Sarah Maple – It’s a Girl! at Aubin Gallery

February 14th, 2012

It’s just shy of three and half years since Sarah Maple‘s last London solo show – the début exhibition that riled up devout Muslims, drew lazy comparisons with Tracey Emin, and resulted in the windows of SaLon gallery being smashed in by an angry passer-by. In that time, Maple’s dramatic entry into the art world’s collective consciousness has begun to sink in – her imagery has lingered in the mind and her thought-processes gradually matured. her new exhibition, It’s A Girl!, curated by Beverley Knowles at the Aubin Gallery, ditches the more obvious elements of her early work (like some of the easy anti-art posturing) and focuses instead on the consistently nuanced and intelligent.That’s not to suggest in any way that Maple has lost her bite. “I like laughing at something that is meant to be taboo,” she says whilst showing me around the exhibition. And certainly there are some potentially shocking works here – including a close-up of a sequinned ‘vajazzle’ promoting Votes for Women, and one particularly disturbing little painting of two girls lifting up their dresses – one, a small child, has a full complement of pubic hair, the other; a teenage nymphette, freshly shaven. nor is Maple no longer capable of some brilliant art world satire. The wall-text that accompanies the exhibition, for example, is a masterpiece in artspeak nonsense, with such meaningless phrases as “sock in glove” and assertions like, “she creates binarisms in a comely, fearsome and castrative manner”. The last sentence – “Maple now lives in Crawley” – is bathetic genius.for It’s A Girl! Maple has turned her attention away from religion (she’s a Muslim) and towards the issue of gender. with work across photography (shown on lightboxes for the first time), painting, video and even wallpaper, the cumulative effect is one of direct provocation. Surrounded by images of the artist dressed variously in a giant nappy, pink bunny ears, and a white period-stained dress, this is humour employed not as a cudgel but a rapier. taking up one entire wall is a digitally printed wallpaper depicting a colossal version of Maple (with plastic breasts and leotard) standing next to artist and director of the Aubin Gallery, Stuart Semple (in jeans and a shirt). It’s entitled, in a decision both deft and devastating, An Artist and a Female Artist. This work epitomises a move made repeatedly across the exhibition. Maple doesn’t so much seek to highlight inequality, as enact the often overlooked processes by which inequality is both created and sublimated. This is done most elegantly through a series of photographs depicting Maple dressed as a variety of Disney princesses, then placed in contemporary positions of authority. so you have Jasmine presiding over a case at Horsham Law Court, Snow White in the research laboratory, Belle as a football manager bellowing from the sidelines, and, my personal favourite, Ariel in the boardroom dishing out a bollocking to a bunch of middle managers. The looks on their faces are simply priceless. On a shelf opposite, the various princesses line up, pleased as punch, for their graduation photos. “I’m empowering the princesses!” Maple says with a smile.why pick on Disney? Well, because the more culturally ingrained the division – the less it is consciously realised – the more all-pervasive it is allowed to be. A recent trip to Hamley’s made this clear to me: the preschool floor is by and large gender-neutral, but thereafter the division is marked, with the boys’ floor an array of weaponry, and the girls’ a big pink, fluffy, sparkly dream-world. Gender is inscribed upon identity in advance of the individual’s participation in it, and Maple makes the lasting nature of the consequences particularly clear in one of the few photographs here not to feature the artist herself: a little girl sits in a waiting room reading a magazine called Princess; next to her sits her mother, perusing Vogue. with this in mind, the key moment of the whole exhibition is a subtle one. In Maple’s largest, most compositionally complex painting to date, the artist stands in the middle of a crowd, the white dress in which she’s clad splashed across with menstrual blood. The crowd – both male and female – are a study in shock, disgust, fear and hate. One might make a point about self-referentiality here, but what is more important is the expression on one face: that of a little girl in the bottom right of the picture. she gazes intently at the red smear, but does she see the crowd’s response? One assumes she must, but Maple leaves it unclear, and the repressive effects of gendered identity construction remain open-ended. If Judith Butler is right, and gender is performative, then repetition is not only a continuous restatement of the norm but also an opportunity for dissent. by setting herself up for ridicule from the crowds, Maple opens the possibility for change. Thankfully, unlike Butler, Maple is also bloody funny: this is important work, and probably the most you’ll ever laugh in an art gallery.Sarah Maple – It’s a Girl! is at the Aubin Gallery until 9th March 2012. Archive: Read Tom’s interview with Sarah Maple, October 2008.Click here to see all London exhibitions.Click here for things to do in London. Return to Spoonfed’s London Art homepage.

Sarah Maple – It’s a Girl! at Aubin Gallery

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