Aberdeen Art Gallery micro-commission
Becoming, 110x100cm, oil on canvas, 2021
The painting Becoming is about an experience of colour and form in the first instance. It also speaks to the ideas which have influenced its realization, namely an investigation into historical depictions of women’s work and the contemporary female aesthetic within the Aberdeen Art Gallery collections. It also has to do with the artists individual experience of exploring feminism alongside the unpredictable nature of artistic practice.
This painting responds to two artworks in particular, Tracy Emin’s prominent neon heart For You and Barbara Hepworth’s Meditation. Emin’s heart expresses a feminine aesthetic through its colours and subtle message. The ‘x’ at the end of the poem is reminiscent of a kiss from a text message. The kiss as a gesture of love and caregiving is central to the experience of woman, and in Becoming the symbol also embodies this idea. Added to this is the element of joyful movement. The circular form, inspired by Hepworth’s Meditation, also developed from a desire to represent the impression of woman and balance. These ideas of being woman include strength implied through a solid foundation of carved stone or the thickly painted surface, delicate sensitive edges and the beauty of an irregular rounded form that can envelop or extend care for those around her. ‘X’ is the opposite of ‘O’, the first being strong and delicately decisive while the second softly encompassing, and a palette of complementary colours is used in order to amplify this harmonious dissonance. They can also represent the biological possibilities that originate from the ‘x’ chromosome or the potential merging of the two symbols to make the female gender sign. Ultimately, the painting speaks to the prospect of both celebrating woman and reconciling differences which is what lies at the heart of feminism.
The title was also inspired by philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘becoming-woman’ as a space of potential for development and change. Becoming takes on this potential by exploring the multifaceted aspects of woman in her sensuality, strength and harmonious human nature. It looks at differences in abstract form and colour in order to strive towards a balance.
I am honoured to have been granted a commission from the Aberdeen Art Gallery. I started out with the intention of making a painting in response to the theme of women’s work and the female aesthetic. I wanted my process to lead the way so I began by sketching from the collection in order to see what I would respond to intuitively. I was initially drawn to Robert McGregor’s Mussel Gatherer’s and George Hitchcock’s Maternité because they are historical representations of care and women’s work. Similarly Herald Knight’s The Embroideress and the many Sampler examples in the collection looks at women’s work in the home and explore the ideas important to the 19th-century woman: beauty, poetry, religion, truth. By sketching the women in these historical paintings there developed a sense of identification or empathy for their situations and stories. This brought up the question of what the important values for women are today and if they could be symbolically represented through an object. Some of the pressing ideas I found essential to women and feminism included equality in education and work, legal rights and in particular reproduction rights and menstrual dignity. Images of abstracted menstrual pads or fire blood-red stains on canvas came to mind, but it did not sit well with me as a representation for contemporary woman, because this may no longer be the unifying aspect of womanhood as it would exclude some of the LGBTQ+ community. Another idea that struck me as possibly the most essential and current aspect for women today is that of communication because it is through open access to information and free speech that women can support each other in striving against inequities. The cell phone would be the image of choice to symbolize communication, but this could not be limited to women alone.
My research also explored the issues women are facing now during the Covid-19 pandemic. The most prominent one was that of unemployment or overwork due to balancing multiple roles of work and caregiving. This brought to light the essential idea of care. In response to this, I began to draw hands as a recognizable symbol of caregiving and women’s manual work. Another idea I explored was putting masks on the paintings in the collection. This was significant in that it related to the idea that female voices have long been silenced and that we are all now having an experience of that. The feminist movement's work is to liberate those voices. Overall, the research aspect to this project brought up lots of ideas and many questions, such as what a female aesthetic is, why the roles of women continue to be gender-biased and how to represent contemporary ideas through abstract painting.
Women are often the ones holding the family and their work-life together and striving towards a balance between the two. Similarly, feminism is about finding a balance between men and woman, noting differences but striving towards equality. I arrived at the two final images in Becoming through an exploration into Wilhelmina Barns-Grahm’s Protest, which depicts a devolvement of order. I began to consider how to depict feminism and the idea of woman symbolically, but I was reticent to represent the fight for feminism, preferring to consider forms representing balance or of 'coming together,' universal forms that signify harmony, presence, and can be extended to imply equality. The forms I discovered were predominantly sculptural such as the Neolithic stone-carved balls in the Aberdeen Art Gallery collection, Hepworth’s form work (Oval Form, Requiem and Mediation) ceramic vases which represented the sensual but imperfect beauty of the female form (Kaneko’s Tall Tin-Covered Vase & Susan Disley’s Stoneware Vessel) as well as abstract forms implying movement such as contemporary artist Marete Rasmussen’s Red Form.
Process & Reflections:
I felt very comfortable sketching initially in pastels to get my ideas out as well as working with watercolour, but once I started experimenting with acrylic paints, a new material for me, I became easily frustrated. It was good to experiment and try different themes, but it did take some time to renew my practice in oil paint. I realized that my painting process has quite a lot to do with failure and starting again. I see that I often make mistakes in order to find a way out of them. I paint in layers, erasing or etching into the canvas or adding sheens or texture, and the process becomes about responding to what is at hand, dealing with the past and trying to create a new future plane which is ideally harmonious.
This project helped me to emerge from a creative covid slump I had not previously thought to have fallen into. It rejuvenated my practice by giving me a new theme to research. It provided funds for new materials and books which I will continue to find inspiration from, in particular, Barbara Hepworth’s Writings and Conversations and Hannah Stark's Feminist Theory After Deleuze. I found it immensely enjoyable to sketch freely from the collection that even towards the end of the project I fit in a couple of sketches just to stay connected to the sort of observation that drawing allows. I look forward to being able to visit the Gallery once it re-opens in order to sketch from the collection in person again.