Marie Jones: Let’s Get Stuck In Traffic!/ Ride Your Pony 03, Warrington Museum, until 9th Feb/ 29th March, free
It’s my first time in Warrington Museum, and it’s a curious place. Or rather, as it’s very much still arranged in the Victorian survey model of setting “worldly” categories and then including everything that they could possibly find into said categorical space, a “place of curios”. There’s a lot to be said about this particular museum format and the suppositions and biases on which it was traditionally predicated, but I’m going to stay away from those today. It’s the subject of a post on its own and goes much further than one museum – one which, moreover, you get the sense that Warrington Museum are very aware of.
Because I do think it’s really important that museums like this never base their validity on ideas about their own status as ‘relics’. When it comes to museums, being a throwback isn’t cute. I’m not saying throw it all out and start again. But local museums are often the first, or most regular, contact people can have with cultural institutions. So to stick with a model of interpretation rooted in a past which had very different attitudes to human dignity and rights would be irresponsible. Visitors deserve acknowledgement of the model’s failings, and it’s not to denigrate the purpose of the institution for these to be acknowledged and worked with.
And happily, I think the Warrington Museum team have got this covered. Certainly if the tone of these two exhibitions is anything to go by.
As befits the tone of the museum, the style of the art collection is, to put it kindly, very Victorian. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its treatment of women and children. The women are either sleeping, simpering or in servitude. It’s not a coincidence that most of the children are female: symbols of an interpretation of innocence rooted in a misogynistic perception of a ‘frailty of the fairer sex’. It’s fair to say that the majority of the collection runs with this mawkish, anachronistic one-dimensionality. My god, is an intervention needed.
The task has been given to Marie Jones, who has decided to take direct action. The process of Let’s Get Stuck In Traffic! is a three-pronged attack: create art, demand space, and neutralise what already exists. Her knitted banners each contain a snippet of conversation, taken from a car ride with a female creative. Not about this art in particular; they’re instead well-chosen to convey the reality of the artist experience in a single line. They’re then hung directly in front of existing paintings by male artists, changing the balance of gendered perspectives we get from an initial survey of the room.
The interrupting presence of Jones’ work is clearly an annoyance to some – I observe several visitors working to look at what she’s covered up. To me this reaction illustrates precisely why an exhibition like this is needed. Art hung on the walls is still too often seen as authoritative, and when it is so obviously presenting a romanticised ideal, this is a problem. There’s different ways of interpreting this concept of the “ideal”. It’s obviously gendered here, but can be applied just as readily to the contemporary galleries of major cities who strive to be the latest gatekeepers. Both models have an interest in ignoring the voices – and as women are still less exhibited in almost all contexts, particularly female voices – which are addressing major systemic issues. The visitors ignoring the banners to explore what’s behind are acting out the consequences of this based on what they’ve long been taught. It’s proof that one exhibition isn’t going to change things, but it’s a good start that feels incredibly necessary and well-executed.
Jones also has a whole room to herself which she’s filled with huge banners inspired by nature (featured image). It’s the perfect compliment to around the corner: spacious, like there’s room to breathe. This is a place to think and give space to an imagination which other artists in this collection would like to see penned in.
Elsewhere, a gallery which for some reason contains both costume and taxidermy birds (a conflation that, to certain imaginations, may not be as unlikely as it seems) has been taken over by Ride Your Pony 03. The concept is the same as their last show at Independents Biennial 2018: send artists a letter of the alphabet in the post and see how they respond. It’s a concept which results in a diverse collection of work, which as a whole feels pretty whimsical. I think that’s in part due to the way it’s exhibited with some very garish lighting – but also because garish could be one word used to describe the general aesthetic: bright statement pieces abound. I don’t use ‘garish’ as a negative – I enjoy the overload of so many pieces clamouring for attention. It’s worth taking time to look at the words and stories behind them too which reveal there’s moments of insight and intelligence here, too. You get the sense that everyone enjoys Ride Your Pony, and it makes a great audience experience for that.