21st Century Women: Sexuality and Gender

An exhibition celebrating female takes on sexuality and gender...

“I like the idea of turning the tables. Subverting the male gaze.” - Charlotte Colbert

Colbert’s reinterpretations of Lucian Freud’s iconic 1990s Benefit Supervisor Sleeping series featuring Sue Tilly do just this. By reframing and repositioning ‘Big Sue,’ Colbert’s works mobilise technology to quite literally extend the gaze - transforming Sue from Freud’s object into the subject. Cameras zoom in on details of Sue’s body, presented across five separately-framed black and white screens, encouraging observation and reflection. It seems that Colbert along with many of the artists appearing in 21st Century Women, take up a contemporary call to arms to subvert the ‘male gaze,’ and restore agency to female subjects and artists alike.

Charlotte Colbert, Benefit Supervisor Sleeping By Lion Carpet, 2017

The concept of the ‘male gaze’ is not novel - the female body has been idealised, retouched and perfected in male depictions of women throughout history, from the works of Old Masters to pornography and present-day media campaigns. Nor are female-led campaigns against the ‘gaze’ unprecedented – in the 80s the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of female feminist artists, famously fought for gender and racial equality within the art world. With shocking statistics related to female representation by major London art galleries, the importance of all-female shows like 21st Century Women, with works confronting issues related to gender, sexuality, and inclusivity, are imperative.

Helen Beard, Beastie Boy, 2018

The term ‘male gaze’ was coined by cultural critic Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), and has come to define how we interpret visual depictions of the female body across all mediums, high to low. Mulvey’s essay combined film, feminism and psychoanalysis-based theory to argue that images of women were largely created by males to please males. Artists like Colbert and Vicky Wright draw on similar references in their practices. Wright cites Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 novel, The Yellow Wallpaper, about postpartum psychosis as one of her inspirations.

Vicky Wright, Cybersyn (organs over portcullis), 2018

Artist Helen Beard’s technicolour field oil paintings like Beastie Boy, are based on imagery from pornographic material – a media traditionally controlled by male perspective and created for male pleasure.  By cropping, colouring and using stylized shapes to portray scenes of women engaged in sexual activity, Beard’s works help return the ownership of sexual imagery to women, in turn restoring female agency.

Eloise Fornieles, The Equation l & ll, 2018

If acquisitions by major public art institutions are any indication, such as the National Gallery’s recent 3.6 million-pound purchase of Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as St. Catherine of Alexandria, it seems that tastes are definitely changing and favouring the female gaze. Gentileschi, an anomaly compared with her 17th-century male peers, often depicted female heroines as her protagonists. Whilst not all of the artists in 21st Century Women have chosen their work to be interpreted through the lens of their sex; the show certainly celebrates the freedom of women to choose the art they want to produce.  

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