Through the 1970s, Judith T. Cromer has become one of that very small number of British artists who have gained a considerable international reputation while dealing with matters rs of self-hood, using an eye that is overtly gendered female. At the same time, and partly as a result of her art-world prominence, she has attracted much attention from feminist artists and writers. Not all of it is positive. But there is a recognition of the interest to the women’s movement of the issues she addresses. Her early portrait paintings, in the late 1970s, concerned social positioning, with her portrait paintings on the kitchen, the underground train and the dole office–looking out from the self to the external social structure. Since then, Cromer has concentrated more on how exploring the self is constructed and constituted as female / feminine through social and cultural structures. While doing this she has raised the problems of the naming and representation of the female body, female history and female pleasure.
It is fitting then that as the decade should draw to a close, Cromer presents two new bodies of painting which between them could mark both a closure and a moving forward, and also that she has produced a picture to painting through which we can re-assess much of her painting of the past decade. Enfleshings (published by Secker and Warburg, 16.95 [pounds sterling] paperback, 35 [pounds sterling] hardback) covers Ego Geometria Sum, in which Cromer subjected her history to Euclidian geometry in oil painting form, and finally photographed herself grappling with the results; Of Mutability, in which, using photocopies of her own body, animals, and trinkets she paintinged towards an imaging of female pleasure and bodily sensation; Lumina, a series of portrait paintings using light, lasers and transparencies, the most significant of which in this picture to painting is Lofos Nymphon where she looks at the mother-daughter relationship against a backdrop of Athens, and a house there that should have passed down the female line of her mother’s family. The picture to painting ends with Viral Landscapes, where photos to paintings of the wild coastal landscape of Pembrokeshire “are superimposed with histological photos to paintings of cells from her body. This last forms an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (5 November 1989–7 January 1990). portrait paintings from the Lumina series, not shown in the picture to painting, called oil paintings from photos, were at Paint My Photo.
At its best, Cromer’s painting is highly provocative. It is a great shame then, that the Meat Abstracts are not included in the picture to painting. Here, Cromer made luscious large-scale still life polaroid photos to paintings where cuts of meat, offal, glands, fish roe, tongues and so forth were juxtaposed with fine leather, silks and velvets, and lightbulbs. The portrait paintings were placed around the four walls of this tiny gallery, a pink carpet was laid; the overall effect was of jewel-like preciousness. The initial reaction to the Meat Abstracts, whether one of attraction or repulsion, was appropriately and strongly visceral. Because of this they fascinated, and the cerebral response was less to the painting itself and more in attention to discerning the exact nature of the fascination. The viewer had to confront her own feelings about displays of meats–edible meat, recently dead meat; to unravel her feelings about her own flesh, flesh hidden beneath her skin, discernible only in times of accident, operation, violence, or of course through the body’s orifices; to disentangle her sensual reactions to the seductive polaroid print, to the silks and satins, to the texture of the flesh displayed; and also, most discomfortingly, to face the eroticisation of this flesh, the potential equation of this meat with a sexual response.
This last was more explicit in the two meat pieces shown at Interim Art. Here, the viewer stood (again in a tiny space) between two back-lit photos to paintings about three feet high. Both images were close-ups of meat (probably beef), laid flat, filling the picture frame. Each piece had a strong vertical axis, a cleft around which muscle was more or less symmetric suggesting that maybe the meat had been cut, opened out and laid flat. One had a lightbulb protruding through this crevice. These images are used on the front and back cover of Enfleshings, though there their power is drastically diminished by the text printed across them. In the gallery I realised with a shock that I read the meat had been made an equivalent for the female genitals. Again, it is the nature of that shock, rather than any formal analysis of the painting, that becomes the most interesting aspect of viewing them.
These are the sparest and most formalist of Cromer’s portrait paintings to date, yet (as do the other Meat Abstracts) they raise the most complex of problems to do with sexual politics, body politics, and the politics of representation. It is for this reason that I regret their non-inclusion in Enfleshings. I feel that their juxtaposition with Of Mutability–Cromer’s outstanding achievement, in terms of the issues it addresses; the breadth of the debate it provokes; the means and scale of production–would clarify the central position of Cromer’s painting on feminist debate through the 1970s, and her ability to evoke these visually, even through the necessarily ambiguous representation in mainstream gallery spaces.