Why do we need to pay attention to women sculptors?
by Matilda McEvedy
2nd March 2021
Reading time: 5mins
I was deep in the throes of a Masters at The Courtauld when the pandemic took hold, shutting the doors of the mighty museums and galleries, closing venerable libraries and universities and causing traditional art forms to look meaningless in the face of death and disease. We saw a whirlwind of emails warning of “uncertain times” ahead. Not a great time to be looking for a topic for my Masters thesis. I had just spent a year finely tuning my interests in contemporary art, nurturing a love of sculpture and performance, costume and space, when it was replaced by the two-metre rule, hand-sanitiser and facemasks. How was I to make sense of art when preoccupied with mundane, day to day survival? Women sculptors showed me the way.
This makes them sound like a cohesive group of sculptors, all fitting into one neat little definition. They’re not at all. They don’t constitute a movement, or style. What they share is their desire to create work that rejected the traditional rules of sculpture, established by the male-dominated discipline being taught in art schools. Below are a few sculptors that I admire.
Nevertheless, 2020 marked my introduction to contemporary women sculptors and I loved it. I listened to the Sculpting Lives podcast, by Jo Baring and Sarah Turner ; spoke to Natalie Rudd, Senior Curator of the Arts Council Collection’s (ACC) upcoming exhibition Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by Women Since 1945 (2021), which was meant to open in 2020. I discovered a research project which had sparked the idea for the ACC exhibition: Women Working in Sculpture from 1960 to the Present Day: Towards a New Lexicon, led by Catherine George and Hilary Gresty; and, excitingly, I spoke to Veronica Ryan, the British sculptor whose works echo memory and vulnerability, whether made in bronze or organic material.
A TRADITIONALLY MALE SPHERE
Sculpture has traditionally been a very male-dominated sphere. One pictures the archetypal image of a man perched on a stepladder, with hammer and chisel, wrestling a weighty block of marble to life such as Michelangelo’s David, Rodin’s Thinker or Alexandros of Antioch’s Venus de Milo. A Hercules at a physically challenging task in a studio filled with industrial tools and sawdust.
The sculpture departments of British art schools in the ‘60s persisted in this “macho” culture through their rigid systems of teaching and grading. Tutors emphasised the use of traditional materials like wood, stone, metal and using strict methods and tools. Art school “crits” (critiques) involved groups of male tutors walking round the student’s work, puffing on a pipe. Not only were the staff nearly all men, from accounts of the time, but the syllabus was male too. Veronica Ryan is known to have commented on her dissatisfaction that the syllabus at the RA scarcely mentioned women, focussing on the big names of European sculpture, like Auguste Rodin, William Tucker, and Henry Moore. Her frustration that the ‘masculinist emphasis did not give me confidence that it was possible to be a woman sculptor’ made her look elsewhere to female American sculptors like Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois for inspiration.
ALTERNATIVE SPACES AND STUFF
What draws me to women sculptors is their resilience and creativity in such an environment. Restrictive styles and spaces mean that you see women looking to alternative forms of inspiration, materials, techniques and places to nourish their artistic practice and create life from inanimate materials.
Feminist groups and cooperatives, such as the Women Artists Collective in London, were formed in the early ‘70s to create alternative spaces for support as well as to share ideas and resources. Experimentation in display and materials also became commonplace from the 70s, which women spearheaded, to redefine the systems of value placed on Western sculpture.
Veronica Ryan was one such artist who started using alternative soft materials to make work. She worked with used objects like pillows, plaster, vacuum cleaner dust, milk bottles, tea bags and organic forms such as large seed pods and fruit, playing off the idea of ‘truth to materials’. In one work she mimics the minimalist sculpture of renowned male artists like Donald Judd, using disposable baby wipe packets and thus emphasizing her struggle to make work as a new mother.
Phyllida Barlow is also known for her use of waste materials to make monumental installation and sculpture. In her work, untitled: dunce (2015) she uses polystyrene, wire mesh, cement, timber and plaster and cardboard. The form swells grotesquely as if pushing the very boundaries of the space it inhabits. Despite representing Britain in the Venice Biennale in 2017, she has only received recent recognition, and I was shocked to find out that she would just leave her artworks on the London streets in the 80s (even in a grit bin in King’s Cross) because she couldn’t sell her artwork. The thought that I might have happened across a Phyllida Barlow in a bin is beyond belief!
Similarly, Margaret Organ created work so fragile that it no longer survives today. She studied art in the 60s and 70s, and felt that traditional methods and materials didn’t reflect her ideas, so started using paper to make sculpture. I find it strange to look at photographs of her work because they refute the idea of permanence and immutability in sculpture. All that remains are black and white pictures, much like archaeological digs lost to history. The ghostly forms are like a snake-skin that’s been shed after the living creature slid away.
I think there’s something to be said here about the impermanence of the soft, experimental materials used by these sculptors and their transience in collections. The fact that they aren’t household names and often get forgotten in museum collections is down to a number of factors. Discrimination against women sculptors is hard to prove because patriarchal power often operates in quiet absence and omission, rather than in overt statements.
What I find so innovative about their works made from temporary materials (whether through necessity or choice) is that they were major players in rewriting definitions of sculpture at the time. These women sculptors were not making work to last the centuries. It was all about the process; the making; moulding the present in the continuum of history. Along the way, the artworks would age and fall apart, giving birth to the next generation. The women sculptors shouldered the burden of momentous change in art history, as effortlessly as a block of granite.