Best known for her work with punk provocateurs Crass, Gee Vaucher (b. 1945) is widely acknowledged for the idiosyncratic and powerful images that have played a decisive role in shaping alternative culture over the last fifty years. This is the first book to critically assess an extensive range of her work, situating it in a lineage from early twentieth-century avant-garde art movements through the counterculture and punk and on to contemporary street art. It provides a fascinating insight into social and cultural history from a vital but hitherto marginalised perspective. While Vaucher rejects all ‘isms’, her work offers a unique perspective within the history of feminist art. The book explores how her experience has shaped this perspective, with particular focus on the anarchistic, open house collective at Dial House.
Over the last decade, Gee Vaucher has been increasingly recognised in academia, the art world and the media. Despite her raised profile, she remains an elusive figure, who prides herself on her political and creative autonomy. She retains some reticence to her work being held in public collections, while refusing outright to sell it for private collectors and institutions – something which makes it hard to value in art market terms. Steeped in the counterculture of the 1970s, punk politics specific to Crass in the 1980s and the anti-establishment ethos of street and protest art popularised by Banksy in the 2000s, her critique of power imbalance at a personal, familial, societal and political level is evident throughout her oeuvre, while her much-vaunted autonomy is something that continues to guide her approach. The introduction to this first-ever monograph on this singular artist provides an overview of Vaucher’s work with performance art collectives and her involvement in the free festivals movement; her time working as a successful freelance illustrator for mainstream magazines in New York, immersed in the punk-Bohemian world of the lower east side (1977–79); the intense six-year period when she defined the Crass’ aesthetic, and exerted influence on the direction of punk and music graphics; her more introspective period in the 1990s, when her work took on a vast array of mediums; and her reconnection with more collaborative and political art practices in the 2000s. The author’s personal connection to the subject matter is also discussed.
This chapter explores the influence of Vaucher’s working class childhood in post-war Dagenham on her outlook and artwork. The roots of her pacifism, autonomy (in particular with regard to gender roles) and embrace of communal living, are all shown to originate in this milieu, as opposed to the counterculture or women’s movement. The chapter goes on to explore the role of art schools in engendering cultural change in Britain during the 1960s. It explores Vaucher’s experience of attending South East Essex Technical College and School of Art (1961–65), where her capabilities as a solo artist flourished. Her largely figurative early work is shown to embody a social realist quality that would become pronounced in her later illustrations for magazines, her journal International Anthem and Crass. It was also in this context that she met her lifelong creative partner, Penny Rimbaud, and their bond was formed through their shared ‘innate disobedience’ as well as their love of Pop Art and the Independent Group. The social mobility of the post-war decades facilitated cultural protagonists, including Vaucher, to emerge from the newly democratised art schools and universities, from a wider social background than was previously the case. Despite this, Vaucher’s experience of the art school environment was as an overwhelmingly middle-class environment that invoked reticence in her. The chapter also explores the formative role of the Aberfan Disaster (1966) on her world view.
This chapter explores the radical autonomy and alternate social structures of the world Vaucher inhabited in the 1970s, when she lived and worked at Dial House, a communal living experiment in her native Essex. The development of the peace movement, with direct action strands evolving in conflict with CND, and in response to the Vietnam War, provide context for her growing pacifism. The influence of the Situationist International (1957–72) transmitted via the underground press and anarchist-pacifist ideas are explored alongside those of Freud, Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman and R. D. Laing, who she cites as a particular influence. The work of anarchist author Murray Bookchin also provides insight into the cultural zeitgeist of the times, one that Vaucher and Rimbaud would use to reshape punk in the late 1970s. During this period, Vaucher was involved in various art collectives, such as the Stanford Rivers Quartet and EXIT. These are situated in relation to contemporaries such as Fluxus (with whom she collaborated during the International Carnival of Experimental Sound in 1972), and COUM Transmissions (1969–76). She often collaborated with Rimbaud in these collectives, and the chapter traces their role in the development of the counterculture, particularly the free festivals movement. In the wake of the Windsor Free Festival, the first Stonehenge Festival was planned and envisioned at Dial House. Her series Homage to Catatonia (1974–76) documents the tragic story of the co-founder of Stonehenge, Wally Hope, and marks a key moment in the development of her visual aesthetic.
This chapter explores Vaucher’s early commercial work in the UK and success as a freelance illustrator while living in New York (1977–79), where she created designs for mainstream magazines, such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone. This period also saw Vaucher begin to experiment with her own self-produced magazines and journals, which provided an outlet for her more radical output. Her first self-published journal, Pent-Up, engaged with sexual politics; using pin-ups to form a distinct critique of the subjugation of women in society. This provided a stark contrast to the male-dominated underground press publications of the 1960s, which had used pornographic content as unambiguously symbolic of sexual liberation. In this respect, Vaucher is shown to continue the free and independent ethos of her predecessors, while forming a critique more in sync with the changes heralded by the women’s movement. However, Vaucher’s unique take on feminism is shown to be distinct from its contemporaneous incarnation in key respects; notably through ascribing her pin-ups with agency. This chapter further situates Vaucher’s practice within a movement of artists inspired by radical politics that questioned cultural hegemony and intended art to function for social change. Parallels are drawn with contemporaries including Martha Rosler and Peter Kennard, who both also worked with photomontage and made incursions into public spaces. However, her anarchistic, as opposed to left-wing, perspective is shown to provide a singular critique of the era. The influence of Dada, notably John Heartfield and Hannah Hőch, is also explored.
This chapter challenges the prevalent narrative of punk as a rejection of 1960s ‘hippie’ culture, arguing that punk inadvertently continued the radicalism of the counterculture by exposing the gap between the promise and the reality of idealistic liberalism. It shows how a network of independent co-operatives, record labels and print shops established by countercultural participants facilitated the cultural output of punk, looking at how run-down inner-city areas allowed such radical communities and alternate living and work practices to thrive. This autonomous context also proved essential for developing the nascent design language of several key punk designers. Jamie Reid’s work for Sex Pistols and Linder Sterling’s work for Buzzcocks and Magazine are prominent examples. Vaucher, Reid and Sterling all used self-produced journals, International Anthem, Suburban Press and The Secret Public, respectively, to develop their radical ideas. All three built on the legacy of the avant-garde, utilising methods such as détournement, as well as rhetorical humorous devices such as satire and irony that characterised the underground press. Sterling’s use of pin-ups to create a ‘feminist’ critique is compared to Vaucher’s, and a precedent is traced in the work of Dadaist Hannah Hőch. While indebted to feminism, punk women often disavowed the progressive politics that underpinned it. As such, the feminist critique provided by Vaucher was strongly resonant of punk. The chapter shows how she combined the lowbrow aesthetic of punk fanzine design with her skill as an illustrator to produce a highbrow interpretation of a rough ‘n’ ready aesthetic.
Vaucher’s involvement in Crass began while she was still resident in New York, from where she raised funds for the band to fly out and play gigs amidst the downtown No Wave music scene. It provides a wry account of her encounter with Johnny Rotten slumped outside CBGBs. In 1979, Vaucher returned to the UK to resume living at Dial House, this time as part of Crass. Crass attempted to reignite punk’s radicalism and grassroots ideology in the aftermath of its commercialisation following its first wave. The band became synonymous with an ethos of independence through setting up Crass Records to release their own music, and that of other like-minded bands. Vaucher’s designs for Crass were a key component in forging this new direction for punk, and the chapter looks at how the visual language she developed through her extensive body of designs for record sleeves, inserts, posters and other ephemera fused the aggression of punk with the pacifism and alternative life choices of the counterculture. Her work in this period makes use of satirical humour, attacking the bastions of punk, Sex Pistols, equally with establishment figureheads. Her work critiquing the role of the patriarchal nuclear family unit and Church in fostering oppression, and featuring the home as the setting where familial drama is played out is shown to draw on Surrealist anti-rationalism. Her work is discussed in relation to anarcho-feminist ideas that were gaining traction at the time, as evidenced in the output of Crass, Poison Girls and anarcho-punk fanzines.
This chapter explores how Crass’ distinct vision of anarchism, pacifism and feminism fused with punk, became increasingly focused on the authoritarianism, divisive politics and neo-liberal economics of the Thatcher government as the 1980s progressed. The rhetoric of Vaucher, Crass and anarcho-punk more widely became increasingly acrimonious in the context of the Falklands War with Thatcher on course for a second election win. A comparison is drawn with her contemporary Peter Kennard through their shared moral purpose, use of their work as a political weapon and appropriation of mass media imagery to reveal hidden truths. Both artists are in turn shown to be indebted to the Dadaist John Heartfield working half a century earlier. However, a distinction is drawn through Vaucher’s disavowal of both capitalist and Marxist conceptions of freedom, while these other artists’ critique was grounded in Marxism. Vaucher’s aesthetic, its DiY ethos and political ideals, exerted an influence on hardcore (in the States) and post-punk (in the UK). Specific parallels are drawn with the astute visual material created by Winston Smith for US punk band, Dead Kennedys, and the striking album art created by Mike Coles for the UK post-punk band, Killing Joke. This chapter also highlights Vaucher’s importance in providing a ‘feminist’ critique of power. Her belief in radical autonomy, rather than State-approved equality, as a response to female subordination is shown to have a strong correlation with contemporaneous anarcho-feminist ideas.
Postmodernism and the anti-rationalist avant-garde
Following Crass’ disbandment in 1984, Vaucher’s artwork took a back seat, partly due to her caring for her dying mother. As the 1990s dawned, her work took a distinct shift towards more introspective themes as her solo output flourished. This included series of paintings and pastel drawings concentrated on partial abstractions of the human form. A lifelong preoccupation with animal rights is reflected in her work from this period, as are concerns with human abuses of power. She turned again R. D. Laing’s ideas on the repression inherent in the functioning of the traditional family unit, and much of her work formed a critique of the way that societal institutions curtail the freedom of children. While Vaucher’s approach was indebted to certain early twentieth-century avant-garde art movements, as with punk, the radicalism and emancipatory ethos she embodied was also rooted in the early expression of postmodernism as a route to freedom from dominant ideologies. This stands in contrast to the debased manifestation of postmodernism – as an oppressive cultural embodiment of the emerging economic order – that dominated by the 1990s. The alternative approach she maintained stands in marked contrast to the sensationalism that dominated the art world at the time, notably with the Young British Artists (YBA) movement. Their output is critiqued in relation to 1970s communal artists COUM, in relation to Vaucher’s work with Crass, and with her less overtly didactic approach in the 1990s, which still managed to invest her work with meaning.
Political agitation and public intervention in the new millennium
In the twenty-first century, Vaucher’s work rekindled its overtly political content in the aftermath of the Iraq War. A preoccupation with Palestine emerged, again mirroring her contemporary Peter Kennard. She formed a friendship with Banksy and contributed works to his Santa’s Ghetto project among others. Her work is situated in the context of the street art scene, anti-globalisation campaigns, the Occupy movement and collaborative art. Her work received renewed attention from younger generations with a quest for authenticity – both from people trying once again to carve out a genuine outsider space, and from ‘hipsters’, whose interest could be seen to tip over into cultural appropriation. While she returned to themes of pacifism and anti-militarism that were a key component of her work with Crass, her later output reveals a more subtle and varied aesthetic. This output is examined in the context of a period of political polarisation and social discontent, following years of austerity in the United Kingdom, and war, disasters and a refugee crisis worldwide, highlighting its relevance to a young, post-postmodern generation. Over this period, the process of her recognition also gathered pace, and 2016 saw both her first major retrospective exhibition and her work adopted as the abiding visual response to the election of Donald Trump. The impact of social media on both dissemination and meaning is discussed, while Vaucher’s unique approach to controlling the art market is revealed to be the overriding source of her autonomy.