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In line with my recent feminist feeling I interviewed Roxie and Natasha about the all woman show they curated for the Cob Gallery, Camden. They had a lot of interesting things to say about the current status of contemporary women artists and also about the relevance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper as a feminist text today. Here’s a link to the article on roves and roams: http://www.rovesandroams.com/2012/07/roxie-warder-and-natasha-hoare/

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‘By moonlight- the moon shines in all night when there is a moon – I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.’ The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

It is the warm flush of the colour yellow which first arrests us in the all-woman group show The Yellow Wallpaper; the vinyl on the broad windows, a glimpse of Gabriella Boyd’s Between These Eight Walls (of yellow) on the floor below, and Suzannah Pettigrew’s rolled out sheets of yellow wallpaper decorating the reception.

 

In what curators, Natasha Hoare and Roxie Warder, describe as ‘this first immersive space’, a yellow wallpapered reading room where elegant editions of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 novella can be perused, we are likely to find as many subtly distinct shades of yellow as the exhibition will offer diverse interpretations of this seminal feminist book .

 

Roxie and Natasha tell me that Pettigrew’s design is based on Perkins Gilman’s descriptions of the different shades of the yellow wallpaper, but even the interpretation of a technicality like colour is subjective. Pettigrew’s graphically modern design is entirely different to the florid, gilded pattern of Boyd’s oil painting, proving the ‘freedom a short story offers’ the imagination of an artist.

 

“We had wanted to do an all-woman show for a while but we also felt we needed a conceptual hook to bring an exhibition together,” explain Roxie and Natasha. In conversation with the artist Gabriella Boyd in front of one of her paintings, the haunting pervasiveness of The Yellow Wallpaper in the minds of both curator and artist became apparent.

 

While the wallpaper represents the repression of creativity for the narrator in Perkins Gilman’s novella, locked away by her husband and forbidden to write so as not to aggravate her hysteria,  Roxie and Natasha feel that the 6 female artists in the exhibition have succeeded in “rewriting the repression in the story and unleashing their own creativity.”

 

“There is still such a big gap between the representation of male and female artists” says Roxie, remembering the temptation to include the work of certain men when they were first approaching artists. All female shows are still significant in giving women a room of their own to create and exhibit work which can be directly feminist . “You wouldn’t find a man trying not to be masculine, but women often feel they have to avoid being pigeonholed as too feminine,” explains Natasha who was shocked to find that some of the press felt that the exhibition was just too niche when “half of the population are women!”

 

The exhibition has the polemical feel of a feminist discussion group. In fact Roxie and Natasha had originally thought to gather the artists together for a reading group but opted for a dinner instead so as not to limit alternative interpretations. Each of the artists have performed their own readings of the text nevertheless, expressing this in the unique language of their artistic practice; the reading group plays out its debate in the gallery space.

 

For Roxie and Natasha, The Yellow Wallpaper is a “story that stays with you. We believe it does still resonate today, the issues it addresses are still not fully solved.” They cite the high rate of prescriptions for women in Europe of anti-depressants and Prozac as one localised example of the inequality which is faced by women the world over. While the exhibition has changed Natasha’s reading of the text, they also hope that the book will reach new audiences, stirring debate and critical discussion.

 

The women included in the show have all produced new work in response to the novel The Yellow Wallpaper, and yet they have all picked up on very different atmospheres in the text.  The sparse pathological psychosis of Eve Ackroyd’s paintings; the obsessive repetitions of Becky Allen’s etchings;  the Hitchcockian distortion of Flora Robertson’s fractured fantasy; Boyd’s nostalgic paintings in light, fresh colours which hold back sinister suggestions; and Adeline De Monseignat’s interpretation of the text as a story of post natal depression: these psychoses each have their own personalities.

 

With its suffocating patriarchal oppression and a focus on a once-fashionable fascination with an overtly sexist ‘hysteria’, I had my doubts about whether The Yellow Wallpaper would be relevant to contemporary feminism.  Yet, confronted by the atmospheric shifts in the exhibition it becomes clear that each of these women is responding with what remains real and pertinent to them.

 

Roxie and Natasha point out that Eve Ackroyd’s motherhood has a deep impact on her paintings, and that Flora Robertson’s work with immigrants underpins her interest in psychological fragmentation.  When I hear that Adeline De Monseignat’s Mother In Child is the same weight and size as she was when she was born, I sense a personal entanglement which perhaps even the artist would struggle to articulate.  When feminism proves that there is still more work for the feminists to do, that’s when it’s working at its best.

 

The Yellow Wallpaper will be at the Cob Gallery, Camden until the 21st of July

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Here’s the full version of the article I wrote for the July edition of the Hackney Citizen:

As I write this, perfect summer’s evening that it is, the inaugural Fitrovia Lates and new Thursday night gallery hop is taking place in that other part of the city. Just as crafty TV programmers wouldn’t schedule the finals of Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor to clash, East London’s First Thursdays and Fizrovia’s Last Thursdays are not going head to head, but that isn’t to say they aren’t in competition.

Dazed & Confused began the scaremongering about our treasured local art scene with its provocative cover in May. ‘Is East London Dead?’ questioned a black figure dressed up like the Grim Reaper of the art world, a dodgy Damien Hirst rip-off. A few weeks ago The Guardian joined in and printed an article claiming that ‘East End galleries’ are being ‘forced to go West’ as the ‘local scene “dies”’.

The article suggested that as galleries like Nettie Horn and FRED Ltd continue to move away from Vyner Street and into Fitrovia, the hub of the London art scene is also shifting. This narrow piece of journalism mistakes Vyner Street for the breadth of the East London art scene and views sales as the life force behind all creativity.

Fitzrovia is the money maker, the new commercial and industrial hub of the art world. The idle art collector might favour the kind of constellatory art map that enables large sums of money to be spread over a small surface area at a time-saving pace, but what Hackney has to offer stretches beyond Vyner Street and justifies a little wandering.

The focus of many Hackney spaces such as [Space] on Mare Street, Cell on Cambridge Heath Road and Banner Repeater in Hackney Downs Station, is on exploration, education and experimentation. With talks and events, libraries and reading rooms, and warrens of artist studios hidden away behind the public walls of the gallery, these Hackney institutions aren’t just showrooms for established artists. They are driven by a desire to shape a continually developing critical dialogue. 

‘For us the “scene” is being in touch with the studio practice of our artists. This is still in East London,” writes Cell Project Space’s Director, Milika Muritu. While rents for galleries in Fitzrovia might be smaller than the inflated prices of Vyner Street, it’s unlikely that penniless artists will be renting studio space in the rich lands behind Oxford Street.

There is much more freedom to be experimental in East London with project spaces and artist led galleries supporting emerging practice and challenging ideas. While Muritu admits that income and sales are essential to the running of the gallery, she claims that Cell are making the shift to “assist artists’ projects in becoming a reality. Not always in creating a finite statement, but to establish the gallery as an exploratory space to develop knowledge that can be used in the future.” Not every gallery will take a risk on the infinite but this is often where the most exciting ideas emerge and is an investment in the future of contemporary practice.

The Transition Gallery on Andrews Road publishes its own zine, Arty, and magazine, Garageland, alternatives to the familiar glossies and inclusive of a lot of “irreverent” artist-led content. East London still has a powerful and alternative voice that runs against the current of the art world.  Director, Cathy Lomax, remembers publishing the first Arty: “It felt very empowering. It was the most basic folded photocopy format but this meant I had complete control over it which was very important.”

Unlike Hackney, Fitrovia has a name which already sounds like an exclusive destination. Its network of slick white spaces all conform to our conventional notion of an art gallery. Yet exclusivity is inevitably a way of alienating people.

Dalston Lane’s Fishbar Gallery deliberately avoided the white cube makeover, keeping the original wood cladding and shop front which recall the former life of the premises, when renovating their space. The Director, Olivia Arthur, says that they “were also drawn to the idea of having a shopfront. A lot of people have been using warehouse spaces and making galleries in them which can be great, but there is something special about having a shopfront, being in a little high street, it makes you more local, less exclusive.”

I always pop into the Banner Repeater on Platform 1 of the Hackney Downs Station when I am early or late for a train. The exhibitions attract all kinds of curious platform-dwellers and the reading room is a gentle invitation for anyone to drift in. The Banner Repeater is my local and I’m even currently sporting a ‘BR’ canvas bag to prove it.

The sense of locality is proof that these Hackney galleries are deeply engaged with the area, the people, and the artists and studios which surround them. If the alternative is the art tourists of Fitzrovia, then this “scene” still feels like a much more significant and exciting thing to be a part of.