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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Adrian Searle

Women’s Work Is Never Done review – decay, dildos and the disappeared enliven a great unravelling

piece from Maria's Garden Studies by Simryn Gill.
Delicate … a piece from Maria's Garden Studies by Simryn Gill. Photograph: Copyright of the Artist. Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome

A fist-sized lump of clay, tied up with red string. A scatter of white pebbles on the floor and an arrangement of sewn-together scraps of textile dangling from the ceiling. Paintings that have been left to decay underground and a single vertical line, drawn in Indian ink, down the middle of an otherwise empty piece of paper. The isolated line, by Brazilian artist Maria Laet, thickens erratically as it descends. As if it were a test, you can’t always tell the slight from the significant in Women’s Work Is Never Done, an exhibition of friendships and affinities, jostling collisions and alarming swerves.

Revisiting a number of earlier projects mounted by Belgian curator Catherine de Zegher, Women’s Work Is Never Done begins with a number of artists who appeared in her 1996 exhibition Inside the Visible, which spanned 60 years and featured over 250 works by 37 women from around the world. Inside the Visible was a show whose works were made “in, of, and from the feminine”. So it is with her later projects, as she revisits a number of artists from that show and her subsequent focusing on drawing and eco-feminism, all of which stress the relational aspects of art making: De Zegher talks about “the way one handles materials, with respect and interaction, and the way we connect with people in society”.

Glu Glu Glu by Anna Maria Maoilino.
Materiality … Anna Maria Maoilino’s Glu Glu Glu. Photograph: Copyright of the Artist. Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome

Filling three small, interconnecting spaces, Women’s Work Is Never Done cannot hope to do more than nod to De Zegher’s career as a whole. Nevertheless it is filled with interesting and often vital things. A little cut-out printed figure of a woman, by American artist Nancy Spero, dances on the wall; she has a dildo in her hand and raises it like a microphone. Beside it hangs a moody and slightly disturbing photograph of De Zegher herself, by Craigie Horsfield, the only male artist here. The portrait reminds me, inescapably, of Gustave Courbet’s 1865 painting The Clairvoyant, which is also known as The Sleepwalker. Make of this what you will. I much prefer the idea of the curator as clairvoyant or as sleepwalker than as auteur.

Later, we come across a 1995 drawing by Louise Bourgeois which depicts a high-heeled woman on her knees, her rump in the air, and with a tiny cat’s head. It is titled Catherine. Several other works bear handwritten little dedications to De Zegher in the margins. As if to undercut suggestions of vanity in the show, a hunched-up man clutching his dick, drawn by Italian artist Carol Rama, looks over at the photo of De Zegher and sticks out a flame-like red tongue.

As soon as you try to work out what all these juxtapositions are telling us, you’re unravelled again. I begin to feel like the figure that hangs in the window, drawn and etched on translucent Japanese paper by Monika Grzymala, whose complications of loops and tangles make and unmake her as we look. De Zegher also described Inside the Visible as an “elliptical traverse” of the art of the 20th century. Women’s Work Is Never Done might be seen as a traverse through the preoccupations of the curator’s own career, and to her relationships with artists.

One wall is papered with the covers of magazines and pamphlets De Zegher has edited or been published in, often pasted in between and even under some of the artworks hanging on the walls. The cover of a booklet about Portuguese performance artist Helena Almeida (published by the Drawing Center in New York, which De Zegher directed for a number of years) pokes out from under a small canvas by British artist Avis Newman. The collision might be happenstance, or it might be intended to point up connections between the two artists. The connection is as much as anything De Zegher herself.

the installation view of Women’s Work Is Never Done.
Expansive … the installation view of Women’s Work Is Never Done. Photograph: Ben Westoby/Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome

Reliefs and clay sculpture, recast in cement, and delicate works in torn paper and thread, all by Anna Maria Maiolino, take up much of the first room. These magical little works often have a slightly threatening, furtive life. Whether she is tearing holes in layers of paper and sending a black thread on a journey into the cavernous spaces between them, or making serpentine, almost intestinal clay sculptures, or kneading and stretching the material as though it were dough, Maiolino has a great touch and sense of materiality. At times her art looks almost minimal, but you are always aware both of the body that made it and of the body as subject matter. Now in her 80s, Maiolino will receive a Golden Lion for her lifetime achievement at the 2024 Venice Biennale.

A marionette of a young girl, with a braid of real hair, hangs in front of a huge silvery silhouette of an infant’s head. Australian artist Judith Wright lost her daughter shortly after the child’s birth and Wright has talked about “the power of the shadow to conjure absence”. There is something about the looming unformed profile and the mournful jauntiness of the silhouette to give one pause. Wright’s melancholy work gives way to Spero’s gut-wrenching descriptions of tortures and disappearances in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, and to works which at first sight celebrate the natural world. These too – especially in the collaged gold leaf and flower petal works of Ria Verhaeghe, appear to commemorate losses of one sort or another.

Hibiscus Syriacus 7 by Ria Verhaeghe.
What was once there … Hibiscus Syriacus 7 by Ria Verhaeghe. Photograph: Copyright of the Artist. Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery, London and Rome

A number of sticks hang in a row on the wall, shorn of their bark, each one neatly whipped along most of its length with iridescent silk thread by Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt. The sticks bend and bow, and almost look like a phrase written in an unknown language. The overarching idea – and in the small canvases Dekyndt buried for months and allowed to decay – is resuscitation, renewal, healing and care. This, perhaps, is the women’s work that is never done. It would be essentialist to describe these acts as feminine, and the approaches to materiality and image-making in this exhibition follow such a variety of paths – destructive as well as constructive, blind as well as knowing – that it seems impossible to deduce from them, or from De Zegher’s curatorship, exactly where this all leads. What counts in the end is the art itself, which finds its own unruly way through the world, making trouble as it goes.

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