HATTIE MALCOMSON: I’m Like Other Girls

Phoenix Art Space, Brighton

9 October to 7 November, 2021

What is it that makes a painting exhibition so memorable? It could be the whole collection of works or just one item in particular. This show at the Phoenix Art Space Window Gallery offers so many possibilities for that first ‘visual hit’. A viewer might be struck by the strong and forceful imagery wherein the subjects stare relentlessly back at the hapless viewer, or by the acute feminist rhetoric that challenges the ‘male gaze’. In more formalist terms the audience could be impressed by the sheer abundance of colour that, though so varied a palette is employed, the ability to place one colour beside another in contrast or harmony reveals visual decisions that are not diverted by narrative content. Coaxed in by the colour and/or the subject matter, by getting up close to the painterly surfaces the confident paint handling keeps the imagery in check and tempers sheer expression that could otherwise overpower the project’s central message of female empowerment within a patriarchal society.

The notion of the viewer, as an individual or gender based, is particularly interesting in the context of seeing a one-person show. We might attend an exhibition to see the work of a specific artist, whatever the various potentials for subject matter may also present. In this instance the show’s title, ‘I’m Like Other Girls’ could draw attention to the artist herself or to notional characters, real or imagined, who are presented in the imagery. But, as well as these personalised references and dramatis personae, the viewer’s gaze is brought to the fore too.

This viewer/writer can only, really, react and write from his (my) own perspective and knowledge base of course, even if objectivity is genuinely sought. So I found myself scribbling down a few words and phrases as I pondered the possibilities of reviewing the exhibition. Negatives were recorded first: Don’t like. Not my thing. Unsettling. Unnerving. Daring. Shocking. Uncomfortable.

Then the notations became more conciliatory: Look at the paint handling. Clear decisions made. What does the paint do? The colour too. Confronted by the image and the colour/materiality of the medium. Narrative?

I suspect that at least one of Malcomson’s objectives had been confirmed by my initial reaction, particularly as a male viewer. From a statement on the University of Brighton blog at the time of graduation she wrote:

“I don’t want my paintings to be ‘nice’. I want them to hurt. I am testing the boundaries of taste. I am playing with the contradiction of attraction and repulsion. The figures in the paintings are strong, powerful, larger than life, not delicate, fragile or ‘nice’. They are not the way the male gaze has often portrayed women in art history. Throughout this history, women have been painted as passive objects.

What will be memorable to me about this exhibition, in addition to confirming the relevance, and therefore the role of the viewer, is that Malcomson’s work does not reside in that compromising area where the ideas are stronger and more engaging than the physical outcomes – a phenomenon that is not unusual in ‘emerging artists’ work (and maybe a few established artists too) – but for the great skill and maturity displayed in the painting at such an early stage of her career.

Note:

‘I’m Like Other Girls’ is a celebratory event after being awarded the CASS Art/ Phoenix Art Space Studio Award for 2020/21. Since graduation this is Malcomson’s second solo show (the first, entitled ‘Sisters, Sisters, Sisters’ was held at New Art Projects, London in June of this year).

Links:

Hattie Malcomson –

https://www.hattiemalcomson.com

University of Brighton

The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/education/gallery/2020/aug/21/student-artists-exhibit-their-final-shows-online-in-pictures

New Art Projectshttp://newartprojects.com/events/hattiemalcomson/

CASS Art – https://www.cassart.co.uk