An Artist With No Labels: Gee Vaucher at Firstsite

Firstsite, Colchester is presenting the first ever survey show of work by renowned British artist, Gee Vaucher to be mounted in the UK. Gee Vaucher: Introspective brings together over 200 works by Vaucher, some of which have never been seen publicly before, and will present a truly comprehensive overview of her 50-year artistic career (running from 12 November, 2016 – 19 February, 2017).

Whilst Vaucher’s oeuvre is no doubt politically charged, the artist rejects any form of label to be placed on her views or her work. This non-conformist mentality is one of the aspects we feel makes Vaucher’s artwork all the more interesting and powerful. Whilst we don’t want to name any names, her aesthetic feels to be informed by Surrealism, Pop Art and Dada, blended with the DIY immediacy of punk.

7. Inside poster for Crass single, Bloody Revolutions, 1980, gouache 430x290mm  © Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite  .jpg
Inside Poster for Crass single, Bloody Revolutions, 1980, gouache c. Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite

The works on view for this show include collages, paintings, videos, scuptures, prints, drawings and photography all drawn from the artist’s personal archive. It also includes an installation entitled ‘The Sound of Stones in the Glass House’ (2006), a walk-in greenhouse with embossed glass names of all the countries where the United States of America has instigated or taken part in war.

As mentioned previously, Vaucher is staunchly against being labeled with any ‘ism,’ but much of her work definitely seems to tackle gender inequality, including such painful issues as domestic violence.

Of the exhibition itself, Firstsite director Sally Shaw explains: ‘We are delighted and privileged to be holding the first major retrospective of Gee Vaucher’s work at Firstsite, not least because of her strong connections with Essex. A truly remarkable artist, she has created an astonishing body of work that is at once scabrous, heartfelt, wry and thought-provoking – a perfect match for Firstsite’s ambition to encourage new ways of looking and thinking.’

We had the opportunity to chat with exhibition Co-curator/Curator at Firstsite, Marie-France Kittler and exhibition Co-curator/Senior Research Associate in Art History at the University of Essex, Stevphen Shukaitis.

ArtAttack: What first drew you to Gee Vaucher’s work and the decision to mount this exciting survey show?

Marie-France Kittler: I was first introduced to Gee Vaucher’s work by my partner 15 years ago in connection with Crass, and the label they founded, Southern records, where he worked at the time. I was instantly drawn to her collage work. It is a happy coincidence that Stevphen Shukaitis, a long-standing Crass fan, approached Firstsite shortly after I had joined as curator with the idea of mounting a survey show of Vaucher’s work based on his research into artist cooperatives. I had seen small exhibitions of her work at alternative venues like the Horse Hospital in London, but it struck me that she had been somewhat overlooked by the art world establishment, given how influential she has been to a whole generation of artists. It felt vital to raise her profile to mainstream audiences and establish her, through the exhibition at Firstsite, as an important contemporary British female artist whose work continues to be relevant. Of course, it made all the more sense that her retrospective should take place in her home county of Essex.

2. Front cover for Crass, The Feeding of the Five Thousand, 1978. Gouache 260x260mm © Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite  .jpg
Front cover for Crass, The Feeding of the Five Thousand, 2978. Gouache c. Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite

Stevphen Shukaitis: I first came across Gee’s work as a teenager through Crass. There’s something immediately gripping about her imagery. It was only after moving to the UK that I was able to learn more about her much broader range of work. The impetus for the exhibition came out of discussions about nominating her for an honorary degree at the University of Essex. And I really hope that this exhibition will really get people to gain a fuller of the work Gee has done.

AA: Vaucher seems like a staunchly independent spirit, which must have been wonderful to work with. Can you tell us a bit about how it was working together on this project?

4. Gee Vaucher and Penny Rimbaud, EXIT Wrap Piece, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1973 © Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite.jpg
Gee Vaucher and Penny Rimbaud, EXIT Wrap Piece, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1973 c. Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite

MFK: Gee is a very strong-willed person and I respect that. The Crass banner that hangs in one of the gallery spaces states: “There is no authority but yourself”. It goes without saying, that she is used to working alone and setting her own agenda and it must have been difficult for her to hand over her life’s work– of which her DIY aesthetic is a crucial element– and trust I could do it justice in an institutional context. Having said that, she is a very warm and fair person who is respectful of others so any differences of opinion have been talked through and resolved productively, and always with a dose of humour! She has been extremely hands on during the installation – her energy never ceases to amaze me; she has been a great inspiration. I feel it has been a very successful collaboration, which has not only resulted in a fantastic exhibition, but also in a valued friendship.

9. International Anthem No.2, Domestic Violence, 1979, collage 270x250mm © Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite .jpg
International Anthem No.2, Domestic Violence, 1979, collage c. Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite

SS: Indeed, Gee is truly a free spirit – and thus working with her is always dancing back and forth between simply magical and inspiring while teetering on the edge of madness. It’s been great, and definitely a lot of work, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing it all come together.

19. Portraits of Children Who Have Seen Too Much, 2006. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 1980x2130mm  © Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite.jpg
Portraits of Children Who Have Seen Too Much, 2006. Acrylic and oil on canvas c. Gee Vaucher, Courtesy Firstsite

AA: Do you have a favorite work in the show?

MFK: I love the variety in Gee’s work, which makes it very hard to choose a favourite piece. The intricacy and skill of her early New York and Crass work is mind-blowing. Her collage work is important because it sets her in a tradition of artists that have used collage to question the status quo. Her mixed media sculptures that combine baby dolls heads with ornamental animal bodies bring a smile to my face every time, which makes them a strong contender… But it is her pastel work, grouped together in the final room of the exhibition which is the most significant for me, representing one of the main reasons for mounting the exhibition– to discover the lesser known work of such an iconic personality. This series represents Gee’s personal journey post-Crass as an artist, as a woman and as a daughter. There is a noticeable freeing up of her style and an interesting examination of the politics of identity, body, and self.

SS: It’s really hard to pick one work, especially across such a large exhibition taking up the entire museum. But given that I’m especially excited about getting to exhibit materials from EXIT, the performance art project Gee was in with Penny Rimbaud during the late 60s and early 70s. And that includes never before seen footage filmed in Colchester. And the room with the large painting of children traumatised by having seen too much of the horrors of the world is especially moving as well.

AA: Although she prefers not to be labeled, it seems as though Vaucher is definitely a feminist. How do you feel Vaucher’s work succeeds in pushing for gender equality whilst never explicitly saying that.

MFK: All Vaucher’s work is anti-patriarchial. It is about re-organising the existing structures within society more in favour of the underdog, whoever that may be. As Gee would say about all that she does: “It’s for the people, isn’t it?”

SS: Gee’s work can clearly be seen addressing concerns that fit in with a feminist narrative. Gee doesn’t want to limit herself or her work by fixing it within any category, whether feminism, anarchism, or any other ism. But you can see through out her work a clear and constant focus on questions of violence, the state, oppression, and the psychological effects of power and control. But she also hangs onto a resolutely utopian understanding that we can be different, that we can find other ways to live and be together, not stuck within the knots of those damaging relationships.

– India Irving

Gee Vaucher: Instrospective will be on view from 12 November, 2016 – 19 February, 2017 at Firstsite; Lewis Gardens, High St., Colchester CO1 1JH; Open Monday – Saturday 10AM-5PM; Admission: FREE

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