Wednesday, 2 January 2013


When I first began in October I knew primarily that I wanted to collage. Collage was at that time the most exciting way of working I thought one could do, sure that sounds a little small minded, but after discovering Gelstans Cutting Edges Contemporary Collage reference book, with all its beautiful and creative images, I knew I wanted to make some of that. The whole underlying theme of collage: recycling was particularly important to me; the process of ‘regenerating’ old resources by cutting them out and placing them somewhere else. I love the way sections of photographs taken decades and distances apart could be suddenly having a conversation together. The idea of giving life and purpose back to these old photographs or magazines is brilliant, sustainable and (thankfully) cheap. Of course that’s not to say that now months later my opinion about collage has changed entirely, but I started out wanting to explore a particular practise and the development of my concept and interests ended up dominating more and subsequently the practise changed.

While process itself can be an exciting thing to develop, I needed to be using my particular practise to make work about something. Having a concept is really important for me, it enables me to really explore something and use a particular medium to make a response. Initially I wanted to respond to something I feel really strongly about; the sexualisation of girls. Girls from such a young age are being objectified and made to feel being ‘sexy’ is something they should worry about when they should just be playing and growing up in their own time. This loss of childhood is almost encouraged by society, with padded bikini tops for kids and ‘sexy’ Halloween costumes and horrifically the new trend of virgin waxing. Girls as young as eight are engaging in this ‘treatment’ to ensure that they never grow pubic hair, which according to Wanda Stawczyk from Wanda’s European Skincare saves your child a lifetime of waxing so that you can put the money in the bank for her college education instead! While sexism is not as rife as it used to be, in that you probably won’t be the one fired if you report that your boss had sexually assaulted you, attitudes to women have changed. Probably as result of pornography being so readily available and young boys (and girls) get exposed to it at such a young age, certain types of behaviour are deemed acceptable and expectations of women are becoming so unequal to that of men.
While this whole topic is something I was so interested in, I realised I was being unrealistic; I was looking at too broad a subject and would have to narrow it down.
But also I realised that with regards to the sexualisation of young girls and all the connotations that follow it such as the sex trade, sensitive as I am, I knew it would only distress me. As immature as that seems, I didn’t want to make work that would leave me hating society and besides it was far too broad a topic to really explore anything well enough for the work to become relevant or poignant. 
In the end I had to be selective and realised that I could explore something similar by concentrating on the themes of family life and role models. I was not entirely sure how I was going to transpire this theme into collage but I began to collate resources from which to work.

After exploring various old bookshops and charity shops I had collected a number of exciting resources, like dozens of old photographs, some of the same families at different times. There were a number of portraits of whom I’m assuming to be three sisters taken over what looks like a period of 5 years. The way their age process was documented in such a regimented fashion but then wound up being sold for 50p each in a charity shop, says something about the fragility of life. 
I also found a number of copies of ‘Housewife’ (the magazine of better living) and ‘Homes and Gardens’ from the 60’s and 70’s and a number of old sewing patterns. The magazines were filled with handy tips on how to cook the best dinners, keep the cleanest house and how to keep the husband happy, the latest inventions ‘essential for the modern housewife’ and the wonders of Branston Pickle, reinforced by the  persuasive beaming faces of the housewives. It was so strange how those ideals were so dominant for such a proportion of women in a way that just isn’t the case nowadays, while women are more concerned about their careers and being famous.

Not entirely sure how to proceed with the work, I began initially by working into some of the photographs, taking a more literal attempt on emphasising the facade of happiness. I began working with the imagery of smiling babies from the magazines and a vintage cake-decorating guide I found. In the guide there were recipes on how to create ‘Cakes to Make Your Reputation’, which I thought was brilliant starting point. 

As a preliminary collage I combined imagery of ‘cutie pie’ babies with perfectly iced cakes, elegant housewives standing proud next to her creations, and babies and women made from cake recipes.  The fusing of stereotypical housewife imagery with enthusiastic slogans and smiling children was all too sickly sweet and the ironic tone came through quite well. 
I also tried to create eeriness within the photographs by adding a red element to them. My idea was to suggest that there was something not as it seemed within the landscapes. When I explained it during the presenting contexts presentation my peers understood that, but I don’t think it was as successful as the initial collages I made, rather too ambiguous, and in a way it kind of ruined the photographs. However all these early pieces of work, while an acceptable first attempt, were too obvious and not skilled enough, there was no depth to them; they were at a second look exactly the same as when you first glanced at them. I wanted my work to be interesting enough so that the viewer would be able to and want to, draw their own conclusions about it.

I started to look into a variety of feminist artists such as Martha Rosler and her film ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ a satirical and blunt portrayal of being a housewife in the 60’s. Her deconstruction of being a housewife through her active display of alphabetized kitchen utensils in a frustrated and violent manner emphasised the suffocation and subdued anger that was felt by these women. 
This theme is supported by literature such as Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. The novel was such a perfect example of how this idealised family life was not ideal for everyone, published in 1961, it proved that there were women out there who wanted more than to be a good housewife, and keep the family home. It is such a beautifully written novel, and the film version too is so visually beautiful and influential to my ideas.

I have also been looking into Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas; both very interesting artists under the feminist title, and both whom I saw at London’s Frieze Art Fair in October. Emin’s piece that really stood out for me was ‘Head Falling’ an illustration of a female figure stitched in black onto calico and while it is not collage, there was an elegance within the piece and a subtlety that is echoed in collage. The work of Sarah Lucas is also really exciting, ‘Mumum’ her hanging chair, made from fluff-filled tights was on display in Sadie Coles’ booth. That piece really interested me because it looked like there was such strength to the work as if it was made of marble but in reality was so fragile, which echoed the vulnerability of this discontented housewife image I have in my head; who for all anyone can guess seem so perfectly happy but inside is totally in anguish. Lucas’ work generally is very exciting as a feminist reference, her sculptures are so evocative and honest like Emin’s but they are suggestive enough to allow the viewer to read into them what way they like. For instance ‘Bitch’ is a simple construction with a lot of meaning: a small table with a t-shirt stretched over it, beneath the table under the t-shirt two hanging melons and a vacuumed packed smoked fish attached to the far end of the table. It is a portrait of the object of desire, a bent-over female body, inviting. When in reality, it is nothing but a few objects arranged in a particular way; crude symbols that hint at female structure. I made ‘Fried Eggs’ as a personal response to her self portrait. I wanted to reflect the sense of her work but without using the obvious medium of sculpture so I responded in the practise I knew, although at this point there was an underlying desire to experiment with sculpture but I didn’t feel like I had exhausted the collage yet.

A more relevant artist in terms of practise was Tom Partridge at the Nottingham Castle Open Exhibition in 2012. It was so exciting to see contemporary collage in an exhibition; ‘Hot Head’ and ‘The Pond’ were evidence that there is still merit in collage. The pieces themselves were relatively simple arrangements, but with a lot of beauty from the shapes constructed, and again there is that wonder of creating a conversation between various materials that would have otherwise never come together.

I began to experiment with the display of the work, originally it had only been upon paper and I had either pinned it onto the wall or framed it. But I wanted the work to have a more strength about it and I thought that by arranging the pieces on wood that could be achieved. Priming and then washing with a pale oil colour, I had already a surface that was so much more interesting than a plain sheet of paper. I experimented with adding glaze; when added onto photographs it created a shinier, wetter appearance which looked interesting against the glazed wooden boards and reflected that shiny facade of perfection. But also the contrast of matt and shiny created an interesting relationship between the imagery and the board as well.

Because I was not sure which method of display worked best; for the Show and Listen I exhibited two pieces, ‘Her Shapes’; a minimalistic collage made up of five pieces on wood. The imagery is obvious; cut into representative shapes but also ambiguous enough in that the viewer can decipher what the shapes really represent. The other piece was ‘Untitled Nurture’, a suggestion of breastfeeding as a baby looks over at its mother whose breasts are made of an icing gun, pointed toward him, which is presented on mount board in a black frame. There was not a preferred one style at all, they felt that both ways of displaying the work worked well; the glass and thick black frame reflected the facade of perfection as if everything was all untouchable and the wooden board had more of a depth and materiality about it that was liked. I really enjoyed that process of priming the boards and working on them, it was all very new and exciting to me, despite being a time consuming process.
 Here’s an example of matt imagery onto the shine of the wood; it’s really simple but I think by having the blue wash and slight shine, the piece is much more interesting.

After I enjoyed deconstructing the female form into basic shapes as in ‘Her Shapes,’ I wanted to continue with the symbolic theme, and began to look into circles. I was interested with what was associated with them with regards to women; the obvious immediate physical resemblance of breasts or the roundness of a pregnant belly, or less physically; the circle of motherhood, giving life. Like Rosler’s ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’; the semiotics of circles are very interesting.

 Encouraged by the reaction of ‘Untitled, Nurture’ at the Show and Listen, I created this piece ‘Tits’ made entirely of breasts. Circles within circles; I wanted the imagery to be feminine not sexual, or if it came across that way to be an appreciation of the female form without the graphic imagery despite sourcing the images from porn magazines. While the piece was appreciated by a number of (male) students, I don’t think it really worked that well in relation with what I was trying to achieve, it was an experiment, but was too obvious and brash, there needed to be an elegance that I seemed to be achieving when there’s more white space on the page.

 A different route I went down was to combine female imagery with that of the domestic such as household items and kitchens; this is an example of a piece where I began to merge a content looking woman with kitchen cupboards. I was aiming for the integration of her feminine curves with the sharp edges of the counter-tops to be a representation of the idea that she's is losing her femininity as she becomes more of an object or rather 'objectified' by the male viewers.  While I do not think that was particularly clear, the imagery is quite interesting aesthetically, particularly the contrast of curves with shape lines. I think the concept of de-feminisation is really interesting;  when I spoke to woman who was living in London in the 60's when sexism was particularly rife, she told me how as a result of unwanted male attention she ended up trying to de-feminize herself by changing the ways of dressing, such as hiding her curves underneath quite 'male' clothing. This modification from a feminine female to an androgynous identity is something I am quite interested in exploring further.

  However at this point I didn’t feel as if I had quite  exhausted the use of circles, and began to use them differently to ‘Tits’; in block colour and in moderation!  ‘Perfection Reflection’ was thus made from that, I wanted to carry on the amusing appreciation for breasts by having orange bubbles emerge from them like a bubble gun. Unlike ‘Untitled Nurture’ there was none of the obvious mothering themes but by having the boy look up at her in wonder; I was trying to capture that ability to mesmerise and awe, that the perfect housewife has, according to Good Housekeeping!

While the circular imagery is interesting, and aesthetically pleasing particularly in a bright colour, I have begun to realise that the shape is not as important as I wanted it to be, and in fact I have begun to be disillusioned with solely working in collage. The enjoyment I felt by painting and working with the wood was partly because I was so excited to be doing something other than cutting and sticking for a change.
 I do not want to stop collaging with my resources just because I want to physically make something different, I also feel now I need to move away from collage and take the work into a different space. Making it relevant for nowadays is the challenge for the moment. I need to question what it means to be a woman in this century instead. Possibly having been subconsciously inspired by Sarah Lucas’ work, I really want to explore a more sculptural practise. I have begun to investigate what being a woman means to various women of different ages, and I plan to use their opinions to make a response that id more sculptural. The work is definitely not yet finished and I am really excited about what I can make in the future, when exploring new mediums and newer ideas.

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