Feminine mystique

    Asset value: Nice Tits, a 2011 work by Sarah Lucas

    Officially, there is no such thing as Women’s Art Month. Officially, the fact that so many powerful women artists are concurrently on show in our galleries is merely a coincidence. But even if WAM does not officially exist, the fact that Louise Bourgeois is opening in Edinburgh, Mira Schendel is at Tate Modern, Kara Walker is at the Camden Arts Centre, Ayse Erkmen is at the Barbican and even dear old Judy Chicago is popping up at the Frieze Art Fair suggests that someone up there is cluster-bombing us with distaff aesthetics. WAM is happening.

    The main thing that makes contemporary women’s art different from contemporary men’s art is its obsession with identity. Having been marginalised for so many millennia, women artists today are conspicuously determined to put themselves at the forefront of their own expression. Going round two of the most compelling events in the WAM schedule — the Ana Mendieta show at the Hayward Gallery and the Sarah Lucas show at the Whitechapel — is like trekking across a pair of Mount Rushmore-sized selfies.

    Not that I’m complaining. Both events are thoroughly engrossing. And they could hardly be more different. Not in a million years can I imagine Ana Mendieta, from Havana, symbolising herself with two fried eggs and a kebab. Not in a million years can I imagine Sarah Lucas, from the Holloway Road, calling down her ancient gods as she soaks her naked body with blood and covers herself with goose feathers. So defined and different are the two artistic identities presented to us in Mendieta v Lucas that they seem to form a kind of Cuba v England.

    My football analogy is intentionally laddish because Lucas has always expressed herself in exactly this language. Her art depends in so many of its nuances on the audience’s understanding of, and experience of, British tabloid culture.

    The first works of hers I saw were pages of the Sunday Sport blown up to abstract-expressionist size — ie really, really big — a scale on which the cruel and rampant sexism of the typical footballing British male made itself spectacularly unmissable. These extra-large tabloid pages from the 1980s are included at the start of this typically fierce retrospective. One enlarged page tells the story of the vertically challenged topless kiss-o-gram girl whom the Sunday Sport has dubbed a “matchbox-sized SEX SYMBOL”, then a “laugh-a-minute SEX THIMBLE”. Another is headlined Monsters and refers to prominent bits of female anatomy.

    The show looks more like a junk shop on the Holloway Road than a traditional mid-career retrospective. Pieces from all Lucas’s phases have been packed into the vistas and jumbled up so thoroughly that their chronology ceases to matter. Here’s a photo. There’s a sculpture. Here’s a tiny text appended to the wall. There’s a concrete zeppelin suspended from the roof, with a masturbating arm attached. It’s terribly messy, but also terribly alive, a dense outpouring of gritty and ambiguous British creativity that seems one moment to be giving our tabloid culture the finger, and the next a big thumbs up.

    Lucas’s position on the tabloid mind-set she keeps noting and quoting in her work remains unclear. There are plenty of giant penises scattered about the show, and nobody is left in any doubt that the concrete zeppelins and extra-large courgettes are meant to be penis stand-ins, too. But is she for them or against them? Is this irony or flag-waving? Condemnation or celebration?

    Also unclear is the thinking behind the bleak visualisations of womanhood that are another startling regular in her work. In one cruel sculptural approximation of the female form on a bed, the vagina is an old bucket and the breasts are two oranges shoved into a mattress; in another, the breasts are two melons hanging in a T-shirt, and the vagina is a kipper, sliced in two. It’s unarguably harsh art, yet, just as unarguably, it seems to be accompanied by the throaty coughing of working-class humour.

    One thing that remains consistent is Lucas’s fondness for dismal urban textures. Most of the art here looks as if it began life in a skip. Never can any exhibition have featured this many old toilets. And although one of the loos’ jobs is to giggle at the thought of Marcel Duchamp passing off a urinal as art — what a typical clever bloke trick that was, and how very French of him — another is to speak to us about the reality of working-class urban life in the silent language of textures. People like Lucas don’t usually become artists. They usually become barmaids or checkout girls. How marvellous that such a voice has made itself heard in art.

    Over at the Hayward, the Cuban response could hardly be more opposite. Where Lucas’s presence is cocky, Mendieta’s is tragic. Sent to Florida from Cuba when she was 12, separated from her parents as well as her origins, she bobbed around the American art world, barely noticed, until 1985, when her death in mysterious circumstances cut everything short. Having recently married the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre — he of Bricks fame — she fell from the balcony of his 34th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village in what his lawyers explained was a freak accident, or a suicide.

    Going round Mendieta’s fiery, insistently figurative, fiercely feminine and strikingly unminimalist show at the Hayward, I set myself the task of thinking of a woman artist less like Andre in her main aesthetic drives, and could not. Add the fact that he is a funny little gnome of a man (I’ve met him), while she, judging by the self-picturings that dominate her display, was a woman of considerable Cuban beauty, and you are left to ponder an exceptionally unlikely union.

    Most of Mendieta’s work was done outdoors, as a performance, and all that remains today of these mysterious actings-out is a selection of documentary photographs and some scrappy drawings. This, then, is often a virtual event, created largely from the click, click, click of the slide projector.

    In her Silueta series, she would trace her simplified outline in the ground, as if it were the record of a body made by the police. She’d do it in a desert. She’d do it in the sea. She’d do it among Mexican ruins. Her disappeared self seems simultaneously to be becoming one with the land and accusing it of taking her.

    Another interest was her face, which she’d press against glass or disfigure with glued-on facial hair, as if deliberately trying to destroy her own beauty. When Yves Klein made a painting by pulling a nude across a canvas, the splashes were enticing and erotically charged. When Mendieta does the same thing with her body, the resulting smears are as scarred and accusatory as Veronica’s veil.

    This, then, isn’t only Cuba v England. It’s also Catholicism v Protestantism. And One Hundred Years of Solitude v some saucy postcards from Blackpool.