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Madame Realism: The Domestic as Stage for Women’s Artistic Self-Empowerment
Mermaid, Bonnie Camplin, 2006, pencil on paper.

A strangely formed settee; a painting of newspaper articles superimposed on one another; an audio-visual piece on a young woman’s thoughts on the colour beige: The art works currently on display at Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht, Netherlands seem to have little to nothing in common. Yet they are juxtaposed under the name Madame Realism, assuming some kind of relation beyond being works of art. In fact, they connect in one aspect. Every piece in the exhibition bears the handwriting of a woman, each reflecting on the topic of gender, if only through the context of the show.

The exclusively female artists presented in the exhibition appropriate the ambiguous setting of the domestic as stage for female artistic self-empowerment, where the domestic interior becomes public and the personal interpersonal.

Women appear as subject matter—not as sexualized objects to be looked at, as it has been the case for a large part of art history, but as active subjects. Ruth Buchanan’s video installation Sculptor (2010-2011), for instance, shows an interview with a female sculptor, accompanied by a recording of the artist’s associations with the scene. Other works contain references to great women in history, paying hommage to their work. This is the case for Janette Laverrière’s Cabinet de travail d’une femme d’ambassadeur (1956), an assemblage of an eye-shaped table, a lamp reminiscent of a chinese hat, and Rosa Luxemburg’s book Briefe aus dem Gefängnis (letters from prison).

Many of the presented artists are outspoken feminists. In Linder’s collages this is very straight-foward. The pornographic images, with their subjects’ heads substituted by flowers, and the ballet dancer with the fruitcake head, clearly relate to feminist art from the 70s. In contrast, the feminist angle in Bonnie Camplin’s Mermaid (2006), a drawing of a beautiful and mysterious woman who is biting her nails, is very subtle.

But the most interesting discrepancy in terms of positioning as woman artist is certainly to be found in Marres’ field of expertise: the intersection of design and art. Pernille Kapper William’s Nothing Matters No.1 (2010), a simple black laquered base, is reduced to the essential. Michaela Meise’s Brain (2007) is more playful. It is a chunky square object, but also exhibits angular squiggles. In between abstraction and figuration, the angular structures on its surface allegorise the cortex of a brain.

It is in the design arts where the Janus-faced nature of the domestic really comes to the fore. While the domestic used to be a space women were relegated to, in contrast to men’s claim on the public arena, it has also been an area women exerted great influence over. The squiggly elements of Meise’s brain sculpture can be said to reassert a classically feminine approach to the interior, ridding it of its label of triviality. Kapper Williams, on the other hand, claims a “male” language of form, and a male approach to the interior for herself. She is the best example of the female dandy referred to in the exhibition text, who is not a decorator, but a “home curator.”

The Mystery of Artistic Work III, Josephine Pryde, 2010, reed, steel, satin, and leather ribbon.

But the exhibition’s diversity in form and perspective does not end here. The show also feeds from its interplay with the texts presented in conjunction with it. The exhibition title Madame Realism refers to the character of the same name created by novelist and literary critic, Lynne Tillmann. The character mirrors the exhibition perfectly well. It is elusive and, as Lynne Tilmann herself pointed out in a reading at Marres, takes on very different positions throughout Tillman’s stories. Madame Realism is self-aware, edgy, and alert—all of which applies to the exhibits on show.

In reference to Virigina Woolf’s Orlando, who transforms from man to woman, Tillman’s Madame Realism undergoes a transformation of her own, turning into an art catalogue. As Lisette Smits, curator of the show, remarked wittily: if Madame Realism could turn into an art catalogue, she might as well turn into an exhibition title.

An essay on the epistolar in women’s art by Avigail Moss, available at the exhibition, adds another layer. Letters usually embody a subjective view, put on paper in the privacy of one’s own four walls. Whilst personal, the letter form expresses a “desire for exchange,” and bears the potential to address a large audience. As with this public exhibition in the domestic rooms of Marres, the personal becomes interpersonal with a letter.

All in all, the works in the exhibition feel a bit loosely connected at times, due to their disparity. But this can be seen as side-effect of an inclusive exhibition concept, which embraces the variety in women’s artistic practice and their different approaches to issues of gender.

The strength of the exhibition lies exactly in its openness. In Madame Realism, there is no such thing as a singular feminine style, no visual écriture feminine. Instead there is complexity and ambiguity, a strategy Sheilla Levrant de Bretteville defends for women’s design in order to invite viewers participation, and undermine the misleading language of “rational” forms. Madame Realism shows that women’s artistic emancipation can take many shapes. There is no alleged universal, only the intersubjective.

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Frauke Ehlers
Frauke Ehlers holds a B.A. Arts & Culture with a specialization in Arts, Literature, and Culture, and is currently a candidate for the MA Arts and Heritage - Management, Policy, and Education at Maastricht University, Netherlands.
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