Women Can't Paint is a teasing title to whet the appetite and nudge the senses. It's also the provocative premise to an exhibition of 28 paintings by, you guessed it, women! This is not so much a combative take on Georg Baselitz's public assertion that 'women don't paint very well' because they don't pass 'the market test.' (2013 interview with Spiegel, later reiterated in The Guardian, 2015). Rather, curator Marcus Harvey has shrugged his shoulders in disbelief with a show that declares: don't be so silly, of course women can paint.
Marcus is the down to earth instigator of Women Can't Paint which can be seen across neighboring galleries Turps and ASC. In our discussion he described how he'd 'been quite impressed with a lot of female painters' he'd come across as part of his magazine and tuition platforms at Turps. Turps Banana is a self funded publication with an arrow sharp focus on painting which Marcus co-started and continues to co-edit. Its integrity and popularity prepared the ground for what has become a genuine and successful educational programme.
According to Marcus, many female students who've taken time out from their practice are 'quite intimidated coming back into the learning environment and we provide that no nonsense, nothing-to-be-scared-of-setting' which 'really works, it's really fertile ground'. For some of these Turps participants like Emma Roche, being selected for Part One of this women's painting show is considered 'a massive honour to have work anywhere near' that of her ideals. There are no favours here though. Paintings have been selected on merit and what Josephine Wood refers to as 'a common bold approach' The latter is brilliantly summed up by Cherry Pickles' Self Portrait as William Burroughs 2016 - gun in hand, corpse on bed, defiant expression on face. Don't mess with me!
Speaking of messy, Josephine Wood's Turf War 2017 sets a kitchen scene in a round and round and round again frenzy of clanging dishes and hazardous ejaculations. She explains she's 'always been interested in the domestic as a subject for painting; the complex relations between people and their environment, the power struggles and family dynamics ... I like the idea of the mundane becoming monumentally ridiculous'. Far from ridiculous though, Josephine is an artist whose deep knowledge of her materials facilitates the ability to whip the paintbrush across the canvas in an application orchestrating its content. The result is a big wow welcome to the Turps Gallery.
Opposite in size, Don't Look Away by Geraldine Swayne describes a more disturbing household scene with her exquisitely rendered, small scale, large impact enamels. A young woman poses as casually as you like as if for a 70s polaroid while handling the older man seated next to her. She is the fresh enthusiast to his grubby breath. Nearby, the protagonist of her other gem, Buttastic 2015, glances back at us looking at her worn proud, red smacked buttock cheeks. Is she willing participant or victim and how are we implicated as we catch her in our gaze?
Over at ASC Gallery and contrasting Josephine's light and energetic hand is the heavy, emotional intensity of Stevie Dix's Ne Me Quitte Pas 2017 (Please Don't Leave Me). Hung adjacent to the masterful Mali Morris, two clumpy legs trudge across the surface, barely decipherable from their environment. This is slow pace through the quagmire. Paint so pasty you can almost feel it on your skin. Stevie was particularly moved by the opportunity to exhibit alongside painters who 'have opened or broken down doors for me' after gaining enormous support from artist and Turps Banana co-editor Phil King as part of the Turps correspondence course. His mentorship, she describes, as 'really freeing', adding that she was able to gain 'feedback without an agenda, purely for the love of painting'.
Another artist 'obsessed with the physicality and haptic qualities of paint' is Emma Roche who knits with strips of acrylic paint to create her compositions including Mother Blue 2018, featuring the head of a wild she-wolf. Using, at times, a rather raucous colour palette, the result is low key craftsmanship meets 'charity shop vibe'. On a serious note, she believes the exhibition 'comes at a crucial time of #metoo, #timesup and #notsurprised' prompting thoughts of other "can'ts" including 'women can't have equal pay, outnumber men on gallery artist lists, outnumber men in group shows'.
Still, it's a shame to see an exhibition of women only, borne of the fact that it continues to be necessary. As Marcus recalled visiting married artists John Bratby and Jean Cooke, he 'always could see she was a very good painter and easily the match technically and in quiet intensity'. Therein lies another truism. That women persist and endure as much as any male artist does, if not more, as they finally begin to stand, at least on the edges, of the resistant limelight. Perhaps it's this Marcus was thinking of when he asserted that risks are not really taken by the bigwig wheeler dealers, instead 'all the courage in the art world is at this low end with the painters who stick with it. They're the heroes'. From the saucy wildness of Hannah Murgatroyd's Curiosity 2018 to the fierce new order in Roberta Booth's Five Stages 1973, this is a show of just how rich and diverse those heroes can be.
Women Can't Paint: Part One is at Turps Gallery and ASC Gallery until 12 May with an artist talk 3-4pm on 5 May and includes works by Anne Ryan, Cherry Pickles, Clare Price, Emma Roche, Geraldine Swayne, Hannah Murgatroyd, Jane Harris, Jean Cooke, Josephine Wood, Mali Morris, Roberta Booth, Rosa Lee, Rose Wylie, Stevie Dix.