BOOK REVIEW: HELEN GREY-SMITH

As part of the broad mission of promoting women's art, the focus of the Foundation’s blog entries will sometimes shift away from material directly based on the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art or the activities of the Foundation and onto wider topics - a single artist or event or artwork or, in this case, a book review. Books about women artists are useful on many fronts: making hidden or obscure information permanently available for collectors, curators and students, from both schools and universities, documenting unfamiliar careers and artworks, establishing the reputation of women artists by enabling critical discussion and helping to equalise the vast imbalance in both publication and scholarly/curatorial activity between male and female artists.

Whilst publications on male and female artists face a statistical discrepancy, by number count alone, there are also perceivable differences in the manner in which women artists are written about as opposed to how authors and curators approach male artists. In a specifically Australian context, two high profiled and much-loved authors – Rosalind Hollinrake and Drusilla Modjeska – have set a tone in which (especially historic) women artists’ careers are also embedded in a narrative of emotional drama and the artists are often ironically detached from the context of the concurrent artmaking and art theories around them. Certainly the artworld of their contemporaries often simultaneously nurtured women artists and passed over them with scant attention, but today often women artists are discussed in a vacuum, without consideration of their professional peers or acknowledging other scholarship that touches upon them. In thinking of how readers and gallery visitors in Australia learn about women artists, the ongoing impact of Rosalind Hollinrake's spectacular rehabilitation of Clarice Beckett, and the popularity of Drusilla Modjeska's books on women artists with the general public and book groups can not be underestimated. Hollinrake has produced a major book and a touring exhibition of Beckett's work. Her rescue of Beckett's paintings from a country shed is a defining moment of Australian art history in the public eye. Modjeska's fiction is also a key popular influencer around the history of women artists given that a number of real life creative women, both Australian and international, feature in her fiction/docudramas from 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi to Grace Cossington Smith of Sydney.

On occasion authors writing on women artists consciously seek to replicate aspects of Hollinrake and Modjeska's practice, or the excitement that unfolded around the two iconic surveys of historic women's art in the 1970s, those by Janine Burke at the Ewing and Paton Galleries and Women's Images of Women at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Thus arises the theme of writing women artists' biographies as a sort of personal quest which also involves the writer, or the vast tranche of biographies where the writer is often a friend or even a relative of the subject. In some cases these biographies are self-published. Male artists, by contrast, are often examined by authors in a more dispassionate and business-like tone. Is this good or bad? Does this emotionally inflected manner of writing represent an alternative or a dissonance? Are we forced to echo the lament of Margaret Atwood's character Offred: “You wanted a women’s culture … Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”

In this context, John Cruthers presents a review of a recent monograph covering the life of an important Western Australian woman artist who made a significant contribution to bringing contemporary culture and design to mid century Western Australia, and in establishing a radical painted response to the West Australian landscape. For those readers outside Western Australia, Helen Grey-Smith is doubly sidelined as both regional and female and this study will establish her more vividly in public memory.

Juliette Peers
Cruthers Art Foundation blog

Helen Grey-Smith, Forestry Dam, 1985, acrylic, 67 x 47 cm. Collection of Bankwest / Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Perth. Photograph by Simon Cowling. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Helen Grey-Smith, Forestry Dam, 1985, acrylic, 67 x 47 cm. Collection of Bankwest / Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Perth. Photograph by Simon Cowling. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

HELEN GREY-SMITH
Gwen Phillips
UWA Publishing, December 2016
RRP $55
 

Most books tell stories, but some books are stories. Gwen Phillips’ monograph on Western Australian artist Helen Grey-Smith is one such. Author and subject met on a long bus trip from the south west town of Pemberton to Perth in the early 1990s. As Phillips recounts in her introduction: “I was greatly impressed by her presence. She was a working artist with a lively and cultivated mind. She had lived through fascinating times, of the British Raj in India, life in an English boarding school, design training in London and then working in England during World War II. In the 1950s to 1970s, she and her husband were very prominent in the visual arts scene in Western Australia, living at Darlington then later at Pemberton, which is where I met her.”

While on secondment to the Art Gallery of Western Australia as a teacher in 1993, Phillips began to research the Grey-Smiths. A short time later she began a Master of Education degree at Edith Cowan University, which became a study of Helen Grey-Smith, based on long conversations recorded with the artist in her kitchen in Pemberton.

Her M. Ed thesis is the basis of this book, and it’s a book bounded at one end by female companionship and at the other by serendipity. When it came time to find a publisher, Phillips was equally guided by fortune, approaching UWA Publishing which, in 2012, had released Andrew Gaynor’s monograph on Helen’s husband Guy Grey-Smith. Being able to book-end this publication with one on the pioneer modernist’s wife and her work must have been irresistible to the publisher.

The opportunity to hear Helen Grey-Smith’s story in her own words in one of the book’s chief attractions. Stretching back on each side, Helen’s family were well off, industrious and religious. “They read the Bible every day,” she remembered. Her parents were English expatriates in India, where the colours and sights made a strong impression on the child Helen. At eight she was sent to boarding school in England, where she became Head Girl.

In 1937 she began studying interior design, considered a safer option for a young woman than being an art student, although it was to be a fateful choice. She was aware that her own training, in design, did not equip her to be an artist and work in oil paint.

In the late 1930s she met and married Guy Grey-Smith, a Western Australian born pilot for the RAF. But when Guy was shot down over Germany there was a long separation. Helen worked in a factory, which opened her eyes to the lives of ordinary working people. It was to be a revelation. After a prisoner exchange in 1944, Guy began art tuition and discovered his vocation as a painter. Once together, they set up home in Chelsea as Guy studied at the Chelsea School of Art and Helen became a housewife.

On their return to Australia in November 1947 they moved into a war service house in the Perth hills. As her husband built his studio and his career, Helen gave birth to their two children. Eighteen months in the UK followed, where Helen learnt textile printing. Back inPerth in 1955, the children were old enough for school and Helen resumed her art practice.

Helen Grey-Smith, Palm Trees, 1960s, screen-print on cotton, design 25 x 20 cm. Collection of Grey-Smith Estate. Photograph by David Porter. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Helen Grey-Smith, Palm Trees, 1960s, screen-print on cotton, design 25 x 20 cm. Collection of Grey-Smith Estate. Photograph by David Porter. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Over the next decade she built a career and a business as a textile designer and printer. Using simplified forms derived from nature and printed using silkscreen techniques, she made long lengths of material for curtains, clothing, upholstery and other applications. Much of her work was in response to commissions, including for Perth Council House (500 yards), the Reserve Bank of Australia (commissioned by Dr Nugget Coombs), University House at the University of WA (600 yards) and the Meerilinga Children’s Foundation. She and Guy printed it all themselves, by hand, in their small studio. She also made prints she showed in joint exhibitions with Guy from 1956 to 1967.

Detail of a photo of Helen and Guy Grey-Smith working on her fabric printing. Courtesy of Richard Woldendorp.

Detail of a photo of Helen and Guy Grey-Smith working on her fabric printing. Courtesy of Richard Woldendorp.

Late in 1967 Helen suffered a setback when a repetitive strain injury in her wrist forced her to abandon the arduous physical activity of printing hundreds of metres of fabric. After a period recovering in Bali she turned to collage, and the smaller scale works that followed became the basis of the second stage of her career. She liked collage for the texture it provided to the painted surface, and because she could use the scraps from her screen-printing. Her first exhibition of collage works in 1968 was also her first exhibition of work in her own right. From that point on she worked as a painter, making several series of ambitious, larger scale works after Guy’s death in 1981. Over this period she had 12 solo exhibitions, making her one of Western Australia’s most exhibited women artists. A retrospective was staged at Curtin University of Technology Perth in 1987.

Drawing on her extensive interviews, Gwen Phillips handles Helen Grey-Smith’s life well, often using the artist’s own words to tell the story, sum up or reflect. In dealing with Helen’s art and its narrative the author is less assured, and the book shows some tension between biography and art, with the former usually having greater focus. Where space permits, the author analyses individual works well, and when Helen is quoted, as she is about the Karri Forest and Rock Pool series, there are valuable insights. But entire series – for example the Summer, Autumn and Winter landscapes shown at the Undercroft Gallery in 1979, among Helen’s major contributions to the local landscape tradition – are quickly passed over. And there is little attempt to frame a complete assessment of her work, its major themes and its place in local painting.

Helen Grey-Smith, Rock Pool, 1995, acrylic and collage, 45 x 42 cm. Private collection. Exhibited at the Old School House Gallery, Pemberton, 3 September – 3 October 1995, ‘Forest and Sea’ exhibition. Photograph by Steven Gersbach. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Helen Grey-Smith, Rock Pool, 1995, acrylic and collage, 45 x 42 cm. Private collection. Exhibited at the Old School House Gallery, Pemberton, 3 September – 3 October 1995, ‘Forest and Sea’ exhibition. Photograph by Steven Gersbach. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Helen Grey-Smith, Rock Pool, 1995 (detail). Photograph by Steven Gersbach. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Helen Grey-Smith, Rock Pool, 1995 (detail). Photograph by Steven Gersbach. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Regarding the issues that presumably arose for Helen as an artist who was also a mother and the wife of a more successful artist, Phillips is guided by Helen’s own statements: “The sense of a complementary and co-operative partnership comes across very strongly in her marriage to Guy Grey-Smith…. Generosity and mutual respect lent this partnership endurance.” There is little discussion of the influence Helen and Guy may have had had on each other’s work. They often travelled together and painted the same subjects, and it is fascinating to see Helen using collage for texture in her land and seascape works while Guy made use of heavy impasto for the same reason. And yet their work could not be more different in terms of style and sensibility.

Helen Grey-Smith, The Bay, 1972, acrylic on board, 69 x 90 cm. Collection of Kott Gunning Lawyers. Photograph by David Porter. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Helen Grey-Smith, The Bay, 1972, acrylic on board, 69 x 90 cm. Collection of Kott Gunning Lawyers. Photograph by David Porter. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

The other dichotomy present in the book is between thesis and artist’s biography. Some of the material presumably required for academic purposes, for example the historical analysis of women’s position in the history of art, or the brief history of collage, feels out of place in what is basically an artist’s biography. In adapting the thesis for publication, these sections could have been replaced with a more consistent focus on Helen’s art and its development.

A significant point evident from the book and the companion exhibition WA Focus Helen Grey-Smith held at the Art Gallery of WA in November–December 2016, is the relative neglect the artist suffered at the hands of local collecting institutions. The Art Gallery of WA collected her printed fabrics of the 1960s, but no later collages or paintings, although a small number have been donated. As a result she’s a largely invisible figure institutionally. And yet the best paintings in the series cited above provide a revealing contrast to the better known west coast art of the post-war period, dominated as it was by the male pantheon of Helen’s husband Guy, Howard Taylor, Robert Juniper and Brian Blanchflower. As a result Western Australians will have limited opportunities to discover this artist and her subtle but distinctive interpretation of the local landscape. The book, profusely illustrated, becomes doubly important, although it’s regrettable that some of the images are not in sharp focus.

Helen Grey-Smith, Village by the Sea 3, 1972, acrylic and collage, 43.8 x 60.9 cm, Collection of Curtin University, Western Australia. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Helen Grey-Smith, Village by the Sea 3, 1972, acrylic and collage, 43.8 x 60.9 cm, Collection of Curtin University, Western Australia. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

In conclusion, it may be that the strong positive impression Helen Grey-Smith made on Gwen Phillips on that initial bus trip from Pemberton was the main factor shaping this book. Phillips celebrates the artist’s qualities – her “dignified, independent, full and contented life” – as she quite justifiably should. But the respect and affection she held for her subject may have limited her ability to provide the kind of detailed analysis and objective, carefully weighed overview of her oeuvre that would have been a more telling legacy for Helen Grey-Smith’s not inconsiderable achievements.

Small quibbles aside, Gwen Phillips’ monograph is a useful addition to the selection of books on Australian women artists. More a biographical study than an artbook per se, the book allows us to hear Helen’s thoughts on her life and art, and reproduces a generous selection of works spanning her career, plus a useful summary of her exhibition history including details of individual artworks.

John Cruthers
Chair, Cruthers Art Foundation
Curatorial advisor, Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art

Helen Grey-Smith, Autumn Tree Trunks, 1992, acrylic and collage, 130 x 160 cm. Collection of Grey-Smith Estate. Photograph by David Porter. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

Helen Grey-Smith, Autumn Tree Trunks, 1992, acrylic and collage, 130 x 160 cm. Collection of Grey-Smith Estate. Photograph by David Porter. Courtesy Grey-Smith Estate.

LOVELY FACES BUT DANGEROUS IDEAS

By Juliette Peers

What is the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art?

Whilst known to art curators, academics and art professionals since the later 1980s, the Cruthers Collection was first presented in depth to the public at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts during the National Women’s Art Exhibition in 1995, during a national celebration of women’s art in multiple public art spaces across Australia. Yet this remarkable public collection, unique in Australia, is still unfamiliar to many general art lovers. The strong popular interest in early Australian women’s art - that has at times eclipsed art professionals’ support of women artists over the past forty years - suggests that the collection will grow a far wider fan-base once it is better known.

The family started collecting art in the early 1970s but since 2007 the collection has been a public one, given by the Cruthers family to the University of Western Australia, after discussions with regional and municipal councils failed to secure a commitment to a permanent home and stand-alone museum of Australian women’s art. The plan is ultimately for the collection to have its own home within the university. Already the collection at the University of Western Australia is the largest stand alone public collection of women’s art in Australia. The earliest pieces are by Ellis Rowan from c 1880s and Clara Southern from c 1890s, and new work is still purchased such as the important sculpture No vacancy 2011 by Michelle Nikou, which recently featured in her survey at Heide Museum of Modern Art, and touring through to 2017. Self-portraits are commissioned from living artists such as Sangeeta Sandrasegar and Sera Waters. Over the years approximately 600 artworks have been donated by the family, with more to come. 

Michelle Nikou, No vacancy 2011, powder-coated ceramic, neon, Parker table, electrical components, dimensions variable, Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Courtesy the artist, photo Christian Capurro

Michelle Nikou, No vacancy 2011, powder-coated ceramic, neon, Parker table, electrical components, dimensions variable, Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Courtesy the artist, photo Christian Capurro

The collection has its own small dedicated gallery within the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery on campus, where a series of exhibitions from the collection are presented, in some cases augmented with borrowed or commissioned works. These exhibitions are curated by Gemma Weston, who is employed at the LWAG to support the collection as a physical entity. Moving to a public collection has extended the range of media that could be collected with an increasing component of sculptural pieces and installations that would have been harder to fit within a domestic building. Digital printmaking and photographic imaging and also the return of “craft” into fine arts since c 2000, further emphasised by the recent trends of “new materialism” in the second decade of the 21st century with works in responsive and mutable media such as textiles and wax, also are expanding the range of works, as there is a return to focussing on process and intrinsic qualities of surface and substance.

A major survey exhibition Look. Look Again covering the whole timespan of the holdings was presented in 2012 at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, together with a symposium on women’s art practice, Are We There Yet?, organised by the Cruthers Art Foundation. The symposium represents an important component of the whole Cruthers project as the mission is not just to accumulate artworks and build the collection, but to proactively encourage discussion about women’s art. Debate can range from the specific qualities and experiences bound up with women’s art practice to public culture’s blind-spots around endorsing and celebrating women’s art-making. There is a small online presence via the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery and earlier exhibitions are searchable through the gallery’s past exhibition archive. The Cruthers Collection shows are clearly identified within the program for each year. Illustrations of many works from the collection can be found in the two publications featuring the Cruthers Collection, In the Company of Women 1995 and Into the Light 2012, and many will be featured on this blog in months to come. Another overview with illustrations may be found on the Cruthers Art Foundation website.

Symposium Poster: Are We There Yet?, The University of Western Australia, Perth, 20-21 October 2012, commissioned self portrait by Sangeeta Sandrasegar

Symposium Poster: Are We There Yet?, The University of Western Australia, Perth, 20-21 October 2012, commissioned self portrait by Sangeeta Sandrasegar

Cover of Into the Light - The Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, University of Western Australia Publishing, 2012, pp 130

Cover of Into the Light - The Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, University of Western Australia Publishing, 2012, pp 130

Given that so many Australian art collections aim to be blueprints of each other, marking “excellence” by including the same range of well-known artists, the Cruthers Collection stands out even more. In 1991 the late Associate Professor Joan Kerr then at the University of Sydney believed that the great Australian collection of women’s art was a dream that was not realised, yet that collection was quietly being assembled on the west coast, even as she aired her dissatisfaction with the contents of Australian public collections. Two areas stand out as featuring a particularly strong representation. Best known are the holdings of early modernism from the 1920s to the 1940s, where women are now recognised as making a highly significant impact upon Australian art. Many works from the Cruthers Collection have been loaned to exhibitions in major interstate public galleries featuring modernist women. A second strength of the Cruthers Collection is art of the 1980s. There is a particularly comprehensive representation of third wave feminist artists, and some of the first women artists to achieve a high profile in the post 1960s contemporary art market, including Vicki Varvaressos, Rosalie Gascoigne, Susan Norrie and Narelle Jubelin alongside some of the key artists exploring Indigeneity, identity and feminism from a contemporary art perspective across the 1980s and 1990s such as Tracey Moffatt, Fiona Foley and Judy Watson.

Cristina Asquith Baker, Self Portrait c1890, oil on canvas, 45 x 36 cm (oval), Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, The University of Western Australia

Cristina Asquith Baker, Self Portrait c1890, oil on canvas, 45 x 36 cm (oval), Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, The University of Western Australia

Another nationally important feature of the collection is the series of self-portraits, which now number almost 100. Whilst not encyclopaedic, they cover a timespan and selection of artists that is unmatched by any other collection of female self-portraits in Australia. They range from the austere and subtly subversive c 1895 self portrait of Cristina Asquith Baker, which unflinchingly includes her damaged right eye, to contemporary commissioned self-portraits. In many cases the self-portraits are matched with significant works by the featured artist. Collecting a self-portrait and representative examples by the same artist was much favoured by Lady Sheila Cruthers. When the collection was in the family home, works by particular artists were often hung in close proximity in a “salon hang” with the self-portrait in a prominent place, as documented by photographs of the time. As well as self-portraits there are women artists’ portraits of siblings such as those by Clarice Beckett and Portia Geach and also images of family members and domestic life such asHelen Grace’s series of images of Christmas Dinner. There are several significant extended caches of works by a number of artists, most notably those of Joy Hester, Narelle Jubelin, Susan Norrie and Julie Dowling.

Works on paper ranging from modernist relief prints of the interwar period to works from the print-making revival since the 1950s, form a substantial subgroup. Rare ephemeral protest and political feminist screen-prints from the 1970s and 80s are another focus of collection, as they have often been discarded and destroyed over the last four decades, not being considered worthy of public memory. Often screen-prints were simply functional as much as aesthetic, used to catalyse support for particular meetings or fundraising and lobbying drives, and discarded once the event or campaign had passed. The current exhibition of Kelly Doley’s recent series Things learnt about feminism is both a homage to and an update of this quintessential feminist artform. A series of works feature bright coloured cheap paper and catchy slogans. Sometimes the words are obvious clichés of motherhood statements and motivational catchphrases, others in the set resonate back to historic moments of feminism and in some cases they swerve more into a more surreal and enigmatic textual poésie concrete mode.

Installation view: Kelly Doley, Things Learnt About Feminism #1 - #95, ink on 220 gsm card, 52 x 60 cm (95 pieces), CCWA 956 © Courtesy of the artist. Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, UWA, 8 October-10 December 2016.

Installation view: Kelly Doley, Things Learnt About Feminism #1 - #95, ink on 220 gsm card, 52 x 60 cm (95 pieces), CCWA 956 © Courtesy of the artist. Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, UWA, 8 October-10 December 2016.

Western Australian artists from both settler and Indigenous cultures indicates the vitality of an art history that was in the mid 20th century generally overlooked in east coast-centric models of history writing and curating. The work of the Tasmanian Edith Holmes equally represents less familiar aspects of modernism, as does the work of Hobart-based impressionist Mabel Hookey for the “landscape tradition” in Australian art. Likewise ex-patriate artists such as Sheila Hawkins and artists who moved between Australia and New Zealand such as Maud Sherwood and Helen Stewart also outline a non-standard and multi-layered historical thread. From the 1970s onwards the Cruthers family has been alert to artists who were working on the margins of the accepted narrative, or who had small but impressive oeuvres or careers that did not follow a straightforward path or the clichéd model of a logically built up reputation.

Despite the diversity of outlooks and approaches more apparent since the 1990s, particular themes persist throughout the collection: the female image and perceptions, commentaries on domestic life, families and relationships, both loving celebrations and acidic deconstructions of gender roles and expectations, commentaries on identity and the changing experience of Australian life or being in Australia. A number of works such as Grace Cossington-Smith’s Dawn landing 1945 and Cristina Asquith Baker’s view of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne engage with public life and politics. Ann Newmarch’s screen-prints address female absence from the public arena and the pressures of control and trivialisation that are applied to women’s lives. Whilst the collection is famed for its avant garde pieces and for tracing a revelatory and interventionist position of women artists exploring new practices, there are some attractive conservative still lives and tonal paintings, and self-portraits by academic artists as well as neo-classical formalism from Nora Heysen and Freda Robertshaw. Another less familiar history that the collection maps is women artists’ important role in developing abstraction in Australia from the 1950s onwards from Margo Lewers to Angela Brennan, and the very characteristic mid 20th century interest in combining landscape and abstraction via Lina Bryans and Carole Rudyard.

I was intending only to write an overview of the contents and range of the Cruthers Collection, but the last few weeks have thrown up some remarkably open and hard-hitting discussions about the ongoing lack of visibility of women’s art in Australian public collections. Given that it is four decades since the emergence of the women’s movement in Australian art c1974-1975 and those four decades have witnessed a rapid increase in unequivocally successful and respected contemporary women artists, there has been a lack of corresponding institutional validation of this generational shift and the four decades of female art-making. No longer personal complaints, these discussions about the measurable inequalities in visuals arts in Australia have been aired in highly visible mainstream media such as ABC Radio and The Guardian newspaper. Partly triggered by The Countess Report (funded by the Cruthers Art Foundation) as well as the outspoken Natty Solo Blog, public disaffection for the constant parade of male artists as featured in blockbuster exhibitions, has finally received some unequivocal and well directed attention. Criticism highlights the unrepresentative nature of the focus of fine arts sense making, as opposed to the expectation in such sectors as health, education, government, from local to federal, as well as national sporting organisations, that the current actual make-up of Australian society shapes the public face of those institutions, which are assumed to speak to and reflect back the images and aspirations of many sectors of a diverse public. At the same time art institutions also have to factor in industry-specific peer-group concepts of what is excellence and what is regarded as a meaningful or relevant aesthetic experience, and that expectation has tended to justify the closed loop of safe and known curatorial choice.

Recent discussion has drawn attention to the repetitive nature of public gallery exhibitions and collections in Australia, particularly in terms of the highly sponsored and elaborately mounted and promoted exhibitions at state galleries and the National Gallery of Australia. Public symposia such as that held by NAVA at Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne are also interrogating these absences of a significant sector of the art-making community within public exhibitions and career-making opportunities, and why these inequalities are judged to be acceptable within the industry, despite grass roots dissatisfaction.

So the Cruthers Collection can be read not just as something to enjoy and explore, but as political and a dissonance to this collusive pattern of marginalising women artists. A non-standard collection, when so many public collections across the country are close mirror images of each other - with minor differences begotten only by budget and availability of artworks - is a vital point of cross reference. A collection that is not the same as the others indicates that curatorial choice and policy can look different if the opportunity to think outside the box is taken up and run with. A collection like the Cruthers Collection can be an educational tool, reminding the public and researchers about less familiar artists whilst being itself a change-agent, via the stimulating shifts of perspective that alternative viewpoints may offer.

It can also be, via its exhibitions and this blog, potentially an active participant in these ongoing discussions and debates.

Raquel Ormella, Golden soil #2 2014, nylon, 92 x 152 cm, Courtesy the artist, a recent purchase by the CCWA

Raquel Ormella, Golden soil #2 2014, nylon, 92 x 152 cm, Courtesy the artist, a recent purchase by the CCWA

DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET

By Juliette Peers

You are reading the first posting for the Cruthers Art Foundation blog.

In the months and years ahead, we hope to inform, entertain, educate, shock, irritate, delight, surprise [alongside every other verb in the thesaurus] you by discussing women’s art and the broad field of associated issues, current and historic, that impact upon audience reception of women’s art in Australia and globally. Above all we want our readers to be inspired to – in the words of our 2012 exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in Perth – “Look, look again” at women’s art, and indeed never stop looking at women’s art in all its variety and diversity. Given that public commentary on women’s achievements across a wide spectrum of activity in Australia, from sport to culture to commerce to politics is in quantitative terms alone far less than that devoted to men, this art blog can make a practical step in shifting this unequal weighting. 

Whilst subjects and writers will frequently centre upon the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, from the micro level of an individual artwork to the macro level of policy and theory, this blog hopes to also provide a clearing house, info exchange and catchment for a wide range of relevant ideas, events and comments. Interviews with makers, doers, thinkers and curators, exhibition and event reviews, guest postings, curated mini themes and festivals, are part of future plans.

The Cruthers family date their introduction to collecting women’s art to the year 1974, when two generations of the family began purchasing art, with some landmark acquisitions of modernist women’s art occurring shortly after their entry into visiting galleries and buying art. By the early 1990s, “Word seeped east” in the words of John Cruthers, writing for the PICA showing of the collection for the National Women’s Art Event in 1995, “that there was an interesting collection of women's art in Perth, and a growing stream of people came to see it.”  Museum directors and curators, art historians and collectors all passed through the Cruthers home to view the art. Individual works were often loaned to exhibitions and in 1994 curator, gallerist and artist Jo Holder who had long known the collection suggested that it be shown publicly as part of the coordinated festival of exhibitions of women artists in both public and commercial galleries across Australia, organised by Holder and others under the auspices of Associate Professor Joan Kerr. This was the first time that a large tranche of the artworks was visible outside the family home. Placing the artworks in an artspace affirmed the cultural importance of the collection at a national level.

It became clear that preserving works by sometimes little known and under-appreciated artists and making these artists and their characteristic themes and preoccupations available to the public was only one part of the story. A multitude of factors have led to the lack of profile and status accorded women artists trans-historically, and to achieve their mission the Cruthers family increasingly realised that they had to be engaged on behalf of women’s art through a variety of channels. One crucial area certainly is the preservation of the artworks and making them permanently accessible to the public. This was begun in 2007 by the gift of the core collection of 460 artworks to the University of Western Australia, and subsequent donations of work and funding of curatorial support to assist UWA manage the gift. At the same time the family began the Cruthers Art Foundation. 

However the issues do not only centre upon the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art and the works it contains, or even specifically onsite in Perth. The Countess Report indicated that whilst equality in employment statistics is growing within the visual arts sector, particular in curatorial and boards of management areas of ARI’s and in educational contexts, women’s art is seen less frequently than men’s across a wide range of exhibition spaces and contexts. The impact and the causes are diffused nationally and happen at both at structural level of the arts industry and at the small scale of an individual’s own experience with making and showing work. Nor is the issue to be found only in auction houses or dealer’s stockrooms, but it also impacts upon current experiences of art education and art practice. To that end the Foundation is developing from support for the CCWA at UWA to engaging in learning about and then seeking to change a range of issues around practice. Its first funded project was The Countess Report, a large scale national gathering and comparing of data about the relative proportion of male and female artists, art and activities across the contemporary educational, museum, commercial gallery and art publication sectors. The second funded project will focus on historical research into women artists. This blog is also a means to circulate ideas about women and art and to encourage debate.

Writing for the Foundation’s blog promises to be an exciting and important challenge for me, with a potentially transformative impact. My own POV is like that of Erica McGilchrist, one of the founders of the Women’s Art Register in 1975. Whilst McGilchrist was committed to radical and non-representational art as well as social justice issues from the 1950s onwards, she also consciously restrained from shaping selection policy at the Women’ s Art Register visibly to her own taste. Partly she felt that not enough was known about the gamut of women’s creative activities in the 1970s to make an accurate and effective call upon what was worthwhile or not. She also was strongly haunted by the Nazi Holocaust to the extent that she often had disturbing dreams about extermination camps, and she disliked competitive hierarchies and systems dominated by elites and “in crowds”. She wrote in scathing terms of a range of such structures from the AFL to Australian universities and although her politics were radical, she never hesitated to call out the left as well as the right for their mistakes and poor judgment. The agora has become even more contested, judgemental and bitter in the years since 1975, and in some ways both the loudness and the self-righteousness resembles the rough justice and gang mentality of the school yard. Social media has allowed more points of view to be articulated but has dramatically reduced the fuse of mutual tolerance.

In the same spirit women’s art will be defined broadly, across media and discipline, and across the known and the unfamiliar, contemporary and historic, to speak to a wide range of browsers and readers.