“Don’t paint me like one of your French Girls, I’ll damn well paint myself”

Priya Khaira-Hanks is blown away by pretty pornography at Dreamers Awake, and explains how naked women can still be powerful

'Well(-)Hung' (2017), Kelly Akashi. Photo: Anoushka Kavanagh

The only thing I gained from last spring’s Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean was a passionate, enduring hatred of female nudes. There was something overwhelmingly frustrating about the hushed, reverential atmosphere, the firmly-gripped programmes and erudite information plaques, the whispers about composition and brush-stroke, all in aid of what was, essentially, a group of cisgendered men being delighted at being allowed to see real life boobies.

Don’t get me wrong, tits are lovely things – as a bisexual person who possesses a fairly good rack I appreciate them from both sides of the argument. But treating them as mystical, profound gateways to knowledge about form and modernism is merely part of the process of putting women on a pedestal – and when they are up there, being idealised, mystified, and honoured, it is hard for women to clamber down and get shit done, maybe pick up a paintbrush and make some art themselves.

In Creating Modernism, despite the female bodies plastering the walls, there was little mention of how women might have actually contributed to the French art scene at the beginning of the 20th century. Tilly Nevin recognised this, bemoaning how the birth of modernism ironically seemed to be lacking that key component of birth: someone who owned a vagina [http://www.cherwell.org/2017/02/28/the-female-artist-speaking-truth-to-power/ ]. It was, instead, a loving paean to cisgendered straight men and their sexual desires. “There was only one mention of a female painter, Berthe Morisot”, Tilly noticed sadly.  In that exhibition, the female body was central in a way that made it an automatic object, whilst female agency was lacking. It was demoralizing, trite, and most heinous of all, boring.

However, several months later and a couple of hours down the M40, an antidote is brewing. Dreamers Awake – at the White Cube Bermondsey – also has an overwhelming focus on the female body – female meaning, of course, the body of anyone who identifies as female, as testified to by inclusion of trans artist Claude Cahun. However, this obsession is from the inside looking out: the body as messy, maligned, and metamorphic subject.

 

“Don’t paint me like one of your French Girls,” cry the women of Dreamers Awake. “I’ll damn well paint myself.”

The fittingly angular space inside the White Cube is currently devoted to the female surreal. The aim is true immersion: the works are not accompanied by plaques or titles, ensuring that you are confronted by the art first and foremost, followed by a frantic struggle to find the artist and name of the piece on the accompanying booklet. Whilst this does mean that time is wasted trying to decipher the map and numbering system – placing numbers by the paintings would have allowed viewers to experience more artistic reverie and less frustrated paper-shuffling – this approach allows for the pieces to speak for themselves, timeless and autonomous, without being subsumed into a stuffy narrative.

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The enigmatic work of Kelly Akashi, for example, functions best without possible interpretations or mystery-eroding practical details about how it was made. Instead, in ‘Well(-)Hung’ (2017), life-like bronze hands drip from the ceiling to the floor, intermittently holding torn onion halves. Every pore and wrinkle is evident on the elegant fingers, which are so real it seems they could flutter in dance or curl into fists at any second. They are poignantly suspended between fragility and strength, violence and grace.

This mode of presentation suits lesser-known artists like Akashi, as her work can appear for the first time in equal dialogue with more famous creators, without condescending biographical details about age and graduate shows.

In fact, the more distinguished names do not fare as well in this intuition-based way of consuming art. The recognisable quality of the Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois or Leonora Carrington, for example, means that it is difficult to move beyond generalizations like “there is Emin, doing her angry sex thing”. Usually, their distinctiveness would contribute positively to overall messages and themes, but in an otherwise instinctive, sensory, and exploratory wander through the female subconscious, a well-known artistic style creates a jarring moment of lucidity. Carrington’s characteristic horse imagery and zoomorphic figures are dogged by art history and symbolism for instance, appealing to the cerebral rather than the emotive and aesthetic. The works are not bad in themselves, but they seem out of place in an exhibition concerned with bodily responses and wordless connections.

Sculpture thrives in this environment. Another highlight is Rachel Kneebone’s ceramic orgies, where legs, flowers, and genitalia teem in fine white porcelain. Grandma’s best china has undergone a sexual awakening in ‘Shield IV’ (2010), and the result is a mesmerizing commentary on the bubbling sexuality beneath historically chaste and restrained female domesticity. Whilst the nudes of French modernism saw men projecting their own desires onto the female body, Kneebone’s work explores female sexuality as intrinsic and self-creating, blossoming of its own accord – no input is needed from Monsieur, thank-you very much.

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There are some moments of pure curatorial genius here, such as placing Mona Hatoum’s ‘Jardin Public’ (1993) – a ball of pubic hair on a wrought iron chair – directly in front of Julie Curtiss’ ‘Venus’ (2016), where a coquettishly posing woman is made out of thick, coarse braids. It is a defiant reminder that however seal-smooth and waxed to perfection your woman is, she is hirsute in nature. Her follicles are stronger than any fragile masculinity. The Leonora Carrington quote on a nearby wall is apt: “I warn you, I refuse to be an object”.

Once you spot one skilful pairing, they appear everywhere. Nevine Mahmoud’s ‘Miss her (peach)’ (2017) works symbiotically with Linder’s photomontages: the most seductive fruit (and emoji) is carved from shiny orange calcite, with a suggestive missing slice. Behind it, blowsy roses obscure the heads and crotches of naked women in ‘Girls of the World V’ (2012), ‘Daughters of the Promised Land’ (2012), and ‘Untitled’ (2012).

Feminine stereotypes are revealed as their own kind of pornography, yet despite this disturbing message, the art is undeniably pretty. I wanted to festoon Linder and Mahmoud’s creations with fairy lights and arrange them in pride of place in my room. Despite, or perhaps because of, embracing the experimental, much of the art on display in Dreamers Awake is more than just clever or ‘good’: it is also beautiful.

These simple white rooms of the White Cube’s industrial box in Bermondsey are populated by the complicated, colourful, and organic. Dreamers Awake doesn’t feature female nudes, but rather naked women – and the show proves that when women represent themselves it is infinitely more interesting, raw, and sexy than the onanistic scribbling of modernist men.

Dreamers Awake is on from 28 July to 17 September at the White Cube Bermondsey