Janis Somerville

Lascaux redefined
Artsite, Brisbane

Lascaux Redefined consisted of large scale collages of newspaper (the racing section), overpainted with white acrylic, overdrawn with large drawings of horses, and encased in polyester mesh. The works are comprised of multiple panels and were strung up as screens in the space. One work consisted of panels bound and interiorly lit to resemble a lantern. Two series of smaller, framed works were the artist's initial and final experiments with the central working concept of the exhibition- the symbology of the horse as it was selected by Somerville from the Lascaux cave drawings and reworked by her in the overdrawn imagery of the collaged works. The artist's private response to this ancient source is contextualised by the contemporary background of popular publicly circulating horse imagery-that found in the racing section of newspapers.
The contrast between the newspaper photographs of racing horses and Somerville's Lascaux-inspired drawings is a literal comment of the place of the horse (and implicitly other animals) in our society. Where 'primitive' cultures revere the horse, treating it with respect, endowing it mystical authority, contemporary Western culture has secularised and commodified the horse for profit. Art, for Somerville, is a material by-product of culture. Objects imbued with wider cultural uses, understandings, even rituals , become (as in the case of Lascaux) privileged sites of cultural knowledge. In this case, Somerville has recouped the material by-products of one of our cultural rituals (that is, the racing pages) and revealed in it the cultural knowledges it conceals.

The contrast between the newspaper photographs of racing horses and Somerville 's Lascaux-inspired drawings may also be read as a metaphoric comment on wider social relations. Somerville 's horses are all mares.1 In this way Lascaux Redefined interrogates the treatment of women in contemporary Western culture and also cultural definitions of the feminine. There is a direct analogy between the commodification of horses in the racing industry and that of women in the pornography industry. Somerville 's drawn images of mares are highly expressive, even erotic. The issue of her project is not a moral consideration of the uses and abuses of sexuality but an historical and political question of representation. The connection Somerville draws between the Lascaux caves, the horse and women may be (mis)taken as a perpetuation of the hegemonic metaphysical equation between the primitive and the feminine, which is central to patriarchal discourses. By overlaying the racing section of newspapers with 'primitive ' images of horses, Somerville may simply be revealing an ideological subtext to this social contract: horses/women may be objectified, commodified, rendered spectacle for profit because they are 'primitive', an exotic and unknowable other. In this way Somerville's works awaken in us the uncomfortable feelings aroused by feminist enquiry which lead to accusations that feminists illuminate gender divisions and equations in cultural practices but in doing so somehow perpetuate them.

This is to read Somerville's works ahistorically and apolitically. The head of each mare has been replaced with a triangle which is an ancient symbol for the female.

‘Nearly all three-way designs have been assimilated by Western tradition to the Christian Trinity ... What was true about the shamrock was that it, and all other symbols of the Trinity, was much older than Christianity, dating back in most cases to a pagan faith of the Goddess, whose three personae were usually known as Virgin, Mother, and Crone. The triangle represented three-in-one unity of this Goddess from the earliest scribblings of primordial man.’2

Somerville's use of the triangle not only highlights the patriarchal equation between between the feminine and the primitive, but refers historically to the matriarchal cultures which existed at the time of the Lascaux cave paintings. The triangle represents an ancient female principle in the context of Lascaux, while simultaneously becoming a feminist symbol in the context/background of contemporary patriarchal culture. Through investigating the symbolic meanings in wider cultural practices (that is, symbolic meanings attached to the horse animal), Somerville 's Lascaux

Redefined becomes part of the feminist project. In illuminating such symbolic meanings, Somerville questions the divide between the sacred and the secular. This in turn challenges the patriarchal project of secularisation, which has denied art making a central role in the production of sociocultural formations.

The 'grandness' of Somerville's concerns and theme could have been tempered by representing the personal significance of horses for her, which she mentions in her artist statement. There are obvious parallels between Somerville 's Lascaux Redefined and Jenny Watson's work. In Watson's use of the horse-symbol, sensitive autobiographical detail has been connected with themes of psychoanalysis, historical narratives, and social commentary. Somerville explores her theme with a strong formal aesthetic, which commanded the Artsite space and brought alive the allusions to ritual.

Other visual symbols, such as the grid (referring back to the images of what are believed to be traps in the Lascaux caves) and hair (with its symbolic meanings of sexuality), were progressively explored and extended, while becoming part of a visual, feminist vocabulary. This strong aesthetic coupled with an intense attention to material production gives weight to Somerville's theme and to her politics.

notes: 

1. Janis Somerville, Lascaux Redefined, artist's statement, 1992.

2. Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 34.