Chips and Egg presents five female artists whose work explores the practical conditions of their gender in ways that are thoughtful, poignant and at times humorous. Curated by Helen Nisbet, it takes its title from the scene in the 1989 film Shirley Valentine (‘I like chips and egg on Tuesday, this is Thursday’) in which our hero reclaims her agency, leaving her routine-loving husband and home for Greece. Valentine’s self-discovery is an attempt to escape the clutches of domesticity; these artists seek to move beyond clichés of femininity by reclaiming and reinventing the experience of womanhood.
In six mid-sized paintings across the walls that greet the visitor at The Sunday Painter, Milly Thompson foregrounds post-menopausal women’s sexuality through her hedonistic paintings of sultry women lazily reclining. Rafaela in her Lair (2018) is particularly sensuous, with bold brushstrokes and deep, dreamy colours. The muffled sounds of a woman talking extends from behind the black cloth leading to a projection of Alia Syed’s documentary film Unfolding (1987), set in a council launderette in Deptford. In contrast to Thompson’s women at leisure, Syed overlays and repeats images of women folding clothes, as if the film is methodically folding in on itself. It captures the ritual of their daily work and the support of a community space. Despite their different approaches, Thompson and Syed’s pieces work harmoniously as seductive commentaries on selfhood and collective care.
In the downstairs gallery, Kate Davis’s Charity (2017), a thoughtful and humorous video-essay on the subject of breastfeeding told through stills of canonical statues and paintings, is shown on a wall monitor with headphones. In voiceover, Davis imagines formally contracting the labour of breast- feeding and to form a union in order to demand better rights, as images of Madonna suckling Jesus and Roman Charity slide on screen. The combination is genuinely funny. In a similar vein, Cinzia Mutigli’s video My Boring Dreams featuring Whitney, Nenah, Kylie and the Gang (2019) collages clips of celebrities, workout videos, cleaning and beauty products while Mutigli reflects on celebrity, success and interpretations of her dreams. Both essays are playful and profound reflections on the harsh realities of women’s bodily experiences; their reproductive function, their role as carers and the expectations put upon them.
The exhibition’s strength lies in its cohesion, as the works gesture to each other and motifs emerge: tiles, dreams, washing machines. As an exploration of the female condition, it resists the temptation to make overarching claims or to ostentatiously subvert stereotypes in favour of a more sensitive, documentary approach. Poignant, funny and unapologetically personal, Chips and Egg responds to the domestic as a site of constraint, as well as a source of rich imagery. The result is an idiosyncratic perspective on these women’s lived experience: an exhibition about women, not only for them.
Chips and Egg, The Sunday Painter, London, 15 November – 21 December 2019
From the January & February 2020 issue of ArtReview