Art, Architecture and Visual Culture
Chapter 3 is an exploration of the intersection between esotericism and conceptual art which positions Carrington at its core. Here, the focus is on the Glasgow-based conceptual artist and Turner Prize nominee, Lucy Skaer (b.1975), who prepared a Leonora cycle (2006 and 2012) in which the curatorial possibilities of the Tarot were investigated. Skaer’s practice offers one of the most insightful inversions of Carrington. For anyone familiar with Skaer’s critically self-reflexive work on the nature of visuality and mixed-media approach to interrogating “the image,” her interest in a visual narrator like Carrington would perhaps initially strike one as surprising. Yet, since 2006, Skaer has claimed Carrington as a “disassembling logic,” a catalyst for being able to reconsider her own approach to art-making. The chapter draws on the author’s own curated exhibition Leonora Carrington/Lucy Skaer at Leeds Arts University (2016) as well as other installations of Skaer’s cycle.
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.
While the prevailing trend in Carrington studies is around the dialogic and the collaborative, this chapter presents a case for creative solitude. It argues for nuance in the use of Carrington by focusing on two novelists. This chapter also takes a practical approach to the notion of fieldwork and eco-feminist research. Indeed, Carrington has much to offer current debates around the politics of balancing a creative practice with parenthood. The Canadian-Ukrainian writer and fashion designer, Heidi Sopinka (b.1971), recently published The Dictionary of Animal Languages (2018), a novel based on the Leonora Carrington narrative. Here, Carrington is reimagined as Ivory Frame, an animal painter turned biologist, now aged 92 and researching communication and ecology. Notions of creative solitude abound in this novel and chime with the Mexican, London-based writer Chloe Aridjis (b.1971), who similarly self-presents the benefits of introversion in her film with Josh Appignanesi, Female Human Animal (2018), as well as in her novelistic writing (2009, 2013, 2019). Carrington’s own notion of a “female human animal” (1970) is crucial to both writers, as such hybridity queries binary thinking.
This is a contextualising introduction to Leonora Carrington that surveys the landscape of her legacies, critical responses and fandom in a range of artistic media. I begin with the metaphor of the pilgrimage as a way into the current challenges of Carrington studies, and review the existing historiography on Carrington, justifying my understanding of quotation, my position “against influence” and “for intellectualism,” and use of a feminist-surrealist revisionary methodology, with close reference to avant-garde theorist Susan Rubin Suleiman (1990) and mythographer Marina Warner (1989), as well as discussion of more recent revisionary scholarship by Natalya Lusty (2007) and Anna Watz (2016). The introduction also provides a chapter outline for what follows.
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.
Many creative intellectuals have written or spoken of their pilgrimage to meet the English/Mexican, surrealist-associated artist and writer Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) as being a profound encounter. Since her death in May 2011, there have been a profusion of creative responses to her and her work, from theatrical productions to experimental performances, from electronica to folk music, and from fashion photography to curatorial projects.
This survey or curating of Carrington unpicks why artists, writers and performers, especially creative women, have become preoccupied with making work in her legacy. Such fixations and fandom move beyond mere influence, offering a way of approaching art-making and political themes as an attitude or Zeitgeist. The study focuses on the ways in which Carrington is recycled, in the writing of Chloe Aridjis and Heidi Sopinka, the conceptual art of Lucy Skaer and Tilda Swinton, and the performative practice of Samantha Sweeting, Lynn Lu, and Double Edge Theatre in order to speak to current feminist and eco-critical campaigns such as #MeToo and Writers Rebel.
The book’s feminist-surrealist emphasis proposes that it is Carrington, and not one of the central players in surrealism like André Breton and Max Ernst, who is chief in keeping the surrealist message alive today.
Animal rights were at the heart of Carrington’s philosophy and much of the activism she has come to represent. This chapter considers the individual and collaborative practices of Singapore-born, London-based artists, Lynn Lu (b.1974) and Samantha Sweeting (b.1982). It explores Carrington’s child-woman status and her zoological fascination through their performance art. In the same year as Carrington’s death, Lu and Sweeting collaborated on The Hearing Trumpet (2011), a dialogic public engagement performance installation, based on Carrington’s novel of the same title. A reprisal for 2016 involved Victorian animal-snap cards as an innovative ice-breaker between potentially like-minded audience members. Again, the author draws on her own experiences of curating this performance at Leeds Arts University (2016).
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.
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.
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.