Women Making Sculpture was a one-day conference organised in conjunction with the exhibition Women Sculptors which ran jointly in three venues: The Maidstone Library Gallery, The Maidstone Museum and Mote Park. The show was organised by Nicholette Golf and co-selected from The WASL membership by WASL and Veronica Tonge, Keeper of Fine Art at Maidstone Museum.
The emphasis of the Conference focussed on the women who make sculpture rather than the theme of women making sculpture as an issue. Thus it began with the seven women exhibiting in the show: Lorna Green, Mouse Katz, Renate Meyer, Val Murray, Annalisa Smith, Anne Tappedden and myself, talking for twenty minutes about our work. In this way each was able to place work in the exhibition within a wider context and issues relevant to women making sculpture were able to emerge naturally. After lunch we met in small groups to concentrate on questions which arose in the morning and concluded with a large group discussion.
While there was no formal theoretical basis to our individual talks, coherence was achieved through the way in which the artists’ work interrelated. Common concerns with media, processes, sources for ideas and attitudes toward the handling of materials and subject matter linked the work. There was a striking diversity in all of the work, although shared ponits of reference became clearly evident: soft materials; domestic references; autobiography; symbolism; construction through stacking, suspending and linking many small components; combining painting and sculpture; using unexpected and supposedly inappropriate materials; spending a long period working through one theme and, most strikingly, the impermanence of all the work. The willingness to break rules, experiment and take risks also came through strongly.
Perhaps because everyone attending the conference worked as a practitioner, the day acquired a momentum through the sheer force of interest generated by listening, seeing and talking. Questions ultimately centred round how we work, how we survive financially, where we work, how we exhibit and how we can improve accessibility to our work. Veronica Tenge suggested using video to explain how and why work was produced as a way of introducing the work to a public well accustomed to receiving information through television but possibly intimidated by the thought of talking with the artist.
The question of economic survival for women in sculpture is particularly apt. Materials, space for working and storage are costly and finding assistance with large and heavy work can be difficult. Ways can be found to circumvent many of these problems by using cheap or lightweight materials, collapsable structures, small components or working on site. Women have in fact helped give sculpture a new face through their inventiveness in seeking ways of resolving some of these aspects of creation and handling. However feedback from the Conference suggests that we still need encouragement and reassurance when working against accepted practices. Additionally, more women seem to be moving towards using traditional materials and methods.
While it was not the specific aim of this Conference to attempt an analysis of women’s sculpture, I left feeling that such a re-assessment is necessary. Val Murray provided the most succinct observations of the day when she suggested that work by women in sculpture is characterised by a resistance to being tied down; the source of the work comes out of a personal or direct experience; the attitude to materials and processes used ‘anything goes’ and the openness to place or context.
Fifteen years ago these characteristics could have been perceived as typical of a Feminist art practice, yet today probably not. But if not, where does sculpture lie within a Feminist perspective of contemporary art?
Have we reached a point where certain materials and processes might remain entrenched in the women’s category rather than a Feminist or even mainstream one? In order to avoid slipping backwards we need to re-consider the question of a female language in sculpture which goes beyond the materials and subject matter, encompassing other aspects such as structure, time, space, context. Is there, for instance, structuring which could be described as non-hierarchal and hence possibly female or even feminist? For example, in Overlay Lucy Lippard analyses earthworks in terms of gender, equating the intervention or imposition of the male artist’s mark on the land with the “double need to become part of a nurturing nature and to master a threatening nature …” She suggests it is “the attitude toward the land, the artist’s sensitivity to the place that determines the effect of the imagery.”
There are many questions we could ask about the ways women work in sculpture. Sculpture needs to be returned to the Feminist agenda for critical analysis and evaluation which is in step with the developments in Feminist debate, cultural theory and the ever widening definitions of contemporary sculpture generally.