The following artists were mentioned in the piece: Colin Davidson, Hughie O’Donoghue, Ed Miliano, William Scott, William John Leech, Jack Butler Yeats and Paul Henry. A never-before exhibited portrait by Lucian Freud, of Pat Doherty (Donegal Man), was tipped as a highlight of the show. Eight of the 29 in the show were applied artists or craftspeople. Furniture maker Joseph Walsh, wood turner Liam Flynn and ceramicist Sara Flynn were mentioned. Notice anything about that list of names? If yes, you’ve got it. If not, keep reading.
There’s a much-bandied about anecdote about the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, the first three volumes of which neglected to include significant numbers of writers who are women. The most common, and fun, version of the story has the editor Seamus Deane being confronted on RTÉ television (on a show called Booklines) by the writer Nuala O’Faolain and replying to the question of how he had managed to leave out so many women, with the words “I forgot”. This isn’t actually true.
The myth was corrected in The Dublin Review by Caitriona Crowe in 2003, when she wrote that Deane never said those exact words. In fact, he displayed a kind of horror at the realisation of his omission. Crowe quotes him: “To my astonishment and dismay, I have found that I myself have been subject to the same kind of critique to which I have subjected colonialism…I find that I exemplify some of the faults and erasures which I analyze and characterize in the earlier period.” In other words, he left women out because, from his own position of privilege it never occurred to include them. Privilege is thinking something isn’t a problem because it isn’t a problem for you. Still, when mistakes are pointed out they can be addressed and moves made to ensure they don’t happen again. In 2002, two new volumes of the anthology, devoted to writing by and about women, were published.
The intention of the Field Day Project was to establish a canon and to promote the work of Irish writers. This is why it came to mind when I read that piece on the pop-up London show. One female name. And I thought, are we still here, in this place where successful women artists are regarded, like the writers, as rare mavericks while men are put forward to form the canon?
The only woman named in the article was ceramicist Sara Flynn. Why not Katherine Boucher Beug, photographer Amelia Stein or the only female painter (among 16) in the show, Stephanie Rowe? Sears frequently shows remarkable Irish applied art/craft/design on an equal footing with painting and sculpture in his gallery. Ceramicists Frances Lambe and Nuala O’Donovan were also part of the show, and Annabel McCarthy, as one half of Nest Design founded with Neil McCarthy.
The current Abbey Theatre Waking the Nation #wakingthefeminists debacle was sparked when a play by Ali White was revealed to be the only one written by a woman on a list of ten for 2016. Me, Mollser is a play for schools. Flynn makes ceramics. Are we stuck again with the idea that women may succeed and be promoted as excelling only in certain areas (writing for children, craft) and the serious work (Abbey Theatre stage plays, oil painting) is for men? This is not to take away from the merit and quality of White or Flynn’s work, or to suggest that working in these areas is actually of lesser value (it isn’t), but to point to an almost subconscious categorising of what are acceptable arenas for expressing female creativity, the places where women may make their names and those in which they may not.
Sears is a private gallerist. If I was a private gallerist I would only show work by artists I believed in and whose work I liked. Sears has mostly male artists on his books, but it’s his gallery and who he shows is his prerogative, absolutely. Gender parity is not an issue here. What is interesting to me is how the public discourse about this show played out in this case. A journalist will always mention the biggest names first. The journalist in this case, Helen Chislett, may have included more women’s names and they may have been cut by an editor, or she may have chosen not to quote Sears when he mentioned them. In any case, if we go by reputation, the biggest names here are indisputably all male: Freud, Yeats, Henry, Scott, Leech. The canon. Of the upcoming artists with expanding reputations, Davidson and O’Donoghue are logical namedrops. But why mention Ed Miliano over Stephanie Rowe? Rowe is a more interesting painter. Why not name the superlative Stein or tag Boucher Beug?
Sears wants to promote Irish art, but questions of Irishness are frequently fuzzy anyway: Canadian-born Rowe has been resident in Ireland since 2005, US-born Boucher Beug since 1971. Miliano is New York-born and currently based in Tokyo. Still, to push contemporary male artists forward first as those who might form the canon is to disregard the fact that some of the few contemporary Irish artists who have established a British, and international reputation are women: Dorothy Cross (whose has London gallery representation and whose work is held in the Tate), Eva Rothschild (Dublin-born, London-base, whose work is in the Tate and MOMA), Alice Maher who is represented by London and New York galleries, Daphne Wright.
These women are not rare mavericks. They are not “other” because they are female. They are Irish artists and they are part of the canon, as long as we remember their names. We need to make sure we don’t inexplicably exclude them, and their sisters, through an act of unconscious omission, simply because the first names that spring to mind when we think of a painter are male (and perhaps too because the first thing we think of when we say artist is painter).
Here are some Irish painters who happen to be female, remember their names: Diana Copperwhite, Geraldine O’Neill, Mairead O’hEocha, Catherine Barron, German-born Dublin-based Vera Klute, Maeve McCarthy, Jennifer Trouton, Belgium-based Helen O’Sullivan-Tyrrell, Sinead Ni Mhaonaigh, Margaret Corcoran. Can we not get to a place where the best of them too are referred to only by surname in the far distant future, along with the Bacons and Freuds, can we not have the same ambition for them that Sears clearly and laudably has for Davidson et al?
Not all of Sears’ male artists got a mention in the piece. Surprisingly, Donald Teskey didn’t get a namecheck. So, here with the luxury of endless blogspace I give you all of those in the show I haven’t yet mentioned myself: John Kelly, Laurence Riddell, Paul Gaffney, Michael Canning, Samuel Walsh, Keith Wilson, Stephen Lawlor, Jeff Schneider, photographer Paul Gaffney, silversmith Cóilín Ó Dubhghaill, sculptor Jason Ellis and applied artist Sasha Sykes. Yep, one woman at the end again. Sorry.
It is also worth noting that Sears received some public funding for this venture from Culture Ireland, to the value of €6,000. He cannot be held to account for showing fewer women than men in his private gallery, and nor do I wish to accuse him of doing so. But, we can all be more cognisant of the kind of discourse that surrounds the establishment, promotion and definition of who and what forms the canon in Irish art.
This is not a question that can be answered by pointing out that women are represented in public collections, that group shows do contain work by female artists, that these artists do get solo shows and media attention, that many women are now making art, curating art, writing about art and running art venues. It’s a question of legacy and a question about the story we will tell about Irish art when we consider and remember the names that contributed most. It’s a question of canon, and equality.
Let’s go forward with our eyes open to this question. Surely we in the visual arts are capable of that? Let’s not inadvertently repeat the Abbey Theatre or Field Day mistake with our women artists too. We do not want to find ourselves mouthing, shame-faced in the future, “sorry, we didn’t notice” or worse, “sorry, we forgot”.