Marion Wagschal at Canada Gallery and Betty Woodman at the ICA

Two first UK solo shows by North American female artists opened recently in London and deserve wide viewing. Marion Wagschal and Betty Woodman, both over 70, are well-known in North America but have been under the radar in the UK until now. These excellent exhibitions should change this and bring both artists a raft of new admirers.

The Canada gallery itself also deserves more attention. Newly relaunched last year in the beautifully refurbished Canada House, the gallery enjoys a prime location across from the National Gallery. The relaunch in 2015 featured male artists Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Mark Lewis. This year heralds a series of new exhibitions by Canadian female artists, with Marion Wagschal as the first.

Feminist artist Marion Wagschal has been painting for over 50 years yet is relatively unknown outside of North America. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Wagschal emigrated age nine in 1951 with her parents from Trinidad to Canada. Her exhibition in London follows a major museum show at the Montreal Museum of Fine arts last year and includes paintings made between 1980 and 2015.

Marion Wagschal Opening Canada House 4Feb Photo Paul Allen

Marion Wagschal Opening Canada House 4Feb Photo Paul Allen

Wagschal’s large-scale portraits focus on every aspect of time from the inevitable toll that time takes on the human body to memories from her family history. The powerful and detailed ‘Tales from the Schwarzwald as told by my mother’ took over 30 years to complete. At the centre is a portrait of the artist’s late mother. Surrounding the central image are memorabilia and piles of dolls providing sinister rather than playful details with their allusion to victims of the Holocaust.

Marion Wagschal Tequila Sunrise 2008

Marion Wagschal Tequila Sunrise 2008

At the other end of the gallery is ‘Tequila Sunrise’, portraying a scene Wagschal found herself in and one we can all identify with—the bad party. The painting is populated with a semi-naked man in a sombrero, a few gloomy guests and a woman at the centre who is bears a strong resemblance to the artist.

Small paintings of Wagschal’s mother on her deathbed are among a group of evocative female portraits, some of the artist herself. Wagschal was hesitant about painting such intimate portraits of her mother but I found them to be both a touching tribute and another reminder of the passing of time.

Marion Wagschal Detail fromTales from the Schwarzwald as told by my mother 2012

Marion Wagschal Detail fromTales from the Schwarzwald as told by my mother 2012

Just down the road from Canada Gallery at the ICA, Betty Woodman’s exhibition ‘Theatre of the Domestic’ is a riot of colours and textures.

Woodman is best known for ceramic sculptures which she’s been making since the 1950s—well before ceramic art became a popular contemporary art form. The artist prefers not to be referred to as a potter although her first career was precisely that when she made functional vases and other domestic pieces as a production potter.

Betty WoodmanRed, White and Blue Vases 2013

Betty WoodmanRed, White and Blue Vases 2013

Like Marion Wagschal’s exhibition, Betty Woodman’s new show is a retrospective with some new pieces made especially for this exhibition. Also like Wagschal, Woodman has had major museum shows in her own country, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Betty Woodman Country Dining Room 2015

Betty Woodman Country Dining Room 2015

Domestic scenes with tableware such as plates, mugs, vases and jugs are attached to large painted canvases or sometimes stand alone or in groups. Woodman’s frequent use of vases in her work is a clear reference to the importance of the vase in art history. As Woodman notes, ‘the centrality of the vase in my work is a reference to a global perspective on art history and production. The container is a universal symbol—it holds and pours all fluids, stores foods, and contains everything from our final remains to flowers.’ Her work borrows from numerous sources, including Egyptian art, Greek sculpture, Tang Dynasty works and Baroque architecture. And the pastel colours in some of her paintings, along with the scale and style, remind me strongly of Matisse.

Betty Woodman Nina's Room, 2012

Betty Woodman Nina’s Room, 2012

Betty Woodman’s work can also be seen this year when she participates in the Liverpool Biennial in July.

Marion Wagschal at Canada Gallery, Trafalgar Square—Until 15 April 2016

Betty Woodman at the ICA, The Mall – Until 10 April 2016

Words: Joanne Shurvell

Photography: Paul Allen


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