Following Cedar House, a charcoal and oil pastel shrine to her grandmother’s collection of curiosities, GLUT, Christabel MacGreevy’s second solo show, reflects on femininity; on its definition, on her relationship with the latter and what it evokes when contextualised both within a historical framework and within her own domestic environment.
Much like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, who starts life as a young nobleman in medieval England and ends it as a middle aged woman in the 1950s, Christabel has never felt her life defined or regulated within the parameters of gender. Indeed, until the age of 10, she identified as a boy and now as an adult she defines herself as a woman.
However, such early nonchalance towards gender prescription has caused a sense of detachment between the artist and the ‘feminine’- it is this very gulf and contention that is explored in her practice. Indeed, the show can be viewed as a multi-medium search for ‘feminine’ definition, one that by no means will end in its peaceful integration but rather in its ultimate subversion. ‘Without understanding the signs and signifiers of what people interpret as ‘feminine’,’ says Christabel, ‘you cannot subvert from the expected.’ ‘Once you understand these you can play with them.’
Her series of charcoal works, inspired by the ancient talismans and fertility symbols on display at the British Museum, mark the beginning of this search. In these characteresque drawings, what becomes clear is that despite the creation of new life requiring both a man and a woman, many of these cultures boiled down the essence of fertility to just the image of a woman. Fertility and femininity were one.
In her wall hangings, this historical contextualization of femininity develops into an exploration of the ‘feminine’ within female art practice. Indeed, alike women artists pertaining to the first wave of feminism- the era of Judy Chicago’s iconic ceramic dinner- Christabel turns to a typically ‘feminine’ craft outside of patriarchal mediums – quilting – as a visual language and aptly to express the female nude.
Her series of sinks represents the artist’s interaction with the ‘feminine’ within her most private spaces- her studio, her parent’s house and her own home. To her, the sink, is not only anatomically evocative of the female form but also a place of female reassurance - the watering point, the mother, the centre of the home. These sinks, all visually tailored to their specific locations, expose the artist at her most vulnerable. However, despite projecting a semblance of tranquil fragility they do not represent a union between the artist and the ‘feminine’ –the intent of her search is to subvert rather than to integrate.
Like the last image of Orlando- a woman in the 1950s behind the wheels of her own car, the engine vibrating in front of her, the female power Christabel is playing with is a subversive power. It’s not a coy power. It’s something a bit more knowing, a bit stronger and a bit tougher. Indeed, her two series of sculptures- the paper mache ‘Squiggles’ and resin ‘Tongues’- in their phallic appearance, hint at her desire to over-power such a masculine symbol of dominance. Indeed, she takes into her own hands and moulds into what she likes.
‘Maybe in essence I was a feminist - I could see there was a difference between the way I was treated, and the boys were treated, and I found it unfair. I heard the phrase, boys will be boys, and I thought, why will boys be boys?’