The Errant Muse: Charlotte Hodes and Deryn Rees-Jones, Victoria Gallery & Museum, until 28th March, free
One of the greatest problems with art’s public reputation is its failures of communication. Its not an issue at all times and with all artists, of course, but it is one which leads to that still prevalent idea of art’s pretentiousness and inaccessibility. You’ve seen it: parodies – or real accounts bordering on parody – depicting the art world as a self-satisfied and inward-looking realm, whose citizens hold (or pretend to hold) a particular kind of intellectual understanding. It’s not without a kernel of truth; there certainly are artists out there who are altogether too pleased with themselves to worry about what audiences will make of their work. The kind of artists who write statements filled with big words which usually boil down to very little substance.
To ask for clarity in art is not, as such people would seem to believe, to argue for intellectual dilution. Engaging with life’s complexities and revealing through image, language or construction, new perspectives and possibilities. I see art as a means of interpreting the world – however personally – but also, by its nature, intended to be shared with the world. By creating something to be shared, you must have some belief that people will recognise your intention.
Holding these opinions, I was nervous of The Errant Muse from the moment I picked up the handout. For a two-room exhibition, it was 5-and-a-half A4 pages long. An extremely dense 5-and-a-half pages. My immediate feeling was that if you need that much room to describe your artistic and curatorial intentions, you assume that they’re not going to be obvious to your audience. And if you don’t think the audience will “get it”, then what is the purpose of holding an exhibition beyond a personal intellectual exercise?
Can an exhibition which apparently requires 5-and-a-half pages to explain itself do this? It’s actually not as complex as the text would make you believe. Each cabinet uses a poem by Rees-Jones as a starting point, for which Hodes has created a paper cutout. Collection objects then sit alongside alongside original artworks by Hodes, including many ceramics to explore the themes. The original works of art and poetry are gorgeous, complimenting each other perfectly with a sense of delicacy and dreaminess. These are paired with historical artefacts, from matches to a kitsch little Mercury to one of my beloved Brendel flowers. The connections between the objects are not always literal, and I like the sense of free-play of thought which allows us to create our own stories.
And yet: whilst valuing this space for interpretation, I find it incredibly frustrating that despite those 5-and-a-half pages of text, I don’t feel a full understand of why thematic choices have been made in the first place. They talk about having taken inspiration from a forgotten Liverpool poet, Felicia Hemans, but I’m at a loss to understand exactly what inspiration this is. Was it her who wrote about the sea? Where does the name ‘Ghost Orchard’ come from? Again I want to emphasise that I’m not simply demanding that the exhibition be obvious – but I sometimes honestly don’t know what parts belong to Hemans, which to Rees-Jones. And if you state that your aim is to make Hemans “part of the story” it’d be nice to know exactly how, apart from in the form of a couple of books.
I also have personal reservations about the attitude we find here. Unsurprisingly given the title the idea of the Muse is one of the clearest motifs; a figure inspiring artistic creation without necessarily having the freedom to create for herself. Hodes’ work consistently capture the Muse as a spirit, dreamy and ethereal. It’s an appealing image, yet I find myself wondering where the Errant in this is.
Because as beautiful as these works are, there’s an extent to which they perpetuate the visibility of a restricted role. I felt this with the very first series of artworks in the show – the ‘Perpetual Night’ series hanging in the corridor. A poem is written across a series of artworks, each line complete in and of itself, illustrated by images of women merging with and collapsing into domestic furnishing. They may be my favourite works in the show, but I realise that I’m bored of seeing women trapped in this sphere. The implication of these works is of women who are dreamers but unable to fulfil their potential. Yet ‘Perpetual Night’ claims takes inspiration from Virginia Woolf, who acknowledged the limitations placed on women by society whilst constantly critiquing them through her life and work. And one of the few useful notes in those 5-and-a-half pages is that Hemans had a poetry career whilst also being a single mother.
To claim to reflect these women through an image based within patriarchal fantasy that doesn’t hold true for either figure is unambitious, if not insulting. They deserve better: we deserve better. We deserve the full story of women’s complexity as human beings, rather than to be entranced by this construct. Only one of the three films* in the exhibition’s second room – ‘Questions of Travel’, which explores the possibilities of physical and imaginative travel, comes anywhere near finding a release.
The concept of The Errant Muse was intriguing to me on paper for many reasons. Not least that I often enjoy a contemporary engagement with historical museum collections; they offer the chance to re-evaluate objects and prove their value to society as it stands. At individual moments The Errant Muse managed this, and I admired some of the new creations which have sprung from the project. But it too often gets bogged down by its ideas. Hodes and Rees-Jones may have found plenty to be inspired by, but they don’t clearly communicate why they’re following so many paths. To use so many words and still leave us confused is a problem that creates a sense of that dreaded pretentiousness. But perhaps its biggest mis-step is the points where rather than shedding light on the women it wants to foreground, their approach instead obfuscates – and at points even diminishes – their history.
*The films come with their own handout, by the way. I left with a total of 7 sides of A4. By now you surely sense precisely how frustrated this leaves me…