Emerging in the 1970s, Rose English garnered recognition for her performance and interdisciplinary works, which combine collage, ceramics, photography, and film with elements of theatre, opera, and poetry.Read More
Rose English's early collages concern conventional modes of representing women, which she would continue to explore in her later works. In the collage Untitled (Miss O'Murphy) (1969), she places a cut-out of the nude girl from François Boucher's 1752 Portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy onto a gritty, white background. Undulating waves of yellow, red, and pink outline the figure, highlighting the sensuality of the reclined pose.
English examined the association between women and sensuality in historical representation in other collage works, such as the 'Baroque Harriet' and 'Baroque Ruby' series (both 1973), in which she inserts contemporary images of women and children into Baroque interiors.
English began experimenting with performance and feminist art at a time when both genres were still developing in Britain. Many of her performances from this period were improvised and what survives has been documented as film and photography.
Quadrille, one of English's most significant performance works, took place in the dressage arena of the Southampton Horse Show in 1975. The performance involved six dancers, who carried out a series of movements mimicking horses, while dressed in horse costumes made by the artist. English devised a deliberately awkward and humorous choreography, commenting on the fetishisation of women, and the historically male-dominated equestrian culture.
Around this time, English also created porcelain sculptures of female performers. In a group of works titled 'Porcelain Dancer' (1973), the figures appear in colourful costumes with exaggerated poses and exposed crotches.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, English collaborated closely with filmmaker Sally Potter and classically trained choreographer Jacky Lansley to interrogate the role of women as icons across history.
Berlin (1976) saw the trio stage a series of movements and dialogues to discuss the perception of images of women in society. Their performances, which took place in different locations across London, unfolded in unconventional sites that included a skating rink and a swimming pool.
In Mounting, staged at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford in 1977, English and her collaborators dressed themselves as pop cultural figures, such as characters from West Side Story, to examine Frank Stella's paintings in relation to the patriarchal structure of the art world.
English's work with Potter also includes The Gold Diggers (1983), a feature film they wrote together with musician Lindsay Cooper. Starring Julie Christie, the film is considered to be a key work of early 1980s feminist cinema.
English's monologue performances from the 1980s onwards investigate the structure of theatre and performance. In Plato's Chair (1983), the artist reveals the artificiality of an act by making unsuccessful jokes and repeatedly referring to her own performance. Similarly, she treats a faulty prop as part of the performance in Walks on Water (1988), making it unclear whether the mistake was real or planned.
In My Mathematics (1992), English plays a jaded showgirl with excessively long eyelashes who unsuccessfully tries to make her show horse, Mathematics, perform. Harking back to her earlier works, in which she employed horses alongside women, English's character at one point mentions to Mathematics their shared fetishisation.
Working with Chinese acrobats, English has also engaged with the body and its movements, as well as the acts of singing, breathing, and flying. In performances such as Ornamental Happiness (2006) and Flagrant Wisdom (2009), acrobats balance wine glasses on their heads and limbs in impossible poses. English has said that she is drawn to the kinetic potential of acrobatic acts, when objects are simultaneously added to the performers.
Film and photographic documentation of these acrobatic performances were exhibited in English's solo show A Premonition of the Act at Camden Arts Centre, London in 2016. The works belong to a larger project entitled Lost in Music, which revolves around the storyboards English has built over the years with images from old Chinese acrobatic books, her older storyboards from earlier projects, and texts that emerged by drawing connections between her materials.
English also wrote a libretto from the storyboards, which was developed into a music score for ten voices by composer Luke Stoneham. The score was included in the exhibition alongside the storyboards, drawing connections between the ephemerality of the acrobatic performances preserved in photographs and the voices.
Rose English has exhibited internationally over the course of her decades-long career. Selected solo exhibitions include The Pioneers. Part II: Rose English (online exhibition), Richard Saltoun Gallery, London (2021); Form, Feminisms, Femininities, Richard Saltoun (2019); A Premonition of the Act, Camden Arts Centre, London (2015); The Eros of Understanding, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen (2014); and Lost in Music, Newcastle (2008).
Group exhibitions include Bodily Objects, Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh (2020); Sixty Years, Tate Britain, London (2019); DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics, HENI Project Space, Hayward Gallery, London (2018); Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980's Britain, Tate Liverpool (2014); and Interloqui, Caterina Tognon Arte Contemporanea, Venice.
In 2007, English's work was included in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, the first institutional exhibition to comprehensively examine the international legacy of feminism in art, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; MoMA PS1, New York; and Vancouver Art Gallery.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021