Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, U.K.
Renee So’s exhibition “Ancient and Modern” centered on themes of gender, playfully upending preconceived ideas about crafts such as knitting, weaving, and ceramics. The show, which followed So’s residency at the West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, demonstrated her joyful experimentation across media and disregard of traditional art/craft hierarchies. Drawing on a range of influences, from prehistoric figurines to ancient Egyptian paintings, to Bauhaus objects and collections, she created a narrative addressing female strength and resilience through the ages while poking fun at overweening male authority.
For instance, a gigantic blue ceramic column in the form of a trouser leg ending in a boot functioned as a floor light at the entrance. So frequently employs the boot motif as a symbol of oppressive male power, which she undermines through subtle humor—in this case, by means of scale. The boot crops up again in an intarsia-knitted wall work, Reflections of a Reclining Male (2019), which presents a pink-booted figure in black within a white hemisphere and, in a riff on the yin-yang symbol, its inverse in white on black, the whole circle framed in pink. The boot’s potential virility is subverted by the “feminine” medium and color choice, as well as by the fact that it substitutes for the heads of these louche, reclining figures. Reclining Male (2019), a related textile work covering a bench, invites viewers to sit on the male protagonist, effectively overturning the centuries-old tradition of passive female odalisques.
Hong Kong-born So, who grew up in Australia and is based in London, has long explored the gendering of art in her stylized work. A recent sculpture series was inspired by 16th-century Bellarmine stoneware featuring male faces. So created her own cartoonish man-jugs, homing in on traits like wild hair and effervescent beards. In both ceramic and knit works, she has developed a distinctive, pared-back vocabulary, characterized by men in top hats or with boot heads, pin legs, and canes.
In “Ancient and Modern,” So turned her attention to ancient anthropomorphic vessels suggestive of female forms. One plinth supported a group of ceramic containers made between 2015 and 2019; some stand on plump tripod legs inspired by Chinese Neolithic pots, while others reference so-called Venus figurines dating from about 25,000 years ago, which have been discovered across Europe and are thought to represent female beauty. A second plinth displayed a large ceramic jar in the form of a headless seated woman, a scaled-up version of a pre-Columbian figurine formerly owned by Bauhaus artist Anni Albers. In bringing together these generic female forms, So invites an intriguing dialogue about feminine representation across civilizations and timeframes.
The conversation also extended to three ceramic tile works. In Venus of Valdivia (2019), two bouffant-haired fertility goddesses from the South American Valdivia culture appear on ceramic tiles hand-sculpted in homage to Assyrian stone-carving techniques. The Valdivia goddesses link thematically to Flow State (2019), which depicts Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the stars, as a series of expanding white figures against a blue ground, forming a protective bridge that reverberates over a figure in a yogic backbend. These simplified forms share something of the liberating exuberance of Matisse’s dancers. The third tile work, Learn to Weave (2019), is based on an Egyptian tomb painting of a crouching man at a loom. So replaced him with a boot-wearing woman, alluding to the fact that many female students at the Bauhaus were discouraged from the “masculine” disciplines of sculpture and painting and steered toward weaving. For this show, So bought herself a loom in solidarity with the Bauhaus women and created two woven works, an abstract composition and a curtain made from her old jumpers.
This understated show wove an elegant lattice of often surprising connections between women from different epochs. Wry and whimsical, So’s economical works quietly point up gender inequality and celebrate female skill.