Allie Eagle was a leading exponent of the Women’s Art Movement in New Zealand in the 1970’s. I had an interesting conversation with her in Dunedin earlier in the year about her latest body of work – the preparatory drawings for much larger scale works under the title “Insight: (Not the Male Gaze)”. It is intended that these paintings will partner her earlier series “Sudden Imperative” which represented some of the views and experiences of women. What struck me about Allie’s initial series of paintings was the way in which a large number of men looked downwards, and what effect that had of me as someone gazing at them. I wondered, given Allie’s journey, what she now saw as she as the artist gazed at and interacted with her male subjects.
I had mixed feelings on what I saw as I looked at the paintings – what the downward look conveyed. I was struck by a sense of their vulnerability, their sadness, their sense of their lives and their human frailty passing before their eyes. There seemed to me to be a sense of brokenness; recognition that their lives hid much that as males they hadn’t been able to give voice to, or to name. Behind the impassive faces one sensed a lot of stories and not a few regrets. It was easy to imagine and engage my own male experiences of sadness, pain, regret, and powerlessness. Or, as Allie herself says, there was something much softer but strong that she wanted to explore in her encounter with her male subjects. She was looking for a repentant [and self-reflective] man. “… I saw a tender look… [I wondered] what is going on in the hearts of men? What process does a guy go through to “change” and “what does self examination look like?”…” Rembrandt’s painting of The Prodigal Son comes to mind.
As Vanessa Cameron Lewis has written, in relation to Not the Male Gaze, that the men look down has the effect of drawing “the viewer to what is unseen, to feelings, thoughts, and internal depths.” And, as Allie states, “I was searching for a way to make pictures of men to show their vulnerability”. The work is seeking to engage with and get inside the male heart. Certainly that intention is experienced by me as a viewer. There’s an implicit invitation to engage with my own heart.
In many ways the series represents the subverting of the male gaze: “women”, Laura Mulvey, writes “are always the objects of the male gaze… they are [typically] the objects while males are generally the subjects”. John Berger an English art critic, novelist, painter and author reflects in his book Ways of Seeing that “…Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…” (1972, p.42).
Allie’s is a “female gaze”; an exploration of the male. Her works seek to speak of relationships. They speak of a shift from seeing males as “dangerous oppressors”, which for Allie emerged out of her own “hurt, pain and fear of seeing them as vulnerable human beings who also need healing”. There is in the artistic journey and encounter a “searching for truth, love, and for redemption.” The latter much in evidence as I gazed at the portraits. The journey of artist, subject, and viewer are somehow woven redemptively woven together.
Keep an eye out for the exhibition at some future point in time.
Meantime, Allie has produced a little fundraising booklet Insight: (Not the Male Gaze) – Can we Talk Now Daddy? (from which some of the content of this post was drawn). I couldn't find any images of her latest series of portraits online, but there are some in the booklet.
For a cinematic take on something of the male reality I highly recommend the Australian film Men’s Group.