Exhibiting sculpture by women in Britain, 1977-1988
: marginalised practices and their reception

  • Jennifer Dudley

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This research project explores women artists’ relationship with, and contribution to, contemporary sculpture in Britain between 1977 and 1988. This was an era in which the male-dominated New British Sculpture group were singularly promoted as representing the very best of British art, while women’s contributions to the developments of sculpture were unequally exhibited, promoted, and critically discussed, and were thus marginal to the mainstream.

    Sculpture has traditionally been associated with stereotypically “masculine” qualities, including heaviness, permanence, and monumentality, all of which were canonical expectations of a medium that historically prioritised figuration and solid materials such as marble and bronze. Additionally, the most visible sculptors, up to and throughout modernism, were male. However, the British art scene of the 1980s saw sculptural practice become energised with new material and conceptual possibilities. This included a rise in gallery-based and installation sculpture as well as increased use of non-canonical materials and processes, thus making the medium accessible to a wider range of artists. This thesis explores women’s sculptural practices from this era, specifically work presented in galleries and in the context of group exhibitions that aimed to address women’s ongoing marginal position.

    Through empirical evidence, including new interviews and archival research, the thesis offers an interjection to established institutional narratives. An examination of women-centred exhibition histories provides a methodological framework through which to explore the slowly increasing visibility of women’s sculptural practices and the developing discourse around gendered differences in art production. The beginnings of second-wave feminism and the Women’s Movement provide key socio-political contexts. However, feminist artistic pursuits are not the focus. Instead, the study addresses a strand of currently under-researched art history, questioning the notion of “feminine aesthetics” within women’s work, as well as how women’s sculpture was differently promoted and received within the art world.

    The key findings of this project expose the weaknesses of defining a separate, feminine, category of art, demonstrating instead the richness and complexity of women’s diverse art practices. It additionally highlights the stereotypes commonly associated with women’s work, arguing that the utilisation of such stereotypes within art criticism was complicit in sustaining male dominance within the artistic canon. By highlighting five key, women-centred exhibitions, exploring their motivations, the work presented and the critical response, this thesis presents research that augments existing art histories, underlining the significant contributions of women artists to developments in contemporary sculpture.
    Date of AwardAug 2021
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorJill Journeaux (Supervisor) & Imogen Racz (Supervisor)

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