Celebrating a diverse selection of artists who identify as female or gender non-binary and whose work reclaims and explores the female form, The Stand’s inaugural auction throws down the gauntlet. Far more than a verbal riposte to the age-old dominance of the white, male perspective in art and culture, The Female Gaze describes an outlook that is open, non-judgemental, progressive and inclusive of all marginalised people and their allies, while challenging those entrenched power structures so deftly communicated by the image since men began portraying women as passive objects of male desire.
‘In the average European oil painting of the nude the principle protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and he is presumed to be a man,’ wrote John Berger in 1972, in his seminal book Ways of Seeing. Three years later, British film critic Laura Mulvey coined the phrase ‘the male gaze’ in an essay that called out the same objectification in popular cinema, with ‘woman as image and man as bearer of the look.’ In 1985, the New York-based art collective The Guerrilla Girls released the first poster in its now iconic campaign that challenged all those complicit in the exclusion of women and non-white artists from mainstream representation: ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the modern art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.’ Dubbed ‘the conscience of the art world,’ the Guerrilla Girls highlighted the urgent need for action and disruption, yet progress has been glacially slow.
While there is some improvement in the non-commercial sector – the number of women artists representing Great Britain at the Venice Biennale has risen from 36% to 50%, 66% of Turner Prize winners have been female identifying for a decade and Tate collections are nearing gender parity, thanks to directors Maria Balshaw and Francis Morris – the burden of history is exemplified by the National Gallery’s collection of 2624 artists, of which only 28 are women. Shockingly, auction houses and the majority of dealerships seem unable to make headway. Between 2008 and 2019, Artnet News found that women made up just 2% of the worldwide auction market, while the Spring 2021 Artnet Intelligence Report reveals that, in 2020, there were only eight women among the 100 top-selling artists at auction. In her recent report, ‘Representation of Female Artists in Britain During 2019,’ commissioned by the Freelands Foundation, Dr Kate McMillan records that although 74% of A level art students and 66% of art school undergraduates identify as female, only 35% of artists represented by major commercial galleries in London are women.
Representation and value go hand-in-hand: ‘It is hard to believe that a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) can be purchased for just a few million pounds,’ says McMillan, ‘when the works of arguably less important male artists are still selling for ten times that amount.’ But there is hope. Critic and author Hettie Judah, whose essay on the impact of motherhood on female artists accompanies the report, writes ‘A shift is already underway: where artists of an earlier generation who were upfront about motherhood are now regarded as pioneers, younger artists are already experiencing acceptance and even celebration of their motherhood within the art world,’ and now ‘feel liberated to explore territory that has for too long been dismissed or overlooked.’
This ‘territory’ is the stuff of life. ‘The female gaze is about sensuality and sensations, being inside the experience,’ says Ingrid Berthon-Moine, who brings her abstract work, Titillation, 2020 [watercolour, acrylic and collage], to the sale. ‘I use the human body as a playground, I toy with body parts and I wonder about the physical responses triggered in us by the instant gratification of Deliveroo and Amazon. What happens to anticipation, desire, sex – to all our relationships?’ Other artists in the sale include Max Mara art prize winner Emma Hart, Nina Mae Fowler, Zoe Buckman, Gill Button, Delphine Diallo, Rachel Goodyear, Margarita Gluzberg, Anna Lieber Lewis, Lady Skollie, Frances Waite, the anonymous digital art collective Goldentailx and Shadi Al-Atallah, a London-based non-binary painter who grew up identifying as female in Saudi Arabia. ‘My childhood was at the most conservative time in Saudi society. You were forbidden to draw images of people and the representation of women was illegal. The only pictures of bodies I saw was on packaging, with the women blacked out.’
Al-Atallah’s ‘distorted self-portraits’ are created using compilations of body parts not their own, which is ‘liberating and freeing. I develop a deeper relationship with my body through painting.’ Similar to the female gaze but ‘less likely to put people in a male box who might not fit there,’ the queer gaze ‘doesn’t censor,’ says Al-Atallah. ‘Everyone is capable of thinking queer if they are able to challenge their assumptions. But I’m comfortable with the female gaze too, I have a lived female experience.’ ‘Women taking their bodies as subject and source material is not new, think of Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, Helen Chadwick, Penny Slinger,’ says critic Louisa Buck. ‘They are asking what it is to go through life as a woman and that discussion is on-going. Female artists are gloriously provocative, subversive, exploratory, revelling in their sexuality which is fantastic but the market still has problems with it and to change the value structure we need a major societal shift.’
Ironically, it is the market that has begun to fuel change. ‘There are bargains to be had and the market tends to spot an opportunity,’ says Buck. Niamh Coghlan, director of Richard Saltoun gallery, agrees. ‘The investment potential of all marginalised artists is incredible. You could wake up to find a piece is worth millions precisely because it’s been undervalued and attitudes are finally changing. It’s a win-win: collectors are making money and there is a material difference to artists’ lives.’ From March 2019 to March 2020, Richard Saltoun dedicated its entire exhibition and art fair programme to women artists, with the intention of encouraging wider industry action through debate, dialogue and collaboration. Any trepidation that ‘100% Women’ might be a commercial risk was banished by its success at the fairs.
On the inevitable question of tokenism, Coghlan is clear. ‘The only way to remedy huge, glaring inconsistences in representation is to do these focused sales and shows. Talking about the female gaze is an acknowledgement that we have a different way of looking. Women look at bodies and connect.’ London-based curator Marcelle Joseph has produced 35 exhibitions since 2011 while building her own remarkable collection which now concentrates entirely on female and queer artists. ‘I don’t think it’s ghetto-ising,’ she says, ‘it’s about highlighting excellence.’ Joseph cites initiatives like the Mother House Studios, Procreate Project, the Mother Art Prize and the Max Mara prize as levelling the playing field for women. ‘I was on the Max Mara jury when Emma Hart won and she was able to go on the residency with her husband and daughter. He did the childcare.’
Another area ripe for change is online. With social media and the curated ‘self’ so often mediated by the male gaze, even as movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter demand better, stereotypes continue to be ingrained. But the recent explosion of art will change everything, say new collective Goldentailx. The non-binary collective encompasses photographers, filmmakers and sound artists, who have exhibited as individuals in spaces that include Tate Modern, the Royal Academy of the Arts, the V&A museum, Annenberg Space for Photography Los Angeles and White Cube Gallery. New works from Goldentailx will be auctioned in a dedicated auction in June. ‘In this brief moment, when NFT artworks are rupturing the foundations on which the art world exists, we have the ability to build our artistic vision anew,’ they say.
The Stand is extremely proud to present a selection of new digital artworks by Goldentailx, which will be minted as NFTs from their evolving body of work, Digital Tail Volumes, which inverts the male gaze in the music industry. In this work male models recreate the hyper-sexualised dances and poses used by some of the most successful female music artists, and the familiar beat of the music is replaced by the mating calls of gibbons at dawn in South Borneo, answered by British urban foxes, and set against East London street sounds of beating drums and planes soaring overhead. Like Goldentailx, The Stand believes in a fairer art world. The Female Gaze is not just a thrilling inaugural sale, it is a statement of intent.