Got My Goat

Aside from yesterday afternoon, I honestly can’t remember the last exhibition I went  to. Working at Significant Seams, I am somewhat (almost literally) cocooned in the comforting, cosy world of craft, and could at times almost forget that I have a background in conceptual art, and would indeed primarily consider myself a conceptual artist.
Of course, the line between art and craft is forever permuting. In  A Transatlantic Dialoguethe exhibition I visited at the Ben Uri Gallery, the exhibition notes explained that projects directed by artist Judy Chicago involving craft aimed to elevate this “woman’s work” to its rightful place as art.
Chicago’s career spans more than 5 decades and encompasses a multitude of media, but she is perhaps best known for her work The Dinner Party, first exhibited in 1979, and (in part as a product of The Dinner Party) as a feminist artist.
The Dinner Party, which has remained in residence at the Brooklyn Museum since 2007 and visited London only once, was a project on a grand scale of both skill and imagination. Chicago asked master craftswomen to execute her designs for place settings for an imaginary dinner party which famous historical and mythological women were “invited” to. The craftswomen included potters, ceramicists, embroiderers and seamstresses. In inviting these women to honour women “erased” from history, I feel that Chicago was honouring both the foremothers of modern women, and female craft traditions which have a long lineage and continue to be practised today, whilst placing them in a contemporary art context, thereby forcing society to take a second, much longer look at “women’s work”.
Chicago has been accused by critics of reducing all women to “just vaginas”; that her paintings, drawings and sculptures use the hackneyed female forms of flower-as-butterfly-as-female sex organ. And indeed, there was little subtlety on display here, and this was as much evident in the work of the other transatlantic “speakers”, Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Chadwick, as Chicago’s! However, there was no doubt that here were four strong, gutsy, fearless women, as vulnerable as their diaristic artworks betrayed them to be.
Reading Emin’s “C.V.” of her tragic early life leading up to her gradual acceptance into the art world and her career gaining momentum was moving, powerful, and inspiring. I was equally touched by Chicago’s Autobiography of a Year, a catalogue of the highs and lows, the mundanity and the ecstasy, of an ageing, but successful, woman artist. In Autobiography, Judy Chicago worries about her husband finding her unattractive, and her ability to make “good” art, amongst other things. I found her emotional honesty deeply endearing and comforting; if this icon of a woman is sometimes weak and fragile (or worse), and yet simultaneously so strong and driven, then I reason that I too can succeed!
Chicago’s line in Autobiography reflects her emotional mood and urgency; intricate yet delicate sketches of trees and flowers accompany texts of calm, and her anger at “the hand that makes bad art” is slopped on to the page with blood red ink. Her sense of colour and its symbolism, and the way this runs through the ebb and flow of the year, is astounding (and I would certainly agree with Chicago that orange is the colour of anxiety!)
The exhibition was so multi-layered and comprised so much of a whistle-stop tour of four prolific artists’ work that it will all take me some time to digest (and I must do some more research on Helen Chadwick’s work!)
On a less cultural note, on our way to the gallery we met a new friend, who was very interested in my boyfriend’s Skittles; a pygmy goat in a school garden! I was adamant that she (I was convinced it was a she; perhaps this had something to do with the exhibition we visiting?) was coming home with me.
photo (1)photo (3)photo (4)
Unfortunately I didn’t get my goat; maybe next time.

Craft and Feminism

My mum flagged up last Saturday's omnibus edition of Woman's Hour for me, as there was some interesting discussion about the role of craft and creativity in women's protest movements.

Beginning with brief interviews of female members of the current protest camp gathered outside St Paul's Cathedral, Jenni Murray spoke with Dr Deborah Thom, (Fellow and director of Studies for the faculties of History and Social and Political sciences at Robinson College) and Ann Pettit (a founder of the Greenham Common camp)about the history of women's protest.

Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp came into being on the 5th September 1981, when the Welsh group Women for Life on Earth marched to Greenham Common in Berkshire, with a view to challenge the RAF's decision to site nintey six Cruise missiles there. When the women were denied a debate, they set up camp around the military base, with only a nine mile fence seperating them from the base itself. They were joined by more women, and the protest (and camp) lasted for nineteen years.

On Woman's Hour, Ann Pettit described how, at Greenham, women came together to transform the nine mile fence into a work of art and a site for protest, embroidering and weaving into it.

The nine mile fence at Greenham Common in the 1980s, woven with a message of love
Dr Deborah Thom went on to explain that this creative spirit was also present in the Suffrage Movement, from embroidered banners to smaller-scale embroideries and knitting.

Women sewing stars on to a Suffrage banner
 I have written before about how embroidery was employed by the Suffrage Movement for a subversive cause, and later reclaimed by the Feminist Movement in the 1970s. Domestic handicrafts had long been considered just that; merely domestic "women's work", and not "high art". Many feminist artists of the 1970s set out to challenge this notion, transforming this "women's work" into "high art", embracing the femininity of craft, "shedding their shackles, proudly untying the apron strings—and, in some cases, keeping the apron on, flaunting it, turning it into art" (Lucy Lippard, Household Images in Art).

Miriam Schapiro was one such artist who embraced femininity through her art. In the 1970s she began creating sewn collages from scraps of fabric which she christened "femmages"; these femmages recalled the woman's craft of quilting. In fact, Schapiro wrote of her femmages that she "wanted to validate the traditional activities of women, to connect myself to the unknown women artists who had made quilts, who had done the invisible 'women's work' of civilization. I wanted to acknowledge them, to honor them."

Miriam Schapiro, Explode, 1972

Schapiro was also involved in the Womanhouse exhibition of 1972; an installation and performance space situated in a deserted Hollywood mansion. Each participant in the exhibition was given her own space in which to operate inside the building. The exhibition was conceived by Schapiro and her colleague Judy Chicago (together the pair founded the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts). The exhibition explored the concerns and mundane stereotypes of female existence; from the household chores of washing, ironing, cooking and sewing, to menstruation (as in Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom). It makes me a little sad to think that I'm too young/live in the wrong part of the world to have experienced this exhibition!

A selection of work from Womanhouse, 1972 (including crochet, an example of craft)
The reclamation of craft for political purposes by women continues into the present day through the Craftivism Movement. Reading up on Craftivism on the internet, the ubiquitous Wikipedia reminded me that craft has long had links with subversion, even etymologically; firstly, in the Old English, the word craft actually means "power, physical strength, might"; a far cry from the "passive, gentle" feminine craft as envisaged in the 19th Century! Also, as Wikipedia points out, "to call someone crafty is to identify them as clever and cunning. In Greek, one would say to “spin” a plot. Similarly, the French word for trick is tricoter, which means to tie or knot together".

Craftivism is closely linked with Third Wave Feminism and the Riot Grrrl Movement, and continues the practise began in the 1970s of reclaiming craft for subversive aims. In Craftivism, crafters take the traditionally domestic pasttimes of, for example, crochet and knitting, and bring them into the public sphere. For example, on May 23rd 2006, the Anarchist Knitting Mob held a Massive Knit in Washington Square Park, New York, in remembrance of Jane Jacobs, an activist who helped prevent the construction of an express-way through the park. The participants covered every possible surface with brightly coloured yarn.
Participants in the Massive Knit in Washington Square Park
I don't think it would be possible for me to conclude a blog post on craft and feminism without writing about Tracey Emin. During my A Levels I wrote a dissertation on text in feminist art, which featured Emin rather heavily! I have written about her before on this blog, as she explores the theme of this project (love) through writing and sewing. Emin may have the Marmite effect and be known almost more for that famous appearance on Channel 4 than her art, but she undeniably considers herself a feminist and I would argue that she is one.

Despite the often raw and unsettling aesthetic and subject matter of her work, the materials and colours Emin chooses to produce it in are often described by the media as “feminine”(though arguably this is a somewhat hackneyed term the art world tends to use when describing the work of any female artist). Like Miriam Schapiro, Emin recalls the lineage of woman's craft through her hand-appliqued blankets; they are not dissimilar to quilts. Also like Schapiro, Emin's aesthetic is (like her subject matter) raw and unpolished; in this way she subverts the femininity inherent in craft.

Tracey Emin, The New Black, 2002

In subject matter, too, Emin is a feminist artist; she records the experiences of her emotional life as a mirror by which to reflect the human (and, in particular, the female) condition. In my opinion, having visited her most recent exhibition, Love Is What You Want, Emin’s work has a universal value, rather than merely being an indulgence of the artist’s narcissism, as many critics have derided it as; many if not all women would be able to relate to the emotions expressed in one of her blankets. She certainly carries out the old feminist rallying cry of "the personal is political".

Emin follows in another female lineage, this time a feminist one; like the feminist artists of the 1970s, she has said that she does not use embroidery "like a craft, but like high art".

Tracey Emin - Love, Writing, and Sewing


Tracey Emin, too, is a woman obsessed with love. Evidence of this can be found in the titles of her two most recent exhibitions, Those Who Suffer Love and Love Is What You Want. Her neons blaze scrawled love notes, her monoprints beg for “more love”, her blankets whisper, in huge letters, sweet nothings.

For You

More Love

International Woman

Emin has said of love that it "rarely comes easily and if it does, it usually goes quite quickly". Her work constantly touches on intimacy, as in Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. It's a common misconception that the names appliqued on the interior of this tent were those of everyone Emin had ever had sex with. In fact, they were literally the names of everyone she had ever slept beside. 

Interior, Everyone I've Ever Slept With 1963 - 1995


Writing underpins Emin's artistic practise. She has said that she is "not known as a text-based artist", but "should be really". She pushes the boundaries between writing as visual art and visual art as writing. Melanie McGrath said of Emin that “She is above all a storyteller and her stories are embroidered, both literally and metaphorically”. 

Emin is indeed a consummate storyteller; revealing tell-alls are sprawled across her confessional, autobiographical blankets, ranging in size from five-inch-high appliqued letters to tiny scrawled passages on paper; her monoprints are written in her own naive, chaotic scrawl; her neon installations are recognisably “written” in Emin’s own handwriting.

Appropriately for work of such a universal appeal, the unrefined, unpolished aesthetic of Emin’s text connects her audience more immediately with her art. Emin cuts and appliqués felt letters onto her blankets by hand.This personal approach suits Emin’s often chaotic, brutal and autobiographical subject matter.

Some of her monoprints are solely text, featuring stream-of-consciousness phrases which appear to have the authentic and emotional “voice” of the artist, and a confessional, diaristic tone.


One of Emin’s most common artistic formats is the quilt-like blanket. The creation of blankets or wall hangings like Emin’s has traditionally been a woman’s craft pastime. However, rather than meticulously piece together a network of twee fabric patches to create a quilt (as prior generations of crafting women have done), Emin hand-appliques unsophisticated letters and loud, mismatched fabrics onto her blankets. Critics have argued that Emin reappropriates traditionally feminine arts and crafts for feminist purposes, creating a savage, imperfect female aesthetic in chintzy, feminine media.

Emin has said that, through her embroideries, "the line I draw is accentuated and extreme, which complements the way that I think." She has also said that she does not use embroidery "like a craft, but like high art".