The Pretty Ugly exhibition at Saltspace Gallery, Glasgow, is the first ‘women’s art’ show I’ve been to since I came out as non-binary/trans masc. I’ve inhabited the borderland between female and male before, but this is the first time I’ve been affirmed by my peers. So much has changed since the last time I tried to explore this side of myself and although I’m still braced for the backlash, each day of acceptance, encouragement and love heals some small wound inside of me. It might be a phase, it might not, but being able to be in the space in-between for a bit feels comfortable.
So why am I bringing this up? Well, because Pretty Ugly is explicitly for women identifying as women. Though they recognise the blurring of the gender binary it was important to the curators to have a space to explore the feminine, the realities of being socialised and read as a woman. I firmly believe that women-only spaces are a necessary defence against the relentlessness of the patriarchy, it was just a little strange to feel like an outsider. All the familiar tropes were there; clay goddess statues, photographs of women holding their keys in their fists, figures with hard set faces staring out of paintings, and – on the evening I went – a woman wearing a Mark Zuckerberg mask doing a striptease. It reminded me how much I love this sort of art. The show is unapologetic, a riot of work. There’s a lot going on, but it’s in the show’s favour. You aren’t being presented with just one interpretation of femininity or womanhood, but multitudes.
“We are creating this platform to look with humour and subversion at notions of ‘feminine beauty’, bursting past limiting idealisations of women’s bodies, in this online world that still censors women’s agency in their own representations – and tenderly, divergently, making fun of such commodified beauty ideals, celebrating our own notions of what is ‘pretty’, of what’s liberating about ‘ugly’, and what lies beyond – meandering strongly into alternative visions of what might be, in solidarity and evolved beyond unhealthy competition,” writes co-curator Mira Knoche in the glossy accompanying book, available for £4 on the opening night. “In doing so, we are exploring aesthetics and qualities from the ‘feminine’ end of the polarity (independent of sex and gender) that can be frequently side-lined. Softness, roundness, sensitivity, a connection to nature as well as fierceness, humour, grotesqueness, power, quietness and loudness, to name but a few – all are welcome here.”
The show is a collaborative effort between two art collectives – WENCH and ARTemisia Vulgaris – and is curated by current Glasgow School of Art Painting and Printmaking students Mira Knoche, Sofia Caers, Olivia Chebac and Julia Varis.
Jameela Gordon-King’s ‘After I’abolition de l’esclavage, Two Women’ was one of the strongest pieces. Oil and charcoal on canvas shows two women – both black – curled into each other defensively, breasts exposed and hair in headscarves. The suggestion is they’re newly freed slaves, as well as possibly a lesbian couple. The ghost of chains hangs behind them and though the colours are warm browns, oranges and ochre the central woman’s gaze is suspicious, protective.
Fiona Robertson’s disturbing plastic clay mixed-media piece ‘Untitled’ is a deformed stillbirth of a creature. I actually couldn’t look at it for more than a few seconds at a time, kept thinking of babies with birth defects who only live to take a single breath and the foetus I held in my own hands in the art college toilets a few years ago – warm and foul smelling. In my sideways glances I take in the bubblegum texture of the clay, the haphazard teeth, the fallen eyelashes. It makes me think of dermoid cysts and mature teratomas – the tumours of skin and hair and teeth that can develop in our bodies. It makes me feel sick and scared and sad, but drinking cans of beer on the embankment later that evening it’s the piece that stays with me. It’s good to be so deeply affected.
Aesthetically I prefer Olivia Chebac’s ‘Earth Goddess Statuettes’; small clay forms becoming a woman, a vulva, an ear, a foetus, a cell, a disembodied pair of breasts… in the Pretty Ugly publication she writes, “My work is very process-driven, looking to the natural world as my greatest source of inspiration and materials. This involves using driftwood, stones, self-dug clay, foraging my own pigments to make paint, making my own paper, naturally dyeing fabrics…I have primarily used my working process as tools for personal healing. They are deliberately slow, grounding, and meditative, and reconnective to the natural world. A tendency towards ritual, be it ritual honouring or ritual repetition, has stemmed naturally through attentiveness to these natural cycles.” The hand-dug clay is from Queen’s Park in Glasgow’s Southside and I yearn to put my fingers in the mud and mimic Chebac’s forms.
One of the most powerful pieces is in the window – a photographic collection of women clutching their keys between their fingers called ‘Our Key To Change’ from the #WeWalkWithYou activist group. This is a stance that we’re taught, though I can’t recall ever hearing it be effective. In my experience violence tends to begin once you’re already in bed, as boundaries are violated and eyes glaze over un-listening. Even in close quarters on the street I’ve found a knee in the groin to be a more effective deterrent. But these practicalities aside, the fear is real. The murder of Sarah Everard was only a couple months ago. Looking at the photographs the contrast between the attempted threat of the keys and the almost defeated look on some of the women’s faces communicates all you need to know – keys between your fingers isn’t going to stop a man who is determined to hurt you. And how many of us could actually stab that makeshift knuckle duster into someone’s face in the moment anyway? I spend a long time looking at the piece, drinking a plastic cup of Rose, pondering.
So, as a newly out non-binary/trans masc person how did this all make me feel? It made me angry, and sad, and unsafe, and so, so proud of all the artists. I don’t really know what my responsibility is yet in these situations, do I still get to whisper “me too” when we talk of pregnancy loss or street harassment? I want to, want to be seen in my contradictions, want to continue the fight in other spaces. Want to bridge the gap.
Because, do you know what I want to see? I want to see a show where self-identifying men tackle the exact same subjects. I want to see hand-dug clay figures of gods, misshapen foetus sculptures made by guys who’ve experienced pregnancy loss (either directly or second-hand), and photographs of the way men protect themselves walking home, given that they’re statistically more likely to be assaulted by a stranger on the street. A response, an engagement. I want this show to be taken as a challenge by the male students on GSA’s Painting and Printmaking course, by the boyfriends and flatmates and friends of the members of WENCH and ARTemisia Vulgaris. I want to see the softness, roundness, sensitivity, fierceness, humour, grotesqueness, power, quietness and loudness of men too. Now that I’ve stepped slightly out of the binary I want to hear the other side of the conversation. I want to know what a Petty Ugly men’s show would look like, because up until now the women have been doing all the heavy lifting.
Pretty Ugly is at Saltspace Gallery on 270 High Street, Glasgow from 12-20 May 2021. You can book a slot to view it here.
Words & Images: Luke Cockayne