There’s always a strong and inherently uncomfortable feeling surrounding the idea of a deliberately “all women” show. It throws up the age-old gender dilemma with any creative discipline: you are an artist, not a female artist. Karen O, say, is the singer in a band; not the singer in a female-fronted band. But the flipside of that, of course, is that if women are being underrepresented then we should look to remedy that without being tokenistic.
It’s a bit of a minefield, and it’s with these questions and dilemmas that surely everyone is approaching the Saatchi Gallery’s first ever all-women exhibition to mark its 30th birthday. The show is named Champagne Life, which only really makes sense once you know it’s the name of one of the works featured – a piece by Julia Wachtel that succinctly combines Kim ‘n’ Kanye with Minnie Mouse.
However, according to the gallery, the title befits the exhibition as a whole. “ Champagne Life suggests high living, prestige and affluence, qualities that have led to champagne’s appropriation into hip-hop culture as an indicator of success,” says the Saatchi Gallery. “Applied here to an exhibition bringing together the work of 14 emerging women artists, the irony of the title is palpable and throws into contrast the reality of many long, cold, lonely hours working in the studio with the perceived glamour of the art world.”
Is it ironic, then, that the exhibition sponsor is Champagne Pommery? Is that in fact just another postmodern gesture? Who knows. What we do know though is that what becomes clear as you navigate the show is that there really is nothing drawing together the artists it exhibits apart from gender: a differentiation that surely now more than ever becomes daft at best, insulting at worst.
The show’s titular work is certainly easy on the eye, and perhaps courting the eyes of the art buyers scouting for pieces for a large corporation lobby or meeting room. Taking the po-mo tropes first explored more than six decades ago – mixing high and low culture, fantasy and celebrity – it’s certainly well done, but treads such worn pathways that it feels more relevant to an A-Level art exhibition than a huge gallery show. This feeling of well-done-but-slightly-pointless continues when looking at the work of Serbian artist Jelena Bulajić’s photorealistic portraits. The technique is astonishing; but again, it feels all too much like the work of that quiet kid in the corner of the sixth form art class who beavered away making crazy-good drawings, to fail anyway because they never showed up to exams.
That’s not to say the show doesn’t have its merits elsewhere. The sculptural works are almost uniformly impressive, with the horse on a ball taxidermy sculpture we’ve been seeing everywhere a particularly standout piece. The work is by Sohelia Sokhanvari, and is named Moje Sabz; using a taxidermy horse sacred a large fibreglass ball. According to the gallery, it references the Green Movement uprising in Iran in 2009, with these visual metaphors a common thread through the artist’s work.
Other beautiful sculptural works include those by Julia Dault, formed of gorgeous undulating folds of Plexiglass. In a similar narrative to that often applied to Barbara Hepworth, the artist’s work is emblematic of her struggle with the materials; a testament to the strength it takes to bend and shape these large sheets into a work she’s happy with.
Her struggle to shape something unyielding into something that makes sense seems like a wider issue with the show itself. The Saatchi is obviously keen to attach itself to that “feminism” thing it’s heard is so hot and has done so in the easiest way possible: a show of women artists. Of course, the gallery has previously helped launch the careers of some of superb women artists – Tracey Emin, Paula Rego, Cindy Sherman and Rachel Whiteread to name a few – but to draw together 14 women in an exhibition with no other unifying thread or narrative seems like a waste. Yes, some of the work is wonderful, but couldn’t it be said to be so on its own merits, rather than the fact its creator boasts a vagina?
Champagne Life runs from 13 January – 6 March 2016 at the Saatchi Gallery, London.
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.