Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, UK
The marble nude in the photo has been given a quick makeover. With scribbled on glasses, she looks like the work of some amateur Bic-wielding caricaturist defacing the Sunday papers. She’s certainly a sister of sorts to Marcel Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa: L.H.O.O.Q (1919). The defaced photo occupies a homely frame on one of three temporary walls – breezeblock, redbrick, ashen grey – that hem in the gallery spaces. On the back of the wall is another modified photo. Here, a monument of the striding pioneer genre, shirt rumpled with honest toil, has been over-painted: his arms carry a suckling infant rather than the forged tools of progress.
A babe-at-breast in the arms of a monumental hero jars as much as glasses on a marmoreal goddess. Thus does Kate Davis neatly mark out her territory: heroic labour, home making and the discrepancies between in art historical representations of women’s roles.
Two deftly paired films – Weight (2014) and Charity (2017) – face off from walls of fresh municipal brick in the Stills’ back gallery. Weight is framed around the audio script for John Read’s 1961 BBC documentary on Barbara Hepworth. Rewritten and rerecorded, ‘Hepworth’ and ‘Read’ now lend their gravitas to a discussion of domestic labour rather than art. ‘It’s difficult to describe in words the meaning of childcare,’ says Hepworth – referred to now by Reed simply as ‘this woman’. ‘It took a long time for me to find my personal way of preparing meals.’ The interview accompanies photo documentation of the era – domestic interiors, suburban construction work and ideal home exhibitions – interspersed with arrangements of potato peelings, rubber gloves and buckets shot by Davis with the lustre of Flemish still lifes. Read marvels at Hepworth’s washing up, ironing and childcare. ‘She was trained at the same sink as her mother,’ he purrs.
Charity was commissioned as part of Davis’s 2016 Margaret Tait Award. Slivers of Tait’s feature film Blue Black Permanent (1992) are included alongside snippets of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (1976) and the oral histories of Mary Chamberlain’s Fenwoman (1975). All are first person accounts of breastfeeding, an activity portrayed onscreen through the work of Lucas Cranach, Artemisia Gentileschi, Paula Modersohn-Becker and others, including the unnamed designers of banknotes, sentimental figurines, fertility symbols and a medical illustration showing a woman with a functioning third nipple on her leg.
Talk of feeding and caregiving is salted with the vocabulary of workers rights: night shifts, contracts, collaboration. The romanticised, fetishized, venerated and even mocking depictions of nursing in the artworks place women in a world apart, unconnected from the sphere of labour suggested in the script: ‘I certainly didn’t envisage this line of work as my destiny.’
The exhibition’s title, ‘Nudes Never Wear Glasses’, is a line lifted from Jo Spence, whose projects from the 1970s and ’80s – including correctives to the nude tradition, representation of unpaid domestic labour and analyses of advertising’s typologies of femininity – were shown at Stills last summer. Twenty-five years after her death, Spence’s work bears revisiting. ‘Read’ says of ‘Hepworth’ in Weight: ‘The natural qualities of floors, ceiling and windows have been completely revealed […] She has created beauty, and who can do more than that?’ In our pulchritude-worshiping, self-idealizing era, it sounds less like bitter parody than a hyperbolic profile of an Instagram star.
Rather than creating mere footnotes to Spence, Davis’s interest lies in the rereading of histories. ‘Nudes Never Wear Glasses’ uses the friction between different archival materials to complicate received stories: this is the backdrop against which Hepworth emerged as an artist; this type of work is valued by society; this type of work remains hidden.
Main image: Kate Davis, Nudes Never Wear Glasses, 2017, installation view, Stills Gallery, Edinburgh. Courtesy: Stills Gallery, Edinburgh
First published in Issue 191