Margaret Harrison: On Reflection at PayneShurvell
Founder of the London Women’s Liberation Art Group in the 1970s, Margaret Harrison is no stranger to scandal. Her boldness in challenging preconceived notions of sexuality and gender has meant that one of her past exhibitions was shut down by police for indecency.
Harrison is critically acclaimed for the feminist statements found within her art. It is with humour that she uses iconography, consumer brands, and pop art to comment on male, female and transgendered identity. Her most famed and controversial piece is a sketch of Hugh Hefner as a stockinged, practically naked Bunny girl. This satirical subversion of gender roles assigned to us by society shows a pipe-smoking Hefner with erect nipples, a corset and muscular physique.
However, serious meditations on rape and female persecution can also be found at her current exhibition at PayneShurvell. In For God’s Sake, Shut the Fuck Up she is angrier, exclaiming “you can get raped but not protest against rape”. Images of women have their mouths covered, muting their ability to speak out. Religious figurines central to the work have their hands in traditional prayer positions, covering the groin and holding a hand up as if to say “stop”. Created this year, the piece stirs up memories of the ongoing battle for women’s rights in India following the media furore and mass protests over epidemic rape cases in the country.
Press cuttings and celebrities appear throughout, including Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger and Elvis – all figures exuding strong sexuality. Superheroes frequently crop up: Wonderwoman is in almost every picture, as well as Iron Man, Minnie Mouse and more. Captain America is frequently dressed in emasculating attire (Very Close to Getting in Touch with my Masculinity), with red stilettos enhancing his femininity. In What’s That Long Red Limp Wrinkly Thing You’re Pulling On we have a woman with her groin exposed, in bondage gear, looking down in disgust as Captain America is on all fours being dominated. The mirror in this picture reflects a distorted, dysmorphic feminine figure.
On Reflection as an exhibition focuses on the act of mirroring. Many of Harrison’s works are in pairs and appear to be reflected images, yet, upon closer inspection, asymmetry abounds. The mismatched imagery in A Mirror of One’s Own shows the fluidity of sexuality and gender – although society tries to pin these terms down they can slide across a wide spectrum.