Sometimes a simple idea executed well is all that’s required for a stellar exhibition. The idea behind Bethlem Museum of the Mind’s latest show is this: artworks by women relating to the lived experience of women. Boom, done, that’s it.
Bung that concept in a bigger space and it could end up a sprawling confusion, but the MotM’s small-ish one-room gallery keeps it contained and, thanks to the amazing variety on display, far-reaching.
This being the MotM, there’s also the overarching ‘theme’ of mental health. Most of the artworks (mainly paintings, plus a few examples of collage, lino cuts and one piece of pottery) come from the institution’s own reserve collection of art relating to mental health, including works by artists who have received treatment at the hospital.
In this particular exhibition there’s art about anorexia, postnatal depression, mania, anxiety, isolation, OCD and failed treatments. But the brilliance of this show – and the MotM in general – is how these things are there-but-not-there, acknowledged but not limiting. It’s art about mental health and art about womanhood, sure, and it often pinpoints truths left unsaid elsewhere, but it’s also just art. Beautiful, expressive, pretty, messy, sorrowful art. The good drug.
Elise Pacquette’s parallel works ‘Protecting the Heart’ and ‘Eating the Heart Out’ invert the human body like a wet washing up glove flipped inside out to dry. In the first, sweet mauves and sugary pinks cushion the centre while, in the second, an inferno of blood red and candle-flame yellow rages. Lisa Biles’s collage is similarly raw, literally ripping apart the magazine image of femininity and pasting it together in a grotesque.
But the most entrancing is the rippling painting by Charlotte Johnson Wahl (yes, the PM’s mother), showing the artist up a tree with her children distressed below. Completed in the Seventies browns of the decade she created it in, the shapes roll around like mercury beads, an unforgettable image of instability.