Irons in the fire

Sarah Butcher, Anna Cameron, Pam Crofts, Jan Leo, Robyn McDonald, Raquel Redmond, Lucinda Shaw-Lamont, Ros Stokes, Alison Virtue, Judy Watson

Irons in the Fire is an exhibition presented by the Women's Legal Service to launch the publication of a booklet on Domestic Violence. The need for illustrations in this booklet provided the avenue to the arts. Stock commercial illustrations were found to be dated and unsatisfactory. As with the whole issue of women's activities, time and again it is found necessary to re-pre sent and re-evaluate existing notions of normality and particularly normalisations of the feminine.

Raquel Redmond has produced a series of black and white linocuts for the booklet. Her intensely lined faces and figures of women capture the atmosphere of oppression without recourse to depictions of female fear. The booklet is extremely supportive and informative and marks another milestone along the long slow road to female freedom from fear.

Sally Cameron from the Legal Service and Raquel Redmond invited other artists to put together an exhibition for the booklet launch. The response was enthusiastic and Irons in the Fire (like the Women's Legal Service itself) is a product of joint participation.

Irons in the Fire is an exhibition of diverse content in a wide range of media, including printmaking, sculpture, assemblage, painting, installation and colour laser copy. The ten exhibiting artists are from a range of cultural and racial backgrounds. This diversity is a tribute to feminism and powerfully conveys the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary nature of the exhibition 's central issue-that of domestic violence. it is also a chilling reminder of the subtle and diverse nature of misogyny.

The booklet emphasises the variety of forms covered by the term domestic violence (from verbal and financial abuse to sexual and physical) and the range of situations in which they can occur.

The booklet provides a microscopic view of domestic violence-detaile-d information of legal rights and action, avenues for shelter and support, explanations of legal practice and terminology. Irons in the Fire provides a macroscopic view of domestic violence – its origins in social structure and in prevailing definitions of the feminine.

Redmond 's images work to bridge these spheres. Her exhibited works, augmenting her microscopic booklet illustrations, provide the departure point into the macroscopic realm of social structure. Pedrator (a half-man , halfbeast figure) and Loki (a monk with medusa-like hair of snakes holding a book of law) are two powerful symbols of patriarchy and are the only male figures which appear in the exhibition. Redmond has derived them from Christian icons and her symbology locates misogyny deep in the structures of law itself.

Domestic issues of home and family life are visualised as an integral part of the socio-political apparatus. Redmond's Nil by Mouth, a mother and child image, describes isolationist and interventionist medical practice during childbirth. Anna Cameron's powerful constructions, especially Taking the Cure and Death by Adoption also centre upon medical and bureaucratic intervention as the template for domestic violence. Partnering these works are positive images of nurturance and fertility such as Lucinda Shaw-Lamont's Mother Moon Playing With Her 28 Daughters and Ros Stokes's Midwife.

The works of Ros Stokes consist of figurative screenprints and abstract monotypes. The abstractions, This House is Not a Home, Crossroads, The Long Way Home, represent the interior domestic environment through abstract map-like markings and surfaces. It is a strategy which deconstructs the patriarchal division of public and private. The screenprints of Robyn McDonald This is Not a Civilised Society and Spring Cleaning and Judy Watson's and Kim Mahood's Break the Silence are overt didactic landmarks of the exhibition 's theme and contextualise the more subtle works.

Still deeper than the social apparatus, Irons in the Fire locates the roots of female oppression in patriarchy's constructed definitions of the feminine, particularly focussed in sexuality. These works centre upon the representation of the female body which is the defining ground of the feminine, the site for the workings of power, the object of physical and sexual abuse. These images include text which emphasises the constructed nature of this private subject, rescuing their criticisms from transcendent notions of 'the body' (particularly apparent in Shaw-Lamont's Which Women Are These?).

Alison Virtue's female figures are objectified, diagrammatic and two-dimensional. It is a feminine that has been medically inspected, automated and functionally prescribed. Judy Watson's Skin If provides a positive contrast in its sensitivity.

Among Sarah Butcher's works are a series of linocuts consisting entirely of text-quotations from Dear Dolly letters written by young teenage girls. The low-level of sexual education and female self esteem existing in Australian society is made depressingly clear. Counterpointing these works are ShawLamont's The Making Paintings -large black and white naively drawn vaginas accompanied by red cursive text – Making warm milk and honey with my best friend, Making new planets with precious and dangerous ritualistic toys and others. They represent a positive female sexuality, warm and humorous, and their confrontational use of core imagery hangs in the context of the extreme issue of domestic violence.

Spaced throughout the McWhirter's artspace are historical props of irons, ironing board, washing trolley, sewing machine and manikin. Unifying the exhibition, these props attempt to achieve a sense of female history, an aim more fully realised in the installation works of Jan Leo, Ancient Rite and Ancient Prejudice. Her use of hand-made lace, doilies and paper creates fragile sites for the history of female labour. It is a history of marginalisation. It is in the works of Judy Watson and Pamela Croft and their retrieval of a fragmented Aboriginal heritage, that a truly positive female history may be visualised. Croft's sculptures Resurrection, She Can Fly Higher Than An Eagle and Watson's lithographs Dust Storm, Rainbow, Under the Act, Culture/Resurrection and The Guardians are powerful, spiritual works integrating the self and the environment, culture and nature.

It is to be hoped that Irons in the Fire will not be the last exhibition promoted by the Women's Legal Service. The extremely high quality of work addressing such a vital public issue, makes Irons in the Fire a highly successful group exhibition. The opportunity created to combine women's socio-political situation with the arts is a much needed focus for artistic practice and forum for feminism in Brisbane.