Defying Labels and Distinctions: Gee Vaucher and the Aesthetics of Anger

‘Shall we go for the third row?’ someone asks as they shuffle awkwardly between chairs behind me. The audience has been thrown into disarray by a last minute change of location, rendering the allocated seating on their tickets useless and causing a sudden increase in social anxiety.

But what do you expect from an anarchist?

I’m at the panel discussion of Gee Vaucher’s first major institutional show in the UK, Introspective, at Colchester’s Firstsite Gallery. This exhibition “charts her journey as an artist and activist from the late 1960’s to the present day: from local activity to international ambition, from domestic concerns to world politics, and from healing the planet to healing the mind.” The panel gathers together Brandon Taylor, Rebecca Binns, George Mackay, and Dr. Stevphen Shutaitis, who co-curated this exhibition along with Marie-France Kittler, to chat about Gee Vaucher’s work and career so far. The artist herself is lurking somewhere in the audience and we are warned to expect heckling.

From Aberfan onwards, Gee Vaucher’s fifty-year career has been a steady progression of outrage but she explains that her artistic method is much calmer. She usually starts in her garden at Dial House (a self-sufficient 17th century farmhouse near Epping) as the act of gardening helps her to think, and when she is driven to create it is usually because “I have something I don’t understand and I’m trying to understand it by doing what I do.”

Born in Dagenham, Essex in 1945, Gee Vaucher attended South East Essex College of Art in 1961 where she met her long-time collaborator, Penny Rimbaud, with whom she formed the performance group EXIT. In the 70s she moved to New York where, as well as illustrating for the New York Times, she founded her own paper, International Anthem, ‘a nihilist newspaper for the living’. After returning to the UK, Vaucher reacted to the political strife of the 1980s with political illustrations for the anarcho-pacifist punk band Crass.

She founded Existential Press in order to disseminate new bodies of work in book format after becoming disengaged with the commercial art scene and this year she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Essex in recognition of her art and political activism.

Vaucher refuses to be pinned down with labels

Gee Vaucher makes use of a variety of methods to communicate her artistic message including photomontage, painting, sculpture, photography, and performance; to Vaucher distinctions between these mediums are irrelevant. One of her most profound works, The Sound of Stones in the Glasshouse, combines installation, typography, and film, to highlight the history of military intervention by the US since their first President. A tranquil greenhouse sits surrounded by wall hangings detailing the military campaigns and resultant death toll of each President’s term. It is a quiet catalogue of blood made only more chilling by the addition of a new wall hanging for the latest President-elect; a blank space at the bottom awaiting the final death toll of his time in office.

Although Vaucher refuses to be pinned down with labels such as ‘anarchist’ or ‘feminist’, one label she cannot escape is ‘punk’: the aesthetic of anger. The panellist George Mackay explained that there is an urge within punk to “interrogate the practice of war” and this is certainly the case with Gee Vaucher’s work for Crass, displayed here alongside her political posters. A combination of collage and gauche, Vaucher warps scale and proportions and creates disconcerting juxtapositions of images and symbols to rage against the conservative government of the Thatcher era.

Her political posters, displayed along the curved wall of the gallery in the style of underground tube train posters, include her famous image Oh America. The Statue of Liberty with head in hands appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror on the morning Thursday, November 10th and is as unambiguous in its intent as her work Your Country Needs You in which the charred remains of a war casualty’s hand hangs limply from barbed wire. This image recalls and undermines the call to action of Lord Kitchener’s original 1914 message and is unmistakable in its anti-war message.

Vaucher enjoys the possibility of symbolism that comes from working in collage and described the upside down ashtray, which she placed at the top of a domestic scene, as symbolising the “shit tipped out over everything”. She takes apart and reassembles figures and scenes in her series of Pastels, Figures and Portraits, emphasising different parts of the body to explore the core idea that “You’re not just you but you’re a whole mess of things put together”. This rearrangement of the familiar is present again in her understated Classical Series in which she renders sophistication primitive by shuffling features of ancient sculptures in a series of photo collages. The effect is simple but fascinating and hauntingly Picasso-esque, Vaucher acknowledges his influence on the piece explaining that “Picasso showed us how to play, really play, with art.”

we are the combination of everything we’ve experienced and everyone we have met

Animal Rites is a collection of collages and sculptures that are indicative of this playful approach to her work. A lifelong vegetarian, this series of human-animal hybrids explores our interactions with animals. Vaucher talks of how humans “project human-like qualities onto animals” and the rows of human busts with animal features and the heads of baby-faced dolls placed onto perching, flesh-coloured birds are fun, witty, strange, and silly, whilst provoking questions about those deep-seated relationships.

Collage is fundamental to Vaucher’s work and through this medium she is able to communicate the idea that as humans “we can’t separate ourselves [from each other] which is what society does with us”, instead we are the combination of everything we’ve experienced and everyone we have met. This idea comes through strongest in her dramatic series of large-scale paintings; Portraits of Children Who Have Seen Too Much Too Soon. Each child’s portrait in the series seems to have been painted from several different subjects at once and the result is warped, distressed, even mutated faces overwhelming the viewer in their scale and number. Vaucher explains that when she began the project she thought to herself “These have to be big” and it is as if these children, once so small and overlooked now tower over their audience, discomforting, heartbreaking, and unmissable.

When asked how artists should react to the current political climate Vaucher said she doesn’t have the answer but her work has always been about making the world a better place by “undermining the narrative”. Her latest project, The Syrian Kitchen, works to do just that by getting refugees and locals to work together and raise money through food and community, it is a powerful way to undermine the poisonous anti-refugee rhetoric and instead bring disparate people together.

Vaucher is hard to label and that in itself has become a defining feature. Penny Rimbaud describes her work as 'ethereality' in that it is both ephemeral and down-to-earth whilst being all encompassing: It’s here, it’s there, and it’s everywhere. With her wide-ranging themes and an eagerness to vary her medium, Gee Vaucher’s exhibition of work showcases an artist’s reaction to turmoil and uncertainty in the past, providing us with a radical, anarchic-punk narrative covering international politics and domestic concerns across the last half a century and helping us make sense of the world as it exists now.

Introspective is fun, powerful, and profoundly relevant.

Introspective is open now and runs until February 19th.

More about the author

About the author

As well as contributing to Disclaimer, Holly has published several comic short stories with Black Coffey, and has been known to write and perform stand-up comedy at festivals and charity gigs. Her first play for the radio is in production with Frequency Theatre, and she is currently working on a full-length play for the stage.

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