Inspired by the Virginia Woolf novel Orlando – which sees a medieval nobleman become a woman at the helm of the wheel driving through country lanes in the 1950s – Christabel MacGreevy’s first solo show Glut at LAMB Arts is an exploration of gender fluidity through drawing, sculpture and tapestry.
Orlando was published in 1928, but the focus on gender and identity found in the novel has not dated. In fact, it could not feel timelier today in 2018, exactly 90 years later. For her LAMB Arts exhibition MacGreevy began by exploring her own identity – a female one – through trips to the British Museum. Her research examined charms, icons, and talismans that were created to help produce fertile lands and fertile women. Yet, despite the creation of life requiring equal male and female parts, MacGreevy noticed that the majority of these objects consisted of images of women, many of whom were represented as pregnant nudes or winged voluptuous goddesses with wings or animal heads. These visits have manifested themselves into charcoal, gouache and oil-pastel drawings against bright coloured paper. Amongst a variety of deities MacGreevy – who began her career as an illustrator for LOVE Magazine, has an MA in drawing from the Royal School of Drawing and who has founded patch line Itchy Scratchy Patchy with supermodel Edie Campbell – illustrates Aphrodite, the sphinx and a number of other Egyptian goddesses. All of these women are unclothed, exposing their bodies to the viewer and showing off their magical properties. Perhaps the most striking of these illustrations is Aphrodite Crouching Between Cockle Shells, charcoal and oil pastel, 2018, in which a crouching woman kneels in front of two serpents while open shells are positioned behind her like wings. Above her are three plants that look like seeds, as well as another winged nude figure that appears to be guarding over her.
One would be mistaken however, if they thought that this exhibition had a purely female focus. Despite Orlando’s gender shifting from male to female in Woolf’s novel, the essence of their character never changes. Therefore, MacGreevy’s exhibition is not dominated by either masculinity or femininity. In addition to her drawings of fertility icons, MacGreevy has also exhibited a number of phallic works on paper. Each titled with a roman numeral, the charcoal and household gloss drawings of elongated shapes in a variety of positions are each depicted in the three primary colours and are extremely reminiscent of Louise Bourgeouis’s work.
In addition to these drawings of male genitalia are three tapestries that have been hung from the walls. Two of these are larger stitched versions of MacGreevy’s drawings, while the third consists of a female nude. Nude Lover, jacquard woven wall hanging, 2018, is remarkably similar to Gustave Courbet’s infamous The Origin of the World, 1866, which is on display at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. However, unlike Courbet’s realist painting – which could almost be described as a close up of the female genitalia – MacGreevy’s tapestry humanizes the woman she has sewn. Her approach is softer and more sympathetic. The whole of her woman’s body is on display, including her face, whereas the sitter in Courbet’s work is unidentifiable save for a slither of her torso.
Glut culminates in the gallery’s lowest space, below ground with a series of sculptures. In a stark contrast to her female nudes above ground, the space could not be more masculine, save for the pink environment that it has been presented in. Sitting on top of various pedestals are a number of phallic papier-mâché sculptures housed inside a fleshy pink cave. The cylindrical works have been covered in pink, blue and yellow paint that has been allowed to drip down the sides. The three most statuesque of the works are entitled Tongue and are fabricated from resin and polished sculpture. While these works look inherently male, they are housed inside a womb. Here the male and the female have been brought together to create the ultimate symbol of fertility.
While Glut has been interpreted as an invitation to the viewer to consider their gender, it could be argued that the artwork is actually questioning how we think about fertility – something that is often dominated by female associations. Presenting distinctly feminine and masculine work separately, and subsequently combining the two together, MacGreevy reasserts that in reality, it takes the coming together of both female and male parts to create a new life.
Glut is on display at LAMB Arts, 10 White Horse Street, London W1J 7LJ until 8 June 2018