Jan Leo

A marginal place

Knowing Is All. A claim from a multimedia work produced by Jan Leo. If one was fortunate enough to see this quietly spoken, but empowering show of forceful feminist statements, one would have realised that here is an artist who does know. Leo knows what it is to be an artist, what it is to be a woman, and therefore what it is to speak from a marginal place. The one page catalogue is printed over a balance sheet pursuing a point made in Leo's Summation pieces of the necessity of achieving 'balance'. At the bottom of this page is a quote from Silvia Bovenschen that says "attempting to knit the gap between the artistic realm and social reality is problematic in that this gap is... the result of particular preconditions".1

Men are largely seen to be keepers of knowledge. Throughout history if women were thought to have any special knowledge, they were condemned for it, frequently via accusations of witchcraft. This exhibition, in part, hinges on the notion of woman as witch, priestess, soothsayer and goddess in opposition to women's oppression under patriarchal religious structures-in particular the domineering tenets of Christianity. In Constructed From An Essential Viewpoint Leo confronts the viewer with a pseudo-apse installation showing the curtained ancient figure of a crouching woman. As a woman one is still caught in the duality of identifying with the woman enshrined, and as a member of the congregation paying homage to a deity.

Leo is attempting to find ways outside of patriarchal constructs with which women can be comfortable. This is borne out in her screenprints, entitled A Marginal Place 1-5, where the addition of various processes, such as fabric weaving, stitching and dyeing, are an attempt to subvert the image content and the stereotypical position of women involved with these crafts. Again we are reminded of the marginal place allowed craft practices in the 'fine art' arena.

The Caryatids of the Erechtheum depicted in these prints are not only decorative aspects of a temple with religious purposes, but they also provide a vital architectural function. The marginality they allude to is that while women are put on a pedestal they are disallowed any involvement in processes other than those designated by the patriarchy. Women under patriarchy are perceived as decorative, functional objects to be exploited , fetishised and oppressed. Leo explores and express this commodification of women.

Many of these pieces, particularly I Am The Goods and Knowing, deliberately reflect a male attitude about constructions of femininity and difference. Leo attempts to manipulate time and space with clean clinical rationalisations. She coerces the viewer into reiterating those same questions that are forcefully asked in each of her works. The crisp, clean, sterile environment produces overtones of the ways in which women's bodies are abused by the predominantly male medical profession. The sterile glass spice jars with their working relation of male to female , along with the seemingly sweet adage of 'girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice', are sinister reminders of the enclosure and containment that has never been women's choice. On their perspex shelves they evoke the sense of the mantlepiece where there is 'a place for everything and everything in its place'. Each piece is part of a transforming cycle of questions.

Leo's refined craftwork and professional artistic endeavours indicate that "the age of suffering is over for the warring anti-hero",2 and that informed feminist artists can work from a restrained eloquence to question forcefully those processes by which significance is constituted. Leo remains in a marginal position by virtue of her gender, but it is a position of growing empowerment if this exhibition is any indication.

notes: 

1. Bovenschen, Silvia "Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?" New German Critique 10:133, Winter 19n.

2. Burkhart, Kathe "Life As A Bad Re-Run", Flash Art p. 88, Summer 1991.