I ’ve always worked with lots of women artists,’ said Artistic Director of the 59th Venice Biennale, Cecilia Alemani at the event’s launch this April ‘When I wanted to invite a man, I invited him.’
Visitors at the opening of the art world summit that is the Venice Biennale this year had good cause for celebration. Not only had the kaleidoscopic presentation of art from around the world safely returned, after a pandemic-forced hiatus of three years but this year’s edition had clearly been paying attention to prevailing currents in global narratives. A strong, diverse range of female voices were unveiled, across Pavilions and palazzos, on and off site, upending this traditionally rather male-dominated event's long battle with gender equality, opening up an unprecedented plurality of ideas. All of which was framed within the context of the Biennale’s title, The Milk Of Dreams, named after a book by the legendary Surrealist, Leonora Carrington.
The Milk Of Dreams has given Alemani a framework within which she shows works that reflect on the role of art itself, in a world riven by conflict, inequality and chaotic geopolitical cross-currents. Whether this is in addressing urgent questions around gender, identity, race, environment - or wider conversations about the Covid-19 trauma, ongoing wars, widespread poverty and injustice - Alemani sought inspiration in the great Surrealists of the 20th century to bring together an exceptionally brilliant and dynamic collection of art to Venice.
The results have gained widespread acclaim from critics, collectors, artists and visitors, many of whom have expressed relief and joy that these topics, too weighty to ignore, too important to trivialise, have found serious consideration in the art world. And yet, Alemani – a curator much respected for her ability to harness big ideas to accessible formats, as demonstrable in her work at New York’s High Line since 2011 – has brought a palpable freshening of the format, a lightness of touch that allows artists the space to focus on developing ideas without drowning in darkness and nihilism.
'In times like this, as the history of La Biennale di Venezia clearly shows, art and artists can help us imagine new modes of coexistence and infinite new possibilities of transformation...'
'The Biennale sums up all the things we have so sorely missed in the last two years…,' said Alemani at the Biennale launch. 'The Milk of Dreams is not an exhibition about the pandemic, but it inevitably registers the upheavals of our era. In times like this, as the history of La Biennale di Venezia clearly shows, art and artists can help us imagine new modes of coexistence and infinite new possibilities of transformation.'
As part of the Jubilee Season sales in London this summer, Sotheby’s is proud to be including an elite selection of talents who are making waves at Venice this year – including the winner of the Biennale’s prestigious Golden Lion award, the UK’s Sonia Boyce. Here, we cast an eye over our honorary Venetians and their works in the upcoming Jubilee Sale, Contemporary & Modern Day and Evening Sales.
As part of the Modern & Contemporary Day Auction on June 30, Sonia Boyce's From The Nipple To The Bottle Never Satisfied takes its title from a 1982 hit single by another titan of British contemporary culture, Grace Jones. A powerful message, emphasised by the witty reference to protest culture, Boyce's star has never been higher in her 40+ year career. Chosen to represent the UK at the Biennale - the first woman of colour to have commandeered the British Pavilion - she made history twice, by winning the Biennale's prestigious Golden Lion award for Feeling Her Way, which combined video, collage, music and sculpture and the voices of five black female musicians. “The rooms of the [British] pavilion are filled with sounds – sometimes harmonious, sometimes clashing – embodying feelings of freedom, power and vulnerability,” according to the British Council, which commissioned the work.
Rendered in the hallmark style of Adrian Ghenie’s masterful visual practice, The Butcher from 2009, is a sumptuously surreal amalgamation of colour, texture and form, included as part of the Modern & Contemporary Day Auction.
Adrian Ghenie’s paintings dive into to the depths of the subconscious, with an artistry that is thrilling to savour. He’s an artist who articulates his ideas with the same singular brilliance that drives his approach to composition and visual dynamics. Unsurprisingly, his work at the Romanian Pavilion, curated by Mihai Pop, has drawn widespread praise. In Darwin’s Room, Ghenie presents a selection of paintings, organised across three rooms, each with a specific theme: The Tempest, The Portrait Gallery (Self-portrait as Charles Darwin), and The Dissonances of History.
‘Oscillating between figuration and abstraction,’ observes Sotheby's specialist Antonia Gardner, ‘Ghenie’s preference for what he calls 'staged accidents' results in unique textures and pictorial elements. The Butcher really exhibits Ghenie’s post-modern fluency as a painter.’
Elements of Richter, Duchamp, Rembrandt, Soutine and Francis Bacon abound in The Butcher. A hanging carcass floats through the layers of brushwork on the right, obscured partially by exuberant tracts of dragged paint. To the left, a stool balances at the edge of the floorboards, a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Bicycle Wheel work. Figurative imagery is buried within drips and pours of paint, scraped and weathered surfaces, representing contrasting states of clarity, fluidity and erosion. Sweeps of bright purples, blues and reds pulsate across the surface of the artwork, illuminating the blackened space in a swirl of sumptuous colour. Behind Ghenie’s expressive and energetic strokes of paint lies an empty space of solitude, which speaks to the frailty of recollection, and the transience and inadequacies of mortal existence. The boundaries between fact and fiction, memory and myth, figuration and abstraction blend and blur into a dreamlike haze.
Marlene Dumas’ vividly erotic Don't Ask - Don't Tell from 2001 is a testament to the artist’s extensive exploration into the psychology of sexual expression. Explicit and confrontational, the commanding presence of the painting evokes an unnerving complicity in the viewer, a feeling often triggered by Dumas’s intuitively erotic approach to painting. Dumas’ characteristic bold lines shape the back of a male body in swathes of peaches, pinks and yellows, sharply contrasted against the ephemeral wash of blue in the background. Straying from Dumas’ usually muted palette of neutrals, the present work presents a fantastical snapshot of intimacy. The strong black bars across the top half offer a hint of concealment, alienating the torso and faces of the bodies and preserving the anonymity of the participants.
Don't Ask - Don't Tell challenges conventional representations of the body throughout art history, standing as a striking and unapologetic metaphor for the human condition. The art historian Ilaria Bonacossa writes about pieces like Don't Ask - Don't Tell, saying, “these works are more than the stereotypes of pornography; they make us uncomfortable because they represent the visual compromise of how we negotiate ourselves as sexual animals and intellectual human beings".
Christina Quarles expertly explores human bodies as vessels for the endless paradoxes of identity. We Woke in the Mourning Jus Tha Same is an exceptional example of her oeuvre, which has become renowned for its virtuosity comparable to “the way 16th-century Mannerist painters blithely tucked emotion into artifice in exaggerated, twisty, climactic altar pieces" according to Debra Brehmer in Hyperallergic.
Rendered in prismatic red, blue and yellow and punctuated with vivacious touches of black and neon, the present canvas depicts two kneeling figures simultaneously connected and torn apart in an ambiguous emotional mixture of passion and agony, against the background of a tranquil, pared-back domestic scene. The contour of each figure is clearly delineated by sharply coloured lines and shadows as they press against one another, creating an intense sense of separation along their contorted bodies, whose slender silhouettes draw heavily on the phantasmagoric Surrealist canvases of Salvador Dalí. Some elements of the bodies depicted – a hand, a profile, the sensual but schematic insinuation of a woman’s chest – are duplicated and displaced, pointing to Quarles’s deep fascination with a fragmented sense of self riddled with contradiction and disjuncture. In this respect, her forms invoke the corporeal sculpture of Louise Bourgeois, whose intensely psychological abstraction of the human form finds resonance in Quarles’s own belief in the fragmented body-in-pieces as the essential disposition of the post-modern somatic experience.
Representing the USA at Venice, Simone Leigh has transformed the US pavilion with an installation that runs a thatch skirt and wooden columns around the building. Inside, two colossal white stoneware pieces, Jug and Anonymous (both 2022), lead into the bronze Sentinel (2022), a piece based on fertility objects rising up into the rotunda space. Like Sonia Boyce in the UK, Leigh is the first woman of colour to represent her country at Venice and with her seven-meter tall bronze sculptures, based on D’mba headdresses in the shape of a female bust, she has ensured it is an experience visitors won't forget.
As one can tell from her Pavilion, Leigh’s work explores how the Black female body and imagery from the African diaspora has been portrayed and used by other people.
Included in the Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction, Blue/Black combines both ancient and futuristic associations, materials and techniques, critically engaging with the converging histories of black emancipation, feminism, and Pan-African cultural legacies. Executed in 2014 and part of an ongoing series of busts, which have been key in propelling Leigh to widespread institutional acclaim, the present work is life-like in scale, presenting a demure head of a woman surrounded by a floral halo of delicate blue rosettes. Hundreds of miniature hand-rolled cobalt blue and grey porcelain flower buds poignantly foreground a sacred negativity, creating a figure of a woman at once mesmerising in its intricacy and unsettling in its incompleteness. A work of immense inquisitive power, Blue/Black masterfully conjures psychological and emotional embodiments of Black femininity, revealing potent, nuanced resilience and establishing Leigh as a preeminent voice in contemporary art today.