The SWA 151st Celebratory Exhibition
The Mall Galleries
151st Celebratory Exhibition of the Society of Women Artists 1855-2012 at The Mall Galleries.
Founded as the Society of Female Artists, The Society of Women Artists has held an annual exhibition since 1857. At present, there are 150 members of the Society. Their patron is HRH Princess Michael of Kent and current president is Sue Jelley. In her foreword for the catalogue, Sue describes the members of the society as being “…unafraid of the challenges of 21st Century Art”. When I asked what these challenges might be she answered “…to keep moving; to always try to push out the boundaries and find different ways to put across ideas.” The visitor to this impressive collection of over 350 works in a wide variety of media, will find many examples of this urge toward visual exploration but it is only possible for me here to give a tantalising flavour of what is on offer.
The exhibition occupies an initial entrance area, one huge main room and three smaller rooms to the side, one of which is devoted solely to the younger members of the SWA. There are thirteen prizes available to be won by the exhibiting artists, including one by LondonArt. This year’s winner is Dani Humberstone. Her small oil painting “Apple Muse” is a surreal, trompe l’oeil still life of intense luminosity, encased in a thick dark wooden frame. The judge and Director of LondonArt, Paul Wynter, explained that Humberstone “confidently plays with various visual styles in a subtle manner, which is at the same time very contemporary”.
On entering the exhibition the works that most fascinate me are Mo Mackenzie’s “Seated Nude Athlete” and “The Red Vest”, both oil on board. Although fine examples of the genres of nude and portrait painting, may be found aplenty in this show, Mackenzie’s use of vertical striations in green and grey mean that the Black male sitter gazes directly out at the proceedings, as if through some sort of filter. This causes the viewer to question one’s relationship to the subject. Is this a case of “Look, but don’t touch!” Or a deliberate ‘curtain’ of marks, which help to slow down the impact of a nude black male, inevitably exoticised in this genteel female setting, causing an undeniable sizzling frisson.
At the far end of the hall on the right, Patsy Whiting shows three works made using coloured pencil. The two portraits and the third work “Lovers” attest to a skilful use of the medium, seemingly erasing all traces of its application. What emerges is a mournful yet tender evocation of the inhabitants’ nocturnal thoughts and desires.
To the rear of the hall on the left, Penelope Lee’s large pastel work “Hounslow on Saturday” successfully manages to delineate a viable subject matter from the dark mass of a crowd of bodies, identifiable only by the creases of their jeans and shopping bags. Faceless, their huddling proximity is at the same time mysterious but also immediately recognisable as suggesting a possible bargain to be had.
In a smaller room to the right, Irene Lees’ two large drawings “Thinking” and “Your Move” portray unusual, contorted figurines, knitted patiently in pen strokes. They highlight for me the way women are apt to tie themselves in knots sometimes whilst carrying out their many emotionally caretaking roles in life, for which their efforts often remain unsung.
Another work notable similarly for its humorous connotations is “The Triumph of Curiosity over Beauty”, an oil painting in muted, saturated colours by Sheila Vaughan. Two jaundiced children in Sunday Best stare out at the viewer with hangdog shoulders as their sketchy domicile on the horizon slips sideways down a rounded hillock.
Amidst the larger works in the younger artists’ room, an ink drawing by Venetia Morris caught my attention. Sunflowers, a staple of Van Gogh are flattened out by a single gold leaf “drip” a la Jackson Pollock, thus juxtaposing two Modernist Masters in a succinct shorthand.
This lively exhibition has something for every art connoisseur and if on the other hand you are interested in applying to exhibit in the 152nd Annual Exhibition, details can be found at www.society-women-artists.org.uk. To find out more about the history of the SWA, visit the extensive archive at the Victoria & Albert Museum or search online at www.vam.ac.uk/resources/archives.
:The exhibition runs from 27th June to 7th July 2012 at the Mall Galleries, The Mall, London SW1. During the exhibition, informal art demonstrations will be held from 11am to 3.30pm.
Jenny Jones is an artist and writer based in London.