Finding Space

A review by Sophie Haywood

Mary Modha’s ‘Finding Space’ exhibit brings together women and nonbinary artists exploring the relationship between space and gender. It examines how space configures and perpetuates gender stereotypes, dictating the terms by which femininity manifests and responds to a patriarchal society. The work traces spaces that are public – both working environments and the wider public sphere, like transport – domestic scenes that have historically coded women as homemakers, thereby restricting their authority to the home, and more intimate spaces, like the body, which attempt to resist the sexualised male gaze. It’s a thought-provoking collection of art across different mediums which encourages viewers to confront gender as simultaneously constructed by and resistant to the boundary lines drawn by patriarchy.

Some standout pieces include Merrie Carlton’s depiction of a naked woman on a packed tube, defiantly joyful and alive with colour, contrasting the drab (mostly male presenting) passengers. It’s a darkly funny representation of a gaze which both craves and shames female nudity – an indictment of a society that will endlessly consume pornography, but decry proudly naked women as ‘sluts’. Implicit in this work is the lack of privacy feminine bodies have in public, where leering and sexualisation is commonplace. Carlton’s painting is precarious; it is defiant, but patriarchy must inevitably inform why the naked female body can be read as so transgressive.

Karyn Johnstone’s mixed medium sculptures offer thoughtful commentary on the relationship between the fashion industry and feminine bodies. The soft curves of the torsos are pierced with barbed wire – the ‘skirts’ reminiscent of bones that fuse with flesh. Fashion has historically been used to restrict gender, delineating rules which must be adhered to in deference to a binary of masculine/feminine. The brutality of the ‘clothing’ reminds viewers that fashion has been synonymous with pain for women. The sculpture’s head tilts down to look on itself, a poignant awareness of a body that fights against the rigidity of gender presentation.

A final standout for me was Chloe Tam’s pastel domestic spaces. It is a dollhouse like view of the home, with windows cut out and backlit. There is a curious blurring of boundaries between outer and inner worlds, an undercurrent which runs through the whole exhibit. This effacing of true privacy is prescient; even in their own home feminine bodies are subject to discourses of gender which inform how they relate to the world around them.

Mary explained that finding an exhibition space hadn’t been the easiest. It speaks to a culture which forces women to find space for themselves, and is itself a liminal site that pushes back against a world built for masculinity, undermining its legitimacy from within. There are some viscerally uncomfortable pieces in the exhibition, but they are necessary commentary in a time where gender-based rights are being stripped back. Commentary on gender and its place within the world is as prescient as ever, and the exhibit’s dedication to highlighting these kinds of issues can be uncomfortable at times, but it is mingled with feminine hope.