The Park Gallery
Clare Andrews: Deeds Not Words
21 January - 23 April 2017
In this body of work Claire Andrews has lifted her art to a different level. She has always been a wittily ironic visual commentator on events and institution (sometime wryly bitter, sometimes celebratory), and it has always been animated by an unabashed and sometimes angry feminist politics. Andrews's art is political, directly so: her work is openly engaged with the social and political realities of our time, especially where they impinge on the everyday lives of women, in work, health, house work etc. This should not be seen to suggestion any kind of propagandist stridency, for stylistically Andrews has favoured as what might be described as a comedic realism, and she has a remarkable gift for natural observation. Her work has never lacked poetry or visual wit.
'Deeds Not Words'- the phrase inscribed on the gravestone of Emily Davison, the suffragette who died flinging herself in front of the Kings horse in the 1913 Derby – is a remarkable project. In the centenary period of the greatest and bravest of the Suffragettes' many direct actions, Andrews has undertaken an artistic commemoration of their struggle; and sought to make a sounding of its continuing resonance as the primary and quintessential feminist movement. It is no easy project, to take a series of iconic historical events and images, and without sentimentality or cliché, or simplistic and poignant portrayal, find a rhetorical language and symbolism adequate to its subject and its relevance to our own time.
She has achieved this by the adoption of an essentially abstract presentation, and the use of familiar (or seemingly familiar) images drawn from contemporary photography of Suffragette actions. Enlarging necessarily blurs and distorts in variously and strangely affective ways the already murky documentation of contemporary press and newsreel photography: it generalises the black and white found image into a shadowy, apparitional near- abstraction. More than any other contemporary artist Francis Bacon exploited this process for its emotive effects, just as he recognised the shock potency of a widely – known iconic images such as that of Pope Innocent or of Eichmann in Jerusalem, set in abstract space.
Andrews has learnt from his powerful example, without imposing the visceral distortions of the flesh that characterise his work, or resorting to colour versions of the black and white images. She has brought to her simplifying painterly representations of well - known images of actual events- the death of Davison, the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst in 1914 – her own colour- key music; strictly formal, emblematic (her purple white and green are the Suffragette 'colours', in the sense conveyed by the use of that term for a flag), rhythmically repetitive and boldly signifying.
The musical metaphor is apt: the group as an ensemble constitutes a suite on a theme, with variations, each piece relating to each other in formal and thematic terms; the whole having a cumulative unity of coherence. It brings Andrews's presentation towards a level of abstraction that is new to her work, and which increases its political relevance the more for its (relative) lack of circumstantial narrative content. It is its emblematic clarity (a degree of generalising simplicity) that distances the suite from the documentary – actual and gives the images – as images a more universal, symbolic resonance.
These paintings transfigure the suffragettes into what I would describe as representative figures: not so much historical 'people' as emblematic signs. Stylistic unity- the abstract orderings, recurrent colours and motifs, stylised figuration, deliberate configurations (triptychs, flag-like tricoloured) - increases the political applicability of the image motifs, lifts them out of their time and into ours.
Mel Gooding is a London-based art critic and curator who has written and edited a number of volumes, including exhibition catalogs that feature the work of artists such as Ceri Richards, Michael Upton, Bruce McLean, Mary Fedden, Gillian Ayres, sculptor F.E. McWilliam, and architect William Alsop, as well as books of general art criticism and other works.