Jacqueline Donachie’s An Era of Small Pleasures is based on those tiny moments of light relief parents experience when their children are young – maybe over a silent five-minute cup of coffee. But it is not relevant that the people that assisted Donachie in creating it were all women with young children. “They are artists” she emphasises, “it is coincidental”. And, even though the three participants in Donachie Rhodes Ryan at the Freelands Foundation appear because they received funding from the Freelands award as mid-career female practitioners, their gender is not relevant. They are artists; artists without the “female” prefix. There is no millennial pink here or a spangly sign, nor is there heavy-handed curatorial themes of “the body”, “domesticity” or “feminism”.
Donachie Rhodes Ryan unites Donachie, Lis Rhodes and Veronica Ryan, the first three women to receive the Freelands award since it was established in 2016. The £100,000 prize is presented to a gallery outside of London hoping to present a survey exhibition of a mid-career female artist who is yet to receive recognition, ringfencing £25,000 for the individual to produce a new work. This was a proactive response from the foundation who – after commissioning a report into how gender affects artistic career progression – discovered a large discrepancy between art students (66% female in 2018) and professional practitioners (68% male represented by top private London galleries in 2018). After the rush of emerging opportunities fade, “they just disappear” says Freelands Foundation creative director Henry Ward.
In a bid to rectify the historical pattern of forgetting and undervaluing female artists, the foundation shines the spotlight on its winning artists once more to mark the publication of their most recent report into gender (Representation of Female Artists in Britain During 2018). Ryan, who won the award in 2018 and will exhibit at Spike Island in 2020, presents Salvage, a reassessment of her early work that literally disappeared when it was lost in the Momart fire in 2004. On simple industrial storage shelves, Ryan arranges yams and sweet potatoes, plaster casts of fruit and vegetable trays, plush cushions, a coil of teabags and layers of fabric part way through the tie-dying process. It is a cabinet of curiosities, encapsulating Ryan’s current explorations into materiality and her long-term interest in categorisation.
A fascination with materiality also appears in Donachie’s An Era of Small Pleasures with a 16-metre chain made of leather. Fluttering, pastel-coloured, lightness is replaced with a heavy structure that rises up from a pile of loops on the floor and cuts across the gallery as a “no entrance” barrier, forcing visitors to walk in a certain direction. In the centre of Donachie and Ryan’s work, we see Rhodes’ film Notes from Light Music – or rather, we hear it, because we see what we hear. The montage of black and white lines, flickering shadows and oscillating squeals is a recording of a larger piece, Light Music, where Rhodes filmed a series of drawings and then printed them onto the optical soundtrack of the film.
The exhibition may be small, but the conversations are endless. In freeing these mature artists from focusing on their gender, there is space for the disruption of materials, the reinterpretation of Hepworth and Brâncuși and the interrogation of inequality. Rhodes might have created Light Music as a response to the lack of female composers in Europe, but she has also referred to the illusion of the dancing forms as a metaphor for an economy that appears to be fluid but is actually held by the corporate elite.
Donachie Rhodes Ryan is a celebration of how dynamic and diverse the art scene could be, were we not to “disappear” a large proportion of female artists.
• Donachie Rhodes Ryan is at Freelands Foundation, London, until 11 August.