Champagne Life is the first ever exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery showcasing works solely from female artists. The Gallery is getting a lot of coverage for this (though the Tate Modern has been doing an impressive job for a while now in showcasing female artists). So, why now?
Wanting to be play catch-up? Possibly. Tokenism? Maybe. Certainly we’d be well within our rights to be pretty cynical about why Charles Saatchi might want to be seen platforming women all of a sudden. But don’t let this sway you from visiting as within Champagne Life is some terrific work from female artists who still do not have the visibility of their male counterparts.
The show opens with the eye-catching and accessible canvases from Julia Wachtel. Her subversion of tabloid images of red carpet actresses – with their identikit slim physiques and column dresses – and photos of the pop royalty that is Kim and Kanye is the perfect pop culture commentary to open with. They have easy appeal. Their subject matter, well, it’s current, it’s relevant and it draws you in.
A smart curatorial approach.
And it’s followed with a colourful gallery dedicated to the vivid paintings of Sigrid Holmwood. Her neon washes are bright and loud, keeping the energy of the show going. However, her subject matter is more the romanticised view of Swedish traditional life than Hollywood. Here it’s mother and child in basic huts, church boats floating down rivers…. It’s an idealised view of the past and the works may not be the strongest in the exhibition, but the blend of the old with the new is an approach used by others on show.
Mequitta Ahuja’s exploration of heritage to interrogate the contemporary is an exhibition highlight. Blending inspiration from ancient mythological works and legends, Mequitta’s towering paintings bring women to the fore.
With her fearless warriors and bold blue goddesses, Mequitta draws from her African American and Asian Indian roots to depict a female identity that is both modern yet rooted deeply in our past. It’s exhilarating stuff. You feel a surge of empowerment just staring at these works.
As well as pictorial works, there’s plenty of space set aside in Champagne Life for sculptural works too.
The magical realism from Soheila Sokhanvari will delight – her taxidermied pony perched precariously on a jesmonite blob an eye-catching piece – and the scale and detail of Alice Anderson’s copper thread work, Bound and 181 Kilometres, will impress.
But there’s also reflection and psychological examination.
Virgil’s Ittah’s wax sculptures of two bodies suspended between life and death are smartly exhibited alongside Jelena Bulajic’s hyper-realistic paintings of very old women. Together these works make for a sobering reflection on mortality, emphasised with this room being an austere and sobering wash of white compared to the colours in the other galleries.
And Maha Malluh’s Food for Thought installation of hundreds of cooking pots traditionally used throughout the Arab world is a sad reminder that a woman’s work is never done.
That’s not to say that everything in this exhibition works flawlessly – Marie Angeletti’s representation of the information overload of our internet culture as a series of scrambled images is a smart idea but the finished pieces are confusing and don’t quite make the desired impact.
Similarly, Suzanne McClelland’s examination of domestic terrorists in the US screams an immediately relevant subject matter, but here too, the finished works are quite inaccessible and opaque, seemingly little more than graffitied monochrome canvases.
But nevertheless, every single artist on show here brings something to the table that is challenging and thought-provoking. Some of it may not be finely honed but it is a great diverse collection from a wide range of female artists, all of whom have something to say. And what they’re saying deserves to be heard.
Saatchi Gallery, London to March 9, 2016
Image Credits: All photographs by me.
1. Soheila Sokhanvari, Moje Sabz, 2011, in front of Maha Malluh Untitled (Food for Thought), 2015.
2. Julia Wachtel, Champagne Life, 2014.
3. Detail from Mequitta Ahuja, Autocartography III, 2012.
4. Installation View. Works from Virgile ittah and Jelena Bulajic.
5. Detail from Suzanne McClelland, Domestic Terrorist Kerkow, 2014.