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Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas & Rachael Whiteread: Did feminism feature as a part of Young British Art?

‘The woman of genius does not exist, but when she does she is a man.’1

In the early years of the contemporary Women’s Liberation Movement, feminist art theorists investigated the historical practices that determined the current situation of women artists and the correlation between the value system of art institutions and the sexual division that structures society.2 Linda Nochlin concluded that the work of female artists is historically deemed ‘the other’, considered by patriarchal institutions to have a distinctly feminine ‘domestic’ essence. Women artists who did not restrict themselves to this were dismissed as abnormal, deviant or masculine.3 Women have traditionally been objectified for the voyeuristic gaze of the male artist genius4 and even though professional women artists are more acceptable today, their work is still regarded in the context of their sexuality. Up to the late 1960s few women overtly situated themselves as women artists and most fought shy of Feminism. In reaction to this, women from the 1970s subverted art conventions, challenging the notion of the individual genius as gender specific, asserting a female collectivism opposed to established patriarchal practice. Re-contextualizing ‘domestic’ imagery and materials, they attempted to position art in the political sphere, drawing on the Feminist doctrine of the ‘personal as political’. This began to change the face of contemporary art, greatly expanding boundaries of acceptability.5

Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Rachael Whiteread were three of the most prominent female artists of the 1990s as part of Young British Art (YBAs). This phenomenon was characterised by tabloid culture, irony, diverse materials and exploration of contemporary experience, as well as traditional themes of art. Through adopting the methods of Pop Art, Conceptualism and Minimalism, they presented a more youth orientated and accessible artistic content.6  These women artists are frequently associated with a radical working class aesthetic; producing sculpture founded on Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. However, while there were various features of the YBA agenda, this essay argues that these three artists were simultaneously engaging in feminist discourse.  Growing up in the early 1980s they witnessed an unprecedented growth of feminist publications and exhibitions about women’s contemporary art practices, such as those of Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine,   and the 1990s offered a generation of women the freedom to further expand boundaries.7 Moreover, at the height of gender debates and queer politics, feminist philosopher Judith Butler innovatively highlighted the performativity and fluidity of gender.8 Feminism is undoubtedly an extensive issue, but this essay begins to explore the work of Lucas, Emin and Whiteread within a feminist context, how it featured in and influenced their artwork through subverting feminine stereotypes. Additionally, how their strategies and politics are distinct from their feminist precursors is also examined and the extent of their conformity to Nochlin’s notion of ‘traditional’ feminine art and subjects.

Sarah Lucas heralded a new sensibility for the 1990s, a raw, angry aspect of British culture.9 Becoming frustrated with the minimalist-influenced sculpture she made at Goldsmith’s College in the 1980s, she turned to a cheaper, more immediate source of imagery: the tabloid press. Critics have argued that Lucas is, like her YBA contemporaries, disrespectfully commenting on how realities are affected in a media and consumerism saturated society, with an overriding sense of nostalgia for her working class London upbringing. However, unlike Tracey Emin, her work has never been autobiographical, instead presenting a perspective informed by post Freudian social theory and feminism. Inspired by feminist Andrea Dworkin and books on pornography and sexuality, Lucas deals with the male objectification of the female body and how women’s ‘sexual liberation’ has encouraged their inadvertent submissiveness.  Through appropriating masculine tropes and gender constructions, she confronts and dissects them. Instead of portraying the feminine as beauty, like Cindy Sherman before her, Lucas’s sculptures are fuelled by the casual misogyny of everyday life, constructing visual puns to counter stereotypes of femininity.10

Utilising Surrealism and the material sparseness of Arte Povera, she uses furniture and food as substitutes for the human body, revealing degrading attitudes to women in vernacular language, such as in Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (Figure 1). The title is a perversion of the slang denomination of a woman as ‘two fried eggs and a kipper’ and became an icon of YBA.11 A crude and fetishistic analogy to resemble a female nude, fried eggs and a doner kebab are ironically arranged on a table to suggest the female body, parodying the traditional still life and evoking Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (Figure 2). Furthermore, a photograph of the arrangement is positioned in place of a face, alluding to Magritte’s The Rape (Figure 3).12 This theme continues in Self Portrait with Fried Egg (Figure 4). The artist is sitting in a chair with her legs wide apart, wearing a t-shirt and jeans with two fried eggs placed over her breasts. Her stare at the viewer displays a challenging femininity, presenting her androgynous appearance as an object of male desire, destabilising the established dynamic of male gaze at female subject. This realises Freud’s ‘Castration Anxiety’ theory and the utilisation of sexual ambivalence resembles the gender masquerade of Duchamp as Rrose Selavey. The high angle of the shot further suggests the intended male audience for whom she is undermining the ‘Page 3’ fantasy and threatening his masculinity. Lucas parodies the conventional female nude in both this self portrait and her sculptural work, a genre where, as Sarah Worth points out, the female body is conventionally framed as an objectified possession, existing merely for male admiration and contemplation.13 What’s more, a feminist reading of both works makes a significant point about women’s place in the home, with both food and the female body as gratification for masculine appetites.14 Her portrait suggests that she has turned her marginalisation into strength, a tactic employed the previous decade by feminist artist Susan Hillier. Furthermore Lucas’s style can be compared to Lynda Benglis whose photographs present the ultimate mockery of the pin up and the macho.15

However, her use of humour coveys ambiguity and detachment. Lucas acts as a mirror for sexism, but doesn’t necessarily comment on it; ‘I’m not trying to solve the problem. I’m exploring the moral dilemma by incorporating it’.16 Her work also differs from feminist precedents in its dry wit, and her presentation as the epitome of British Feminism overshadows its formal concerns and the physical qualities of her chosen materials. Heidi Reitmaier argues ultimately that with Lucas as its exclusive figurehead, the politics of gender and feminism loses out.17

Tracey Emin’s exclusive subject matter is her own life. Although her controversial work is just as confrontational and candid as that of Lucas, her style is more personal, though also claiming to reflect universal anxieties. At first it appears that My Bed (Figure 5) epitomises Emin’s feminist engagement, yet equally she undermines it. We are presented with the artists own bed, her most personal space, yet it is covered in clutter, such as vodka bottles, cigarettes, stained sheets and worn underwear, conveying insecurity and imperfection. Historically for women, our most important experiences revolve around the bed; birth, sleep, dreams, sex, illness and death.18 Society has defined and controlled women by the bedroom, through marriage and sex, with the bed suggesting sexual availability but also constraint.  Emin further explores this in Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (Figure 6), with its intimacy and viewer pre-conceptions; it has been widely understood as an assertion of ‘in-your-face’ female sexuality.19 Throughout her oeuvre she poses serious feminist questions about women’s sexual responsibility and draws attention to late 20th century society’s ‘double standard’. Her work unashamedly depicts the life of a sexually provocative woman fuelled and ruled by desire20 while the associations of My Bed with an aesthetic of disgust positioned Emin as ‘the bad girl’ of British art. John Roberts suggests that within the sexual politics of the 1990s, of new ‘lads’ and ‘ladettes’ her work provides a ‘counter aesthetic’, reclamation of female identity and sexuality.21

However, Emin’s use of domestic objects differs from Lucas. Whereas Lucas’s objects perform ironic parodies of sexual acts and stereotypes, Emin’s are chosen for personal resonance, and arguably conform to misogynistic attitudes. Though her work is borne out of the Women’s Movement’s desire for sexual equality, it is Emin’s personal engagement that arguably subverts its progressive tactics and presents a stereotyped femininity from history. Emin’s work insistently adopts a feminine confessional and autobiographical mode and this, together with her use of a domestic aesthetic, connects her to the practices of feminist artists of the 1970s and 1980s.22 Nevertheless, Emin resists any incorporation of feminist traditions; there is no reference to broader politics against the commoditisation of art that characterised feminist and Conceptual art movements of the time, nor the critique of the male artist genius.23 Feminist theorists of autobiography have argued that writing from a position of marginality represents new social subjects, and for an earlier generation of feminist artists and theorists such as Annette Kuhn, the autobiographical provided a means of interrogating the construction of their working class femininity.24

Yet Emin’s oeuvre must be read within an increasingly female orientated celebrity confessional culture where she brings her own artistic identity into being through self exposure.25 It is this exhibitionism that counteracts previous feminist progress. The idea that her work has been produced in an unconscious outpouring of emotion, so honest that it appears teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, presents a misogynistic view of women based on uncontrollable emotions.26 This is alluded to in one version of My Bed where a noose is placed above the bed (Figure 7), suggesting Emin’s own history of depression and instability, therefore playing into older tropes of the dysfunctional, primitive female,  displacing the critic’s real consideration of her skills and practices as an artist. Emin’s work is accessible; we can relate and identify with it. However its foundations lie in women’s traditional place in art, the body acting as a container for another’s story.27 Through this, Emin offers herself as a spectacle of sexual objectification, reacting against traditional feminist propriety about the body rather than resisting negative stereotypes,28 with such personal identification defined distinctively a feminine product. Furthermore, Emin’s anti intellectual bohemian networks of the 1990s contrast with the collective and cooperative practices of the feminist movement and earlier feminist artists.29

One of the most renowned female YBAs, yet resistant to the celebrity status afforded to Emin, Rachel Whiteread engages with both Feminism and wider political issues. Working exclusively within the realms of sculpture Whiteread’s oeuvre consists of taking plaster, wax, and rubber casts of negative space, either in or around objects, emphasising the individuality of each. By casting in this way she reproduces things from the real world without them remaining seedy or squalid, unsullied by an excess of detail unlike the unsophisticated materiality of Emin or Lucas. She consciously exploits plasters associations with injury and death masks, creating fossil like traces of the past. The resulting structure is like a photographic negative, reflecting bare, basic, unacknowledged spaces.30 This technique culminated in her famous and controversial work, House (Figure 8). Winner of the 1993 Turner Prize, House was fundamentally the interior of a derelict Victorian house cast in concrete, literally turning space inside out, a three dimensional impression of previously hidden interiors.31

Imbued with a sense of melancholy and loss, the work traces the presence of absence, preserving lost memories. With the fact that it was demolished after three months, Whiteread’s notion of arts temporality takes its cue from Dada precedents and deliberately confuses sculpture and architecture.32 Photographs of House convey something of its sculptural presence but not the intensity of time captured or the details of the looming concrete itself.33

Many critics argue that Whiteread deals primarily with political concerns of the time. With its reference to the home and homelessness (we are literally denied any access into the structure) House has been read as calling attention to  excessive demolition in the East End of London, symbolising the Conservative government’s indifference to new council housing and the lack of vision and generosity characteristic of the 1990s. However, Whiteread herself argues that its political dimension was fundamentally overstated.34

Therefore, despite obvious differences in techniques, it can be argued that in House, and other works, Whiteread’s sculpture is fundamentally grounded in similar issues of feminist discourse as both Lucas and Emin. Influenced by Carl Andre and Bruce Nauman, Whiteread is a product of Post Minimalism that developed simultaneously to the 1990s Women’s Movement, defined by women artists, and enabling them to impact upon the art world for the first time.35 The issue of gender can be perceived in House in the fact that the interior, a space traditionally associated with women, is now externalised. Arguably, Whiteread conforms to Nochlin’s notion of ‘female subject matter’ that also ultimately persists in the work of Lucas and Emin. In her wider oeuvre we are additionally offered spaces around objects from the domestic sphere, including a mattress (Figure 9), transformed to evoke feelings of sorrow, domestic drama and confinement36 and  the historical representations of the bed are previously discussed. Moreover, these quasi minimalist forms, particularly in Ghost (Figure 10), often directly expressed the artist’s autobiography.37 However, Whiteread embraces these female traits and the silence and control associated with a lack of power and oppression and monumentalises them in the masculine dominated realm of sculpture. House, with its denial and destruction of space,  may also silently symbolise an imprisoning interior that women, especially in the art world, no longer need to inhabit, a critique of patriarchal culture.

While the political, working class context of YBA cannot be ignored, it has been demonstrated that the work of Lucas, Emin and Whiteread can be located within feminist discourse through elements of the subversion of gendered stereotypes. Their work is connected to, but remains simultaneously distinct from female artists of previous decades. Angela Carter writes; ‘women artists are often forced to make exhibitions of themselves to mount exhibitions’,38 and ultimately Lucas and Emin provoke, but do not transgress gendered assumptions in art, arguably employing a radical exhibitionism based on celebrity and deviance. Feminism was the site of female reinvention in the 1970s, and therefore of its deconstruction in the 1990s. While all three artists employ an imagery of the domestic, both Lucas and Emin considered the term ‘Feminist’ limiting, the concern of an earlier generation that no longer claims its previous collective unity. Furthermore, Katy Deepwell claims that Emin’s artwork stems from ‘libertarian individualism’ rather than a ‘liberationist politics.’39

Women remained a minority in the masculine YBA environment and the way they are put on a pedestal is undoubtedly familiar, indicating that although the 20th century produced some influential female artists, attitudes to gender have remained overall consistent. Whiteread’s Post Minimalism technique is arguably the most progressive and traditionally feminist; there is no overt aggression or cultivation of an aggressive public identity to potentially undermine the feminist cause.  Her subtle Feminism does not necessarily afford her the attention she deserves, but her avoidance of celebrity enhances the artwork’s formal artistic elements.  Furthermore, the manufactured images of Lucas and Emin overshadow other significant feminist artists, such as Kerry Stewarts and Cathy de Monchaux, yet in the 1990s context their work is less disturbing or aggressive to contemporary consciousness as that of the artists of the 1980s, a decade of Feminism also reacting to widespread Conservatism.40

These three artists grew up with the artistic legacy of feminist practice, but their relationship to it remains highly ambiguous, while the gains made by women in entering the art world are now taken for granted. Critics have argued that feminists of previous decades were certainly not fighting for what Lucas and Emin particularly have achieved.41

Laura Bedford-Turner, 2011

_______________________

1 ‘Du rang des femmes dans l’art’, Gazette des Beaux Arts 1860, quoted in R, Parker and G, Pollock, Old Mistresses : Women, Art and Ideology (New York : Pantheon Books, 1981) p.13

2 R, Parker and G, Pollock, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-85, (London: Pandora, 1987) p. xiii

3 L, Nochlin, Women, Art and Power, and Other Essays, (London: 1989), p. 148

4 L,  Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Screen, vol. 16, No.3, 1975, p.12

5 L, Zelevansky, Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994) p.12

6 N, Rosenthal and R, Stone, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1997) p.26

7 M, Merck and C, Townsend, The Art of Tracey Emin, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002) p.132

8 J, Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (New York: Routledge, 2003) p.33

9 Rosenthal and Stone, Sensation p.31

10 G, Muir and C, Wallis, In-A-Gada-Da-Vida, (London: Tate Publishing, 2004) p.93

11 S, Kent, Shark Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90s, (London: Philip Wilson Publishers,1994) p.58

12 M, Collings, Sarah Lucas, (London: Tate Publishing, 2002) p.38

13 S, Worth, ‘Feminist Aesthetics’, in B, Gaut and D, McIver Lopes, eds, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London and New York: Routledge, 2001) p.444

14 J, Stallabrass, High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s, (London: Verso, 1999) p.91

15 Zelevansky, Sense and Sensibility p.10

16 H, Sumpter, Naughty But Nice’, The Big Issue, September 1997, pp. 8-14

17 D, McCorqodale et al., Occupational Hazard: Critical Writing on Recent British Art, (London: Black Dog Publishing, 1998) p.122

18 Kent, Shark Infested Waters p54

19 Merck and Townsend, The Art of Tracey Emin, p. 130

20 J, Doyle, Sex Objects: Art and The Dialectics of Desire, (Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press, 2006) p.98

21 Merck and Townsend, The Art of Tracey Emin, p.127

22 Ibid p.122

23 Ibid  p.131

24 Ibid  p127

25 Ibid  p132

26 Stallabrass, High Art Lite p.39

27 Doyle, Sex Objects, p.120

28 Ibid p.111

29 Merck and Townsend, The Art of Tracey Emin, p. 134

30 Kent, Shark Infested Waters p. 103

31 J, Lingwood,  Rachel Whiteread: House, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995) p.42

32 A, Vidler,  Warped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture (London: The MIT Press, 2001) p.149

33 A, Causey et al, Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century, (Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2003) p.293

34 J.A, Walker, Art and Outrage: Provocation, Controversy and the Visual Arts, (London: Pluto Press, 1999) p.168

35  Zelevansky, Sense and Sensibility p.7

36 Rosenthal and Stone, Sensation, p.30

37 Zelevansky, Sense and Sensibility,  p.26

38 P, Florence and R, Reynolds, Feminist Subjects, Multimedia: Cultural Methodologies (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995) p. 50

39 K, Deepwell, ‘Bad Girls? Feminist Identity Politics in the 1990s’, in J. Steyn ed., Other Than Identity: The Subject, Politics and Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997) p.56

40 M.E, Buszek, Pin-Up Grrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, (London: Duke University Press, 2006) p.313

41 McCorqodale et al, Occupational Hazards, p.117

Illustrations

Figure 1 – Sarah Lucas, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992, Photograph, fried eggs, kebab, table, 151 x 89.5 x 102cm, The Saatchi Collection, London.

Figure 2 – Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974–79, (detail) ceramic, porcelain, textile, 1463 x 1463cm, Brooklyn Museum.

Figure 3 – René Magritte, The Rape, 1934, oil on canvas, 73.4 x 54.6cm, The Menil Foundation, Houston.

Figure 4 – Sarah Lucas, Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996, Iris print on Somerset Velvet paper, 57.5 x 54.8cm, Tate collection.

Figure 5 – Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, mattress, linens, pillows, objects, various dimensions, installation shot, Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London.

Figure 6 – Tracey Emin, Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-1995, 1995, Appliquéd tent, mattress and light, 122 x 245 x 215 cm, The White Cube, London.

Figure 7 – Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998, mattress, linens, pillows, rope, objects, various dimensions, installation shot at Lehmann Maupin gallery, New York, 1999.

Figure 8 – Rachel Whiteread, House, 1993 (destroyed), cast concrete.

Figure 9 – Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Air Bed II),1992, polyurethane rubber, 1220 x 1970 x 230 mm, Tate Gallery, purchased with assistance from the Patrons of New Art, 1993.

Figure 10 – Rachel Whiteread, Ghost, 1990, plaster on steel frame, 269 x 355.5 x 317.5cm, The Saatchi Collection, London.

Bibliography

Buszek, Maria, E, Pin-Up Grrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, (London: Duke University Press, 2006)

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (New York: Routledge, 2003)

Causey, Andrew et al, Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century, (Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2003)

Collings, Matthew, Sarah Lucas, (London: Tate Publishing, 2002)

Deepwell, K, ‘Bad Girls? Feminist Identity Politics in the 1990s’, in Steyn, J, Other Than Identity: The Subject, Politics and Art, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)

Doyle, Jennifer, Sex Objects: Art and The Dialectics of Desire, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)

Florence, Penny and Reynolds, Dee, Feminist Subjects, Multimedia: Cultural Methodologies, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995)

Kent, Sarah, Shark Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90s, (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 1994)

Lingwood, James, Rachel Whiteread: House, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995)

McCorqodale, Duncan et al., Occupational Hazard: Critical Writing on Recent British Art, (London: Black Dog Publishing, 1998)

Merck, Mandy and Townsend, Chris, The Art of Tracey Emin, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002)

Muir, Gregor and Wallis, Clarrie, In-A-Gada-Da-Vida, (London: Tate Publishing, 2004)

Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Screen, vol. 16, No.3, 1975, pp.6-18, originally accessed from http://www.screen.oxfordjournals.org, 11/02/ 2011

Nochlin, Linda, Women, Art and Power, and Other Essays, (London: 1989)

Parker, R and Pollock, G, Old Mistresses : Women, Art and Ideology (New York : Pantheon Books, 1981)

Parker, R and Pollock, G, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-85, (London: Pandora, 1987)

Rosenthal, Norman and Stone, Richard, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1997)

Stallabrass, Julian, High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s, (London: Verso, 1999)

Sumpter, Helen, ‘Naughty But Nice’, The Big Issue, 8-14th September, 1997

Vidler, Anthony, Warped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture (London: The MIT Press, 2001)

Walker, John. A, Art and Outrage: Provocation, Controversy and the Visual Arts, (London: Pluto Press, 1999)

Worth, Sarah, ‘Feminist Aesthetics’ in Gaut, B and Mclver-Lopes, D, eds, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, (London and New York: Routledge, 2001)

Zelevansky, Lynn, Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994)

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