FEMINIST ART HISTORIAN GRISELDA POLLOCK makes this point in her contribution to Frieze editor-at-large Jennifer Higgie’s hugely successful Bow Down podcast series that focuses on retrieving women artists who have been lost to history. Talking about the Czech/Canadian artist Vera Frenkel (born 1938), Pollock recalls her project for Expo ’86 in Vancouver, to which she was invited as one of four of Canada’s ‘greatest’ artists (the others were all men). Here, instead of allowing herself to be lionised, Frenkel introduced “Cornelia Lumsden”, a writer she invented, who she convinced audiences was a real figure forgotten by literary history. Pollock describes this as Frenkel’s ploy to deflect attention from herself, an intervention designed as a pointed critique of our need for hero figures. She goes on to describe why she chose Frenkel as the artist to whom she wished to “bow down”.
Pollock applauds Frenkel for the seriousness and wit of her work in video, performance and installation. The art historian suggests that Frenkel’s practice is critically important, and, indeed, those invested in the notion of art as a deeply conceptual project have accorded her the respect she deserves. But, and this is key, she is not well-known. Pollock maintains it is the artist’s very seriousness that ensures her marginalisation by a culture that lusts after celebrity and is resistant to anything that cannot be turned into a commodity. Her point is that we must check our unquestioning approval of the attention paid to women artists if it is still bound to the rules of the market.
In a local context I see this embedded myopia at work in the reception of women artists who fail to produce works that collectors might want in their homes. It takes courage and conviction to resist the lure of the market and its cult of personality, as it has career consequences. I think of Vivian Lynn, who early on (by the late 1960s) decided to abandon painting, turning to printmaking, then a multi-media practice that made use of abject substances like hair and skin. She refused to comply with the dictates of a defining ‘signature’ style, and had on-again-off-again relations with dealers. All of which had consequences for her reputation (until recently). Or et al., and the debacle of their selection for the Venice Biennale in 2005, when the elusive collective, who everyone knew was a woman artist who refused to comply with the requirement that ‘she’ be named and therefore identified, drew such opprobrium that even then-Prime Minister Helen Clark questioned the decision. How is et al. doing in the market now I wonder?
Perhaps one of the positive upsides of the shifts I’m describing is that younger (often female, seldom straight) curators, dealers, and critics are beginning to seek out older figures exactly because such women have doggedly and resiliently stayed true to an alternative set of values that is now resonating with their own ethical outlooks. Lynn, for example, has recently been re-discovered. Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala, the curators of the 13th Gwangju Biennale, Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning, selected two of her sculptural installations from the 1980s and 1990s for their exhibition in South Korea. And Phillida Reid, a New Zealand-born dealer who runs Southard Reid gallery in London, now represents the artist and is about to feature her work at London’s Frieze Art Fair this October. Having taken Reid through Lynn’s studio in Newtown when the gallerist visited just before our borders closed, I know that her interest has little to do with making money, though this will be necessary to sustain her commitment to working with an artist on the other side of the world. Instead, she sees in Lynn’s intensely thoughtful, sometimes frightening, and always materially rich work something that resonates in this particularly fraught and precarious moment: a woman’s rage at patriarchal injustice mixed with a distinctively female erotics.