A complementary caste

A homage to women artists in Queensland, past and present
The Centre Gallery, Gold Coast
5 November - 4 December, 1988

The Centre Gallery's wood-panelled, corporate "boardroom" was by no means an ideal venue to present a tribute to Queensland's women artists. Furthermore a visit to this exhibition was like taking an historical journey; a slightly troubling trip back into feminist thinking of the 1970s. Undoubtedly the project was a laudable one, conceived and put together with zeal and very real determination. Individually there were some fine pieces shown and the exercise a general morale booster for Queensland women artists. Yet the result was in many ways passé and somewhat less than stimulating. As a further example of Bicentennial rhetoric, focusing on "cultural achievement", it effectively highlighted the difficulties inherent in this form of panegyric. At the same time it sounded a warning to those intent on provincial introspection.

Unhappily the tone of the exhibition was set by Judy Watson's five sepulchral but haunting sentinels guarding the foyer, a funereal quilt by Ruth Stoneley, Bessie Gibson's limp Daisies and a melancholy lavender catalogue cover. The latter did nothing to dispel the visitor's uneasy sense of "in memoriam". The very concept of an art historical survey to pay its respects to as many notable women artists as possible (although, one might add, remarkably few Aboriginal women) unfortunately testifies to "the masculine values that prevail". At best such an exercise could only result in an impasse. lt could prove either that women artists in Queensland were as good as or (even worse) more incompetent and less innovative than their masculine counterparts. The resulting impression was that Queensland women artists, just like men, had produced respectable art. This is the kind of bind into which early feminist thinking was inevitably drawn.

There is some irony in the fact that a radical feminist critic like Lucy Lippard, who visited Queensland in 1982, was the acknowledged catalyst for the show. She and historians like Griselda Pollock, now at the centre of current debate about the nature of female imagery and "sensibility", are dramatically shifting feminist attitudes about art, by way of actually reordering the rigid category of "woman" and the fixed signs of "femininity". The Homage exhibition, in merely documenting the homogeneous achievements of women (chiefly European) in separate fields such as photography, painting and architecture, appeared unaware of this so called "cultural" feminist thinking that is actively deconstructing its own methods and questioning the relevance of the patriarchal discipline of art history. Indeed the show was centred more on the past, than on the present preoccupations with video and performance. Even the concerns of the later 1970s in which women's perceptions and life experiences were dictating new ways of approaching aesthetic form, were given but slight acknowledgement.

Aside from the theoretical problems and the exhibition's rationale, the inclusion of some pieces would be hard to justify. The manner too in which objects were visually disposed worked to the disadvantage of many. Real high points like Kathleen Shillam's small but stalwart Chloe c.1948, Vida Lahey's coolly introspective Tea Time 1925, Gwyn Pigott's Bowls 1968, fought for recognition in the boardroom. Hollie's The Singer 1988 and Pat Hoffie's Re-Assessment Ill - All Form and No Content 1987 succeeded partly through competitive colour and sheer size. The latter, a powerful, brooding work, overtly engages with current theory on the spectacle of modern life, and the vapid nature of the female advertising image.

But what of the items that never even made it to the celebration get together? Conspicuously absent was work by Davida Alien and Sylvana Gardner. The latter's recently completed and quite remarkable reverse applique Gnoorigabin should surely have been included. In the context of the tribute, textiles and jewellery, although represented, looked sadly like the poor relations of "high art". Thus Elsie Wright's flannel flower Doyley seemed a major concession to the party trivia rather than a legitimate social practice. And where indeed were the traditional fibre baskets and string figures of Aboriginal women? Did they not qualify for "official" approbation? In fact "craft" as a vital and practical aspect of women's culture was condoned by the exhibition, rather than integrated as an essential activity.

In spite of the show's problems, the catalogue is a landmark for regional historians in terms of its sheer volume of documentation. (lt has also rescued from the dust of archives, almanacks and old newspapers many gemlike "firsts" but beware of the host of proof-reading errors.) For this reason it is particularly unfortunate that the final impression of the show was one of a watered-down "protest" showing in the style of the early 1970s. Instead of experiencing a sense of elation at the capabilities of women, we were treated to a slightly uneven group of works that paid tribute to a period of feminist ideas pre Judy Chicago's Dinner Party. Sadly a memorial service was held in which women's art was identified, rescued and momentarily framed in historical "aspic".