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Emptied of its original value and meaning, the female image, in all its diversity, has been much maligned in the hands of an exploitative, patriarchal culture. The feminist response has often been to reject or parody those symbols of the "ideal woman" with their own new signifiers.
Ruth Propsting, whose exhibition at Sellas Gallery dealt with her search for a female representation, was concerned with redefining the female position, and sought to reflect in her work potential for an emergence from the confines of the dominant patriarchy. Propsting has attempted to produce images of a revised femininity through an intuitive insight into new representational symbols, and existing representational apparatus.
However, the artist was aware of the problems of deconstructing feminine sexuality – the difficulties in representing the female body in a culture so entrenched in a phallocentric mentality. The risk of offering yet another form of titillation to existing patriarchal values under- lined her decision to discover an expression of women that would not find her "joining the ranks of the exploiters". In her work she sought to reflect the actuality of women's position in society, whilst also giving expression to their potential for change. In this way her work makes constant reference to emptiness, hollowness, and bondage. In contrast to her symbols of the dominant culture e.g. classical, architectural forms (seen as crumbling, and distinctly secondary), the feminine symbols emerge as powerful and challenging.
The earlier works in the exhibition (charcoal drawings on paper) were a direct intuitive expression of her feelings, and the signifiers Propsting used (abstracted, organic, fragmented) were seen by the artist as parallels between the two realms of the visible and the invisible. These images reflected the metaphysical link so often ascribed to woman and nature. Propsting's use of floating organic forms - moving in and out - gives symbolic reference to the fluctuations and change in the emergence of a new feminine reality. Forms often obscured or revealed, were suspended in the dark waters of a dominant patriarchy. Propsting in her catalogue talks about her search to express the innate actuality of women, and the repetition of these abstracted/organic forms provided a constant reference of woman's link with nature.
Shells, ribbons and knots are symbols for Propsting of confinement and bondage. In an untitled painting, the shell appears along with another dominant symbol - a velvety rich blood-red gown - to refer to both femaleness and emptiness. These two images are presented in all their femaleness as mere externality, reflecting the concealment of woman's true substance under the veneer of (unattainable) beauty and sensuality. The architectural structure (referring to the presence of the dominant patriarchy) is pushed into the background, a positive sign for change.
In her search for positive imagery Propsting also appropriated from history, using the Egyptian figure which is at once both powerful and androgynous, yet sensual and autonomous. In another untitled painting, Propsting combines this figure with an appropriation of Moreau's Sphinx and a smaller figure from a Gisella Bristling drawing. There is at once a sense of power and autonomy pervading the final image.
Her two larger works The Seduction of Wisdom and From Darkness into Light are presented as fragmented, with architectural forms appearing fractured. For Propsting, the crack represents the flaw in the patriarchal system.
Propsting's 1988 exhibition is a direct follow-on from her previous work in 1987 which had a strong environmental basis. Her investigations into the desecration of the landscape found her looking at ·the structures of power that make the decisions. This latest exhibition also refers back to a much earlier concern (1983-85) of the packaging of women for consumption in a capitalist society, only she has chosen to situate the politics of her current statement from a more positive standpoint.