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Art review: Big Women at Firstsite, Colchester

03 March 2023

Jonathan Evens views an exhibition by 24 leading British artists

© Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas, Yellow Chair Hair (2022)

Sarah Lucas, Yellow Chair Hair (2022)

“BIG WOMEN” comes with an emphasis on the word “Big”. This is a big group show of 24 leading British women artists, each of whom is a big character in her own right. The focus is on the experience of women in later life, the show having grown out of one organised by the curator, Sarah Lucas, in 2020, which derived from discussion of the experience of becoming a Señora rather than a Señorita.

The show — which includes sculpture, painting, film, and fashion — straddles the whole of the crescent-shaped Firstsite Gallery, beginning in the foyer, where Lucas’s soft sculptures formed from stuffed tights or pantyhose playfully interact with existing installations by Michael Landy and Julian Opie, which explore aspects of male identity. Posters and a mural scale the tall and curvaceous walls leading to the main galleries, where the exhibition is topped and tailed by the fashion gurus Pam Hogg and Yoko Brown.

© Renata Adela, courtesy The ArtistRenata Adela, Lilith II — Bonobo Venus (plaster), 2021

Hogg’s creation, Prophecy, immediately adds a strand of spirituality to an exhibition that is, by turns, bold, bright, brash, and brazen, while aspiring to be thought- provoking, funny, serious, attractive, and fun. Begun after Hogg had been sent an altar cloth from an Italian church, this costume, which includes a massive headdress topped by a bird, features religious symbols combined with the question “Will there be a morning / Will there be a mourning”. A range of religious symbols also feature in Renate Adela’s embroidered Korous Thanatos — Beautiful Death, while her sculptures are positive images of Lilith, who is, in some accounts, the first wife of Adam and, in others, a demonic figure.

Like Lilith, Eve is also a reworked figure here, appearing in paintings by Merilyn Humphreys exploring Arcadia, which include Et tu en Arcadia sum, Crisis, and Eve. Having synergies with the work of Eileen Cooper, these are allegorical images that entice us into the Arcadian experience. Eve is an image of integration, while Et tu en Arcadia sum shows an element of narcissism, which may provoke the Crisis in which a mother is depicted as protecting her child from the threat of male violence. Alongside, also by Humphreys, are the most beautiful and intricately sewn tea cosies depicting, first, the Garden of Eden and, second, The Christmas Story.

Rachel Howard has described herself as being obsessed with religion, having had positive experiences as a child of Anglicanism and Quakerism. She sees religions, ultimately, as about being human, and seeks in her art to transmute the experience of pain and grief through the creation of art, as with St Veronica’s easing the pain of Christ on the Via Dolorosa, only to find his image on her veil. Her St Veronica Reads the News is an image that reveals this process, and which opens doors into the heart of Howard’s practice more generally.

In “times dominated by male aggression, politicking, greed, war and pig-headedness”, Lucas suggests that we need the mix of seriousness and humour, thoughtfulness and light-heartedness, brashness and sensitivity, and spirituality and humanism which characterises this exhibition.

If you do visit, don’t miss the special year-long exhibition by the Iranian rug-maker Mehdi Jalalaghdamian, with its moving reflection on the experience of refugees, plus an image of the crucifixion.

“Big Women”, curated by Sarah Lucas, is at Firstsite, Lewis Gardens, High Street,
Colchester, Essex, until 18 June. Phone 01206 713 700. firstsite.uk

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