual perspective and Rothko from a “romantic” one, … – for Rothko, existence was ephemeral, for Newman it was hard and opaque. …one chooses to objectify it (masculine) and the other chooses to be engulfed by it (feminine).[4]

Is to create a feminine brushstroke to counteract the existing masculine one, the right solution? A hierarchy that places reason above sensation is certainly something that needs to be critically questioned and finally abolished. Yet, if I accept the claim that the feminine aligns with the sensual and the irrational, then I accept the tradition that bars me, as a woman, from rationality and reason. Leaving reason and Laura Owens’s idea of the inherence of mark-making ability to be aligned with the masculine and their opposites with the feminine, even if we manage to make the irrational equal to the rational, the sensual equal to reason, the passive equal to the active, the domestic equal to the public, even if we make them all perfectly equal, aligning them with a specific sex is going to be harmfully restrictive. So, if I then say that I include the masculine traits of rationality and action in my being, they will always remain alien in me, other than my sexual nature.

before the song crumbles
2017, oil on aluminium, 180 by 125cm

We must finally and fully accept that the tradition that aligns the masculine to reason (and action, power, dominance, strength, the public) and the feminine to the irrational and sensual (and passivity, receptivity, being a helpmate, weakness, the domestic) has been superseded. It has been unmasked as wrong, like other long-held traditions, such as the idea of the flat earth, and shown up as a mere relic of culture.

Claiming sensuality, claiming irrationality, claiming the domestic, claiming emotion and making them positive attributes may be a powerful, affirming act but this should in no way have anything to do with gender. If we allow these to be feminine we also allow their opposites to be masculine and so, inadvertently uphold the regime that bars women from reason and finally even mark-making.

die Strömung der Lautfreude/the stream of loud-joy
2018, oil on aluminium, 50 by 100cm

Imagine we have just unlinked all the above-mentioned traits from their traditional masculine and feminine roles. What do we do now? Do we create a “new feminine”? and a “new masculine”? Do we find new words to describe them, a new positive feminine and a new positive masculine? This would solve nothing. If we describe woman as strong, what of that female who does not feel strong for whatever reason, is she less of a woman? Any such essentialist definitions of masculine and feminine are always going to be restrictive and sooner or later become instruments of oppression.

I advocate a radical non-essentialism and this demands that we see subjectivity itself as non-essential, as never fixed by any character trait but always in flux, subjectivity as a continuous, ever-changing stream[5].

As such I would like the words “feminine” and “masculine” to disappear completely and we each meet ourselves and others with an ever-open attitude, fully acknowledging the ever-changing quality of subjectivity.

We can have forceful, gentle, hesitant, powerful, strong, caring, fluid, solid, rational, irrational, sensual, thoughtful, decorative, bare, hard, soft, bright, dark, pink, brown, blue, red, ochre, turquoise, liquid, dry, thick, thin, runny, coarse, delicate, delicious, sensuous, brutal, compassionate brushstrokes … but none of these must in any way ever be equated with either “masculine” or “feminine” but instead be just things that may arise in any being of any sex.

Art & artist statement by Nadja Gabriela Plein


[1] Kaneda, Shirley ‘Painting and Its Others – In the Realm of the Feminine’, Arts Magazine Summer (1991)

[2] Ibid., p. 60.

[3] Lloyed, Genevieve, The Man of Reason (London: Routledge, 1993)

[4] Shirley, p. 60.

[5] Plein, Nadja Gabriela “The Intentional Brushstroke” 2019, http://www.nadjagabrielaplein.co.uk/writing/

Practice-Based: Beauty Cultures, Fragmentation & Collage

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

John Berger

“My work explores how the beauty/fashion and porn industries use imagery to sustain control over women by normalising body objectification and societal expectations of how women should present themselves. I use paint, collage and fabric work, to highlight the damaging effects these industries have on women’s mental and physical health. Within my work I explore the sinister and alluring nature of this imagery by creating new, monstrous characters…

I create my work directly from fashion/beauty magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue and pornographic magazines like Penthouse. Making collage allows the use of fragmentation which echoes the principle behind my work, the breaking down of patriarchal control these images have over women. It allows me to fragment then rebuild, turning widely seen pristine imagery into warped, nightmarish monsters. I prefer to use a tangible method of making; physically cutting and sticking my collages into a sketchbook before scanning them into the computer and photoshopping them to become more vibrant and visibly fake.

I go on to paint in acrylic from my collages, creating larger than life size, doll like characters in heightened detail. Painting enables me to change and augment aspects of the collages in a gestural manner. It also gives the images an alluring quality which contrasts with the sinister nature of the content. My use of acrylic means my characters remain flat on the canvas, emphasising their two dimensionality and referring back to their source material.

For my fabric works, I use a heat press to imprint my collages onto soft pink fabric. I proceed to fold and scrunch the fabric they are printed on, juxtaposing the sensual look of the fabric with the deformed nature of the collages. 

The play between the sinister and the alluring underpins my work, drawing attention to the motives of the imagery I use, which consciously or subconsciously is to maintain control over women. The power of this imagery is in it’s seduction; we long and are expected to be the unattainable woman and this failure to be her then manifests itself through a toxic self-deprecation”

Art by Izzie Beirne.

Beirne is a 22 year old Newcastle based artist who recently graduated from Leeds Arts University with a BA First Class Honours. She is currently making new work for an exhibition at The Bowery Gallery  in Leeds 7th December 2019- 24th of January 2020. 

You can find her on Instagram at @izziebeirneart

Recommended Reading: Mushrooming Materials With ‘Other Biological Futures’

Recommended Reading: ‘Other Biological Futures’ 

The way we produce and work with materials is changing. The world of bio design dreams of artificial leather, DNA-based dyes, and zero plastic. It’s a brave new world of design-led thinking mixed with a healthy dose of scientific research. In our last issue, we explored craft’s relationship to the environment. Relating to this the essays and interviews brought together in ‘Other Biological Futures’, an open-access MIT edition of ‘Journal of Design and Science’, the relationship between material and maker is wrought even closer…

The co-editors of the journal are artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza, who explore how the foundation of design materials are evolving. A fundamental question asked is, ‘can biology do this better?’. They sketch out the ways in which biodesign isn’t just a catch-all phrase for ‘good’ sustainable practice; as they point out from mass-farming practices and industrial fermentation to cotton t-shirt production, biology and design have been used to in industrial processes for years. It’s how we approach the ethics of these innovations that will matter for the future, as the introduction puts it, the issue considers the “different kinds of colonisation in biodesign, raise ethical issues in designing living matter and, hopefully, reach beyond our networks and cultures to encourage the imagination of ‘other biological futures’”. 

Natsai Audrey Chieza’s Ted Talk on the bacteria Streptomyces coelicolor,
which makes a striking red-purple pigment

Chieza’s design practice, Faber Futures, looks at craft’s responsibility to the environment. Chieza’s background is in architectural design and material futures helped steer this visionary company, developing new ways to truly commit to sustainability. The systems and supply chains that govern the current fashion industry are some of the most polluting for the planet. The work by Faber Futures ask us to think about the source of our materials and where they come from. In 2019, Chieza was given the Index Award for developing a chemical-free, water-saving bio-fabrication system. Bringing together design thinking, technology and natural resources, the studio used this bacteria to create beautiful fabrics.

Left: Project Coelicolor: Scale, Void, Assemblages, 2017, Faber Futures x Ginkgo Bioworks. Photo by Immatters Studio
Right: Unity screenshot, work in progress from The Wilding of Mars, 2019.

Meanwhile, Daisy’s art practice focuses on the impact of the Anthropocene, which refers to the current geological age, defined as a period in which human activity is at its peak influence on the environment. Having spent over a decade researching synthetic biology and the design of living matter, her most recent work merges technology, ecology and extinction. From bringing back the scent of extinct flowers to envisioning how we might ‘wild’ the plant Mars, her imaginative leaps into future ecologies ask what humanity can do to ‘better’ the world.  

Their issue brings together thinkers from across a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds; scientists, designers, creative writers, curators, artists, bioengineers, activists, historians all share their perspectives on our current age and ways bio design might rethink our current approach to materiality, technology and ethics.

A core question in the journal, and a wider debate for those studying the Anthropocene, is if all humans have an equal impact on environment and climate disaster. For design writer Rab Messina, the new turn towards western bio designers taking fluids like blood, sweat, even vaginal tissue, from their own bodies directly relates to guilt for the environmental damage caused through colonisation. In ‘If You’re Reading This Your Too Tall’ Messina enters into a conversation with Dutch artist Arne Hendriks to explore the possibilities of humanity shrinking down to the size of a chicken. Privilege is presented as a visible advantage in height, which leads the conversation into very interesting directions. 

Concept image. Credit: Arne Hendriks and Jasper Van Den Berg

A microscopic zoom in on the edibility of insects opens up a conversation around an imagined future of factory-farming. PhD researcher Josh Evans and mushroom farmer and activist Chido Govera challenge current mass-production practices to ‘decolonise edibility’. Two Hawaiian based researchers explore what other cultural models could teach us about planetary care, led by artist Ahilapalapa Rands and microbiologist and indigenous science educator Kiana Frank.

It seems a key component of thinking through bio design is temporalities, with essays running backwards and forwards through millennia. You could read about Betul Kacar’s work as an astrobiologist, who brings back to life ancient genes and evolutionary histories, making ‘molecular time machines’ to force us to look backwards. Alongisde Kacar, afrofuturist author and filmmaker Ytasha Womack explores how fiction can imagine new futures in ‘Future Shaped by Pasts that Could have Been’. Past, present and future are presented as a multiplicity, as spatial dimensions that can be explored through the mode of the ‘time machine’. 

Ytasha Womack speaking at ‘SONIC ACTS FESTIVAL – THE NOISE OF BEING’ (2017)

Squarely in the present, a conversation between bio artist Ionat Zurr and curator/robotics expert Maholo Uchida explore how new life might be created. Viewing tissue engineering and organ fabrication as new materials, Zurr approaches these through a design perspective of the ‘semi-living’; asking questions of identity, self-hood, and humanity. Uchida’s interest in robots asks similar questions; what are the ethics of creating non-human life?

The concepts wrangled with in this journal are daunting and difficult. Choosing to explore these mainly through conversations opens up the ideas in a very human way. It’s easy to follow trains of thought, explanations are put through the test of verbal communication – even when the conversation veers into the theoretical. For those thinking about the future of materiality – the who, how and why of the basis of crafting instruments – this journal is an exciting place to start. 


Words: Jade French