these subversive still life paintings interrogate femininity’s relationship to the domestic

Curator Bella Bonner-Evans walks us through STUDIO WEST’s latest art show ‘The Angel in the House’

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Curator Bella Bonner-Evans walks us through STUDIO WEST’s latest art show ‘The Angel in the House’

By Gilda Bruno03 Jul 2023
15 mins read time
15 mins read time

Welcome to Stop Scrolling, where each fortnight arts and culture writer Gilda Bruno will be bringing you a roundup of carefully curated exhibitions, art fairs and photo books to check out, as well as exclusive conversations with some of today's most exciting emerging artists.

This week, Bruno sits down with STUDIO WEST’s curator Bella Bonner-Evans to examine how the gallery’s new group exhibition ‘The Angel in the House’ reframes the feminine experience through surreal depictions of everyday rituals

Glancing at the vibrant canvases currently on show at West London’s STUDIO WEST as part of the ongoing show The Angel in the House means being instantly absorbed into a different dimension. Splashed across these surfaces is a vortex of fading memories, revisited family gatherings and fantasy scenarios quietly surfaced in the participating artists’ mind before bursting in a hypnotising succession of brushstrokes. Presenting works by seven emerging UK-based female painters, including Jess Allen, Pippa El-Kadhi Brown, Olha Pryymak, Florence Reekie, Elena Rivera-Montanes, Grace Tobin, and Xu Yang, the group exhibition examines “the manifold ways in which these creatives are engaging with domestic space, weaving in symbolic narratives from meticulously selected objects”, curator Bella Bonner-Evans tells woo.

Borrowing its title from a widespread Victorian expression used to denote a pure, submissive and graceful ideal of femininity, The Angel in the House draws the audience into the intimate universes of its featured artists, opening up a space for “close inspection and rumination”. At first sight, the still life scenes temporarily inhabiting the gallery will likely catch the viewer’s attention because of their exquisite brushwork, intricate detail and use of complex symbolism. On closer inspection, the pieces allow visitors the opportunity to interrogate unconscious assumptions around gender. “Femininity continues to be associated with weakness,” Bonner-Evans says. “This idea is built upon a false binary, one of the many binaries that the exhibition seeks to reject.”

Playing with how the domestic space has been depicted via the male gaze within the painterly tradition, objects, accessories and garments which have stood in as signifiers of women’s untouched virtue and beauty, are reappropriated by this cohort of female painters. Moving beyond a total rejection of the associations between women and the home, the exhibition is the scene of a renegotiation of this historic relationship and what it symbolises.

Rather than being an adorned emblem of the constraints which have been forced onto women, jewels, tiaras, silks, flowers, and ribbons are instead “mobilised to make bold statements about agency, individuality and personal experience” explains the curator.

The Angel in the House, STUDIO WEST, 2023. © Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST. Photography by Ben Deakin

Having been raised in an intensely conservative environment, featured artist Xu Yang turns to 17th and 18th-century women of the French court to prove how they leveraged extravagant fashion as a vehicle of self-expression within an otherwise confined existence. Addressing the centuries-spanning artistic relationship between women and drapery, Florence Reekie’s work takes the nude female body out of the frame in provocative vignettes imbued with subtle sensuality. Despite implicitly mimicking the sinuousity mastered in neoclassical sculptures such as the Nike of Samothrace or The Venus de Milo, or else referencing the romantic undertones centred by René Magritte’s 1928 painting The Lovers, the London-based artist employs textured fabrics as clues of women’s long-censored sexual fantasies and desires.

Elsewhere, Olha Pryymak reacquaints herself with the childlike joy that comes with immersing yourself in nature, while Jess Allen, Elena Rivera-Montanes, Pippa El-Khadi Brown and Grace Tobin picture the home as a projection of their inner universes, merging factual and fictional elements in psychologically charged domestic scenes. “It is as if the pejorative phrase ‘women belong in the home’ was being flipped on its head,” Bonner-Evans says. She explains that, in portraying the places that are most familiar to them, “these artists get to narrate their stories on their own terms, delving into memory, absence, ritual, and personal relationships away from the trivialising narratives that have previously defined the female experience”.

Besides acknowledging how art grants women an opportunity to manifest the deeply subjective nature of their everyday life, The Angel in the House also examines how contemporary female artists are moving beyond the limits that hindered their forerunners’ creative expression by reversing people’s conception of what “feminine art” means today. “Historically, women were often prohibited from painting, and when permitted, they were confined to the still life genre,” she adds. “In this exhibition, women artists return to still life provocatively and anew, finding a territory ripe for self-expression and personal storytelling.”

To discover more, woo speaks to Bonner-Evans about the inspirations behind the show, the need to understand what the Victorian phrase “the angel in the house” means today, and the reality of the art world’s trudging, yet ongoing path towards gender equality.

The Angel in the House, STUDIO WEST, 2023. © Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST. Photography by Ben Deakin

‘The Angel in the House’ draws on John Everett Millais’ 1851 evocative painting ‘The Bridesmaid’. What prompted you to take this canvas as the main reference for this all-women exhibition?

Bella Bonner-Evans: The Bridesmaid (1851) is so fascinating because it is very deceptive: despite being easily mistaken as a simple portrait, the piece is actually a nuanced condemnation of the restrictions placed on women’s lives in the 19th century. It meditates on marriage as a form of confinement and complicates the then-prevalent conceptualisation of women as either pious and passive wives, or sinful charlatans and wanton seductresses.

Its redheaded, young female protagonist is pictured performing a folkloric ritual on St Agnes’ Eve: it was said that, when a bridesmaid passed a piece of wedding cake through a ring nine times, she would be presented with a vision of her future husband, the man who would steal her innocence. To convey the emotional turmoil of this experience, Millais juxtaposes symbols of chastity and innocence with signifiers of sensuality and sexual awakening – an ornate orange-blossom corsage is rendered in contrast to an obtusely phallic sugar shaker. To me, The Bridesmaid feels like a unique depiction of a woman with agency, feelings, fears, and desires of her own. It seemed like an interesting starting point for this show, with so many ribbons of thought to unravel through the practices of contemporary female artists. When contemplating the paintings on show, it is crucial to put them in dialogue with The Bridesmaid and the wider history of western art – questioning how they reframe a legacy of women who have either been erased entirely or pictured as objects stripped of any agency.

Another leitmotif of the exhibition is the Victorian saying “the angel in the house”, which also serves as its title. How does the showcase cast this expression into a new context, reinterpreting it from a feminist, slightly ironic perspective?

Bella Bonner-Evans: The title was drawn from a narrative 1854 poem by Coventry Patmore. Inspired by his wife, Emily, this charts their courtship and marriage while idealising women as devoted, docile wives and mothers. Written in the same period as The Bridesmaid was created, we felt this phrase captured the themes explored in Millais’ painting, which is no coincidence. Besides serving as the title of Patmore’s poem, “the angel in the house” was a widely used 19th-century expression referring to the essence of the “perfect” woman; a saintly, graceful and pious creature exhibiting unconditional devotion to her husband. In the show, this term is deployed with an undertone of irony. In Xu Yang and Florence Reekie’s works, we are met with an idealised form of femininity wrapped in silk and bejewelled with diamonds. Yet, on closer inspection, that stereotyped image is challenged by details such as an almost grotesque fly painted upon Yang’s marble portrait, or the sinister undertone of Reekie’s Double Bind and its allusion to bondage. Elsewhere, like in Grace Tobin, Jess Allen and Elena Rivera-Montanes’ works, the focus shifts to a symbolic reading of domestic space and its associations with memory, family and nostalgic comfort. Rarefied femininity is rejected and replaced with depictions of the quotidian that hint at these artists’ experiences. The show questions what “the angel in the house” means today by probing at the expectations still placed on women and centring how these painters materialise elements of themselves in rendering objects and places so familiar to them.

"In removing women’s bodies from the frame, the show inherently rejects the male gaze"
Bella Bonner-Evans

How would you describe the atmospheres evoked by the displayed pieces in three adjectives?

Bella Bonner-Evans: Contemplative, delicate and thought-provoking.

Key to the showcase is the idea that, through art, women get to reappropriate the male-dictated understandings of womanhood, femininity and domesticity. How did the participating artists approach such a delicate endeavour?

Bella Bonner-Evans: I find it incredibly telling that, despite the show being about femininity and experiences of womanhood, very few figures are pictured in it. In contrast to the omnipresent reclining Venuses of art history, the exhibition looks at women’s own understandings of themselves without representing the female body. This alone makes a bold statement about what it actually means to be a woman: in removing women’s bodies from the frame, the show inherently rejects the male gaze. Xu Yang’s _We Care so much until We Don’t _(2022) is a striking example of that: here, she paints an image of herself immortalised in marble, harking back to the great sculptors of the Renaissance. But there is something very subversive about it: in presenting herself, complete with paintbrush, as an eternal image of the artist, she retroactively inserts women into the history of art. I see this work as an exploration of the complexity of identity and self-image; Yang’s vision in stone is confident, affirmed and elegant, yet it is “ruined” by a hyper-realistic representation of a fly that appears to have landed on the painting’s surface. This simple addition unleashes humour, also reminding us that identity is often a self-constructed façade.

Why did you decided to curate a show exclusively featuring female artists?

Bella Bonner-Evans: At STUDIO WEST, we don’t curate shows with the aim of exclusively featuring women artists, but rather seek to spotlight talents we believe will shape the future of contemporary art. To platform a female artist purely to address gender inequality would be reductive, but with the option of championing two equally promising artists of different genders, I would put my energy into the artist who is least supported by the system. In the case of The Angel in the House, Millais’ The Bridesmaid accompanied us on a journey that ended with this show. Our exhibition coincides with The Rossettis retrospective at TATE Britain, making it a timely moment to recognise the pre-Raphaelites’ contribution to reframing depictions of women while simultaneously making space for rising female artists to speak for themselves.

The Angel in the House, STUDIO WEST, 2023. © Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST. Photography by Ben Deakin
The Angel in the House, STUDIO WEST, 2023. © Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST. Photography by Ben Deakin

Lastly, as a female curator, what would you say is the art world’s state of inclusivity?

Bella Bonner-Evans: The art world was built by men for men and is, as such, inherently misogynistic. Most people can only name a handful of noteworthy women artists. If you remove trailblazers like Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe, Alice Neel, Marina Abramović, Cindy Sherman, and Tracey Emin from the list, few can proffer any answer at all. Their success gives the impression that the art landscape has changed significantly of late, but this is an illusion: Marina Abramović will be the first woman to present a solo show extending over all the galleries of the Royal Academy in September 2023; the Louvre’s collection only includes 25 women among 3,600 artists; while of the $196.6 billion spent at art auctions between 2008 and 2019, women’s work only accounted for $4 billion, or around 2% of the total sales.

Still, there is hope! Many among us can now name a woman artist. As more women than ever attend art school, there will soon be more works on the market by female creatives. This begs the question, “will there be demand among collectors for these pieces?” According to a 2022 report by Artprice, which found that women account for 8 of the 10 best-selling artists under the age of 40, the answer is yes. We have witnessed a growing number of women represented in the TATE Modern’s collection, which suggests that some of the systemic barriers to female artists’ success – such as lack of accessibility to education, collector recognition and institutional representation – are slowly dissolving.

The Angel in the House is open at STUDIO WEST, London, until 20 July.

Cover image: The Angel in the House, STUDIO WEST, 2023. © Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST. Photography by Ben Deakin

Scroll for an extra dose of art and culture news, curated for you by woo

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Installation view of Imani Jacqueline Brown, Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis (21 Jun–3 Sep 2023). Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy the Hayward Gallery

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Les Rencontres d’Arles, international photography festival, Arles, FR

“Aya” by Arguiñe Escandón e Yann Gross. © Arguiñe Escandón and Yann Gross. Courtesy of the artists and the MRO Foundation

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Eric Fischl, She and Her (2017). Courtesy of Saatchi Yates

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