Ground-breaking feminist artist Margaret Harrison and her late husband Conrad Atkinson spent decades supporting each other as their pioneering works shocked and entertained in equal measure across Europe and America.
But they never had a joint show, until now, a year after his death.
The exhibition Late and Soon: The Works of Margaret Harrison and Conrad Atkinson opened at Cross Lanes Projects in Kendal on Saturday, May 20, and runs until June 24. Cross Lane Projects was founded by artists Rebecca Scott and Mark Woods, with the aim of bringing new contemporary art to Cumbria.
Margaret explained to the preview audience that they didn’t want to be overshadowed by each other:
“Although we both dealt with issues in our work, they were different issues. Up until the 1970s I would have become overshadowed by Conrad. As time went on, he would have become eclipsed. So, we didn’t do it”.
But since Conrad Atkinson died last year, she thought it now made sense to have a joint show. The exhibition looks at a lifetime of ground-breaking work from the two Cumbrian artists, who should be considered national treasures but are more often considered national provocateurs.
At the opening, she recalled her part in the birth of the feminist art, including organising the demonstration at the 1970 Miss World competition, which led to iconic American comedian Bob Hope being ridiculed and contestants being covered in flour.
“I stayed outside as I was pregnant at the time but had to put up with the paparazzi calling us out as jealous,” she recalled.
Her first London show was closed for indecency and in 1971 her painting of Playboy founder Hugh Heffner as a bunny girl was stolen and destroyed.
The exhibition has many examples of her work, which examine the relationship between art, politics and feminism with biting wit.
Her drawings have a pop art sensibility that critiques American pop culture but are shot through with sharp humour and irony.
She is still working today in her eighth decade, producing powerful new work, some of which are included in the show at Cross Lane.
Her lifelong companion, Conrad helped create the Artists’ Union, campaigned for fair pay for artists, and supported the London Women’s Art Movement, which his wife – whom he met at Carlisle College of Art and married in 1966 – co-founded.
Until his death, aged 82, Conrad was one of Britain’s most significant activist and political artists. For more than 60 years he dedicated his life to highlighting contentious socio-political issues, including the miners’ strikes, landmines, the Aids crisis and the Northern Ireland conflict.
Silver Liberties, a work commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday, was famously outlawed by the Ulster Museum in the 1970s.
Mairtin O Muilleoir, former Lord Mayor of Belfast (and Director of the Belfast Media Group), once said Atkinson “was to pop art what the Sex Pistols were to punk rock: the first to the barricades, the rebellious iconoclast, the knife to the gut.”
Born in Cleator Moor, on the industrial west coast of Cumberland, Conrad was proudly working class. He worked as a professor in California from 1992, where he set up the university’s first women’s art group and campaigned for equal pay for women. He worked in media as diverse as ceramics, photography, collage and textiles. He also pioneered the use of video in art.
All are represented in the exhibition, with entrance via his ironic red carpet past mannequins wearing his embroidered clothing.
Many believe that Conrad and Margaret are two of the last century’s most influential and important artists. Their work is considered just as relevant today as it was in the 70s, 80s and 90s: With war, fake news, domestic abuse, equal rights and social inequality dominating social media across the world.
Conrad would surely have approved of the quirkiness and egalitarian setting of the gallery and the couple’s first joint show. It is situated in a former Kendal Mint Cake factory in a social housing estate, Kirkland, in Kendal.
This exhibition was deliberately timed to coincide with the reopening of Abbot Hall Art Gallery, just a couple of minutes away, walking. Its exhibition features the multi-media work of Julie Brook
Kendal is surely blessed to have two such distinguished, challenging and innovative exhibitions on simultaneously. Art lovers from all over the North could combine them in a single visit.
Margaret Harrison is also included in the exhibition Women In Revolt! Art, Activism and the Women’s Movement in the UK opening at Tate Britain later this year (8 Nov 2023 – 7 Apr 2024). It will then move on to Manchester and Glasgow.