Rose English, Study for a Divertissement: Jo and Porcelain Cache-Sexe, 1973, C-print, 10 1⁄4 × 7 7⁄8".

Rose English, Study for a Divertissement: Jo and Porcelain Cache-Sexe, 1973, C-print, 10 1⁄4 × 7 7⁄8".

Rose English

A few years ago, I saw images of Rose English’s Quadrille, 1975, and became obsessed with her women wearing horsehair tails and footwear made with real horse hooves and doing dressage in the British countryside. The performance was outside my understanding of that era’s feminist sensibility. It wasn’t violent, durational, or angry but looked like some kind of fairy tale, something out of Angela Carter.

“Rose English: Form, Feminisms, Femininities” laid out the artist’s early interest in sexuality and ballet and her later turn to language, theatricality, and existential humor. Untitled Miss O’Murphy, 1969, made when English was only nineteen, hung by the gallery’s entrance. She had cut out the nude figure from a reproduction of François Boucher’s near—pornographic painting of four-teen—year-old Marie-Louise O’Murphy, Jeune Fille allongée (Reclining Girl; also known as The Blonde Odalisque), ca. 1752, and underlined her with candy-colored stripes—a Pop-art version of the Rococo painting.

English was studying ceramics
at the time, making bold porcelain coverings for women’s nipples and genitalia and bawdy ballerinas with exaggerated breasts and vulvas. The pieces on display here were designed to be deployed in her early tableaux, silent performances such as the student piece Divertissement, 1973. The C-print Study for A Divertissement: Jo and Porcelain Cache-Sexe, 1973, depicts a near-naked dancer wearing a pink pointe shoe as a hat. In the performance, she pirouetted past two sleeping women. Waking, they circled each other then kissed, and a porcelain-lace curtain came crashing down.

A chronological hiatus in the exhibition represented the decade during which English was collaborating with the filmmaker Sally Potter and the dancer Jacky Lansley. The three were reading feminist film theory, and their performances drew on those sources, as well as on popular entertainment. English and Potter staged Berlin on successive Saturday nights in 1976. The first and last evenings began in their squat; others took place at a skating rink and in a swimming pool, where they burned a cradle, swam naked, plunged from the high dive, and discussed the nature of woman as image. The collaborations culminated in Potter’s extraordinary 1983 film, The Gold Diggers. Written by Potter and English and starring Julie Christie, its themes were cinematic pleasure, the circulation of money, and woman as icon.

The second half of the exhibition featured video and audio, as well as photos and ephemera, from performances of Plato’s Chair, 1983, which sets out English’s interests in comedy, theater, props, and philosophy. In a monologue nearly ninety minutes long, she teases out the audience’s and her own expectations of failure and probes death, the soul, and the void. She jokes with her viewers about whether they would return after intermission for a show about nothing. Intercut with snippets from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, the performance footage shows English going to ever greater lengths to engage her audience, donning mouse ears, then the horse tail and hooves from Quadrille, and prancing to the Rawhide theme song. Her language circles and repeats with trills and puns, developing the themes that would play out in her performances over the next decade: philosophy and comedy; showgirls and show horses; vaudeville, the void, and theatricality; not to mention her struggles in an increasingly conservative political milieu. The keynotes through which English created the language for Plato’s Chair hung on the wall alongside blown-up photocopies used for the program’s cover. When she talks in her monologue about the problem of being a woman performance artist with no documentation of her work, she plays it for laughs, though as she stepped out on her own for the first time after collaborations with Lansley and Potter, which were only sparsely documented, the problem had to feel profound. Beneath that laughter are questions about women and performance art that still resonate; after all, this was her first-ever solo show in a commercial gallery.