It is always interesting to have artists brought to one’s attention by arts consultants and promoters, and this month has been no exception, despite the emergence of Omicron, and the arts generally being rather relegated to a minor supporting role, at least in the UK to a backdrop of seemingly incessant political turmoil.
I actually took the trouble to take a look at the work of Coral Woodbury1, intrigued by the title as much as anything, and a photographic gallery with which I freely admit to being unfamiliar with, its stable of artists being a mix of the greats, like Berenice Abbott, but also a respected transatlantic alloy of artists from the USA and the UK – including Ian McKeever, Oli Kellett and the Starn twins.
The premise of Woodbury’s show lies in the female artists omitted from the first 29 editions of Janson’s History of Art2. Palimpsest and the Revised Edition project purports to confirm the importance of these women made invisible by this particular history of art, and by portraying them, to make them visible and evident to the contemporary viewer. I have to say I really admire this as a project and as a mission. I wholeheartedly agree that figures such as Anni Albers, Vanessa Bell, Faith Ringgold and Louise Bourgeois richly deserve to be recognized for their respective accomplishments as artists, designers and creatives alongside their contemporaries, and in some cases, their more mainstream, esteemed partners.
So at this point, I need to depart from the script a little; Janson’s History of Art, first published in 1962, is essentially and undergraduate reader, a little like Gombrich if you will, providing an overview of western art. One has to make two observations here, firstly the 1962 version of Janson is obviously quaint and hopelessly out of date, but also that more recent versions have, to some extent, addressed the shortcomings of the earlier versions, with additional authors and sections added to significant effect. It needs to be stated, however, that it does function primarily an excellent undergraduate reader.
The show itself looks well presented, attractive and likeably understated. The works sensibly curated and a professional looking hang. The works themselves a mixture of monochromatic portraits, alongside more abstract colour block paintings overlaid on various texts.
Whilst the works intrigued, my first reservation about the show was its apparent and stated basis in protest, trying to right a wrong in terms of art historical representations of significant women (or lack of such) in Janson’s first 29 editions, a deficit undoubtedly and lamentably echoed in other college readers. I fear.
But I did wonder, beyond the sphere of the academic, whether Janson’s repeated and chronic omissions really merited the efforts of a contemporary artist trying to redress (some thirty years on) an injustice which might be seen as rapidly fading into a model of art history that in itself is in question. This concern also makes any attempted revisionary palimpsest as something of a house of cards; in other words, possibly a shaky foundation unworthy of the artists efforts, efforts which might be construed as reactive/responsive rather than proactive. I was minded of Art & Language's brilliant malapropism that describes this exact quandary under the title Wrongs Healed in Official Hope3.
My second concern with the show is the announced concern of the artist with all things book/page related and of the slightly loose conceptual relationship between the portrayal of important female creatives painted on the pages of the book. The relationships created in the images seem to me to be literal overlays, with scant aesthetic consideration in terms of their rendition, and it has to be said, sometimes uneasy visual and thematic relationships between the figure (portrait) and the ground (page). Woodbury professes a fascination with the image/page overlay, this becomes a compositional convention within which to work, providing “a tension between text and image”. I certainly felt that a kind of tension did exist here, but was uncertain if it was the type of ductility test intended.
In contrast, I found the coloured and more abstract works to resonate beautifully between Marcel Broodthaers, Dom Sylvester Houedard and Claudio Parmiggiani, I wished in fact that these had been the focus of the show, and had been accompanied by a far less didactic text. I say this given that my visit was almost entirely conditioned by the pre-announced premise of the show, and I remain unsure if this very specific declaration of intent might not actually stifle some of the more nuanced aspects of the kinesthetic qualities of the works.
I make the latter observation mindful that the exemplar women selected to ‘challenge’ Janson’s version of history, seem largely (perhaps with the exception of Ringgold), to have been drawn from affluent European or American families and circles of significant opportunity, privilege. The omission of women from the history of western art has been, and to some extent remains, appalling, but one wonders if Woodbury’s rendition of female worthies drawn from the rarified circles of the Bloomsbury Group or from various renowned national academies are not equally in danger of addressing gender bias without any suitable consideration of social capital. Unless I am hopelessly misguided or perhaps unjustly uncharitable, the hazard seems to be one of replacing a lamentable art historical gender bias with an equally lamentable historical and contemporary social bias. Woodbury’s act of painting quite graphic impressions of neglected female talent over the (loosely relevant) pages of a book does not appear to me to constitute an act of palimpsest in the true sense, replacing text with text, or image with image out of material necessity, but might simply be an unreconciled collision of elements.
All this being said, whilst I may have been quite critical, the show is worth a look. I have to acknowledge also that as much as Janson may have missed out some vital players, my male view may have rendered me incapable of truly appreciating the uniquely feminist aesthetic and approach by Woodbury. So don’t just take my word for it.
1 Coral Woodbury: Palimpsest, 4th November 2021 – 22nd January 2022, HackelBury Fine Art, London.
2 Janson. Janson's History of Art: The Western Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011.
3 PS1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, US, 1999 Index: Wrongs Healed in Official Hope, 1998-1999. Art & Language, Lisson Gallery London.