Tomorrow's Woman: Gillian Jason Gallery introduce us to six women changing the face of female portraiture

    In the canon of art history, there are more than a few missing chapters when it comes to the stories of women being told from a female perspective, either because the genuine stories of women were not considered by the male gaze important enough to be recorded, or were simply not allowed to be painted in the first place. As such, historical portraiture by women is patchy at best, and even in the contemporary sphere the work of female artists has nothing close to market parity with works by male peers. One gallery, however, that is fundamentally committed to telling the extraordinary stories and journeys of women in art is Glllian Jason Gallery – a mother and daughter run operation that has been championing female artists since its inception. And the familial nature of the business is one that works brilliantly. “I think it’s really safe to say that I never wanted to work with my mother,” says founder Elli Jason Foster, in explanation, with a laugh. “But there is a relationship between Millie and I that has always worked for both of us in all sorts of ways, and we come at the business with such different skill sets – so we are able to work in our own spheres.” While both of them handle artist liaison and representation, her daughter Millie brings a business acumen picked up from a career in banking, and both are extremely passionate about both the lineage of the gallery and platforming women's voices. “Because I grew up with Elli. I have a lot of the same outlook on life, for good or for bad,” explains Millie. “We do sometimes have a difference in style, and aesthetic taste, but that just means that we can truly bounce ideas off each other, have different opinions and, almost always, come to the perfect strategy of why we want to exhibit an artist,” she continues. “And often that pause for thought is actually really important.” It's a winning combination that is apparent in the current show Face To Face II, and one thing mother and daughter undoubtedly share in common is a real verve and passion for what they do. As such, it was fascinating for us to ask them to choose five artists from their stable, and current exhibition, who are collectively changing the face of female portraiture.

    Olivia Valentine (chosen by Millie)
    We have just started to represent Olivia Valentine, and we are doing a solo exhibition with her in September, which will be her first solo show with the gallery. Earlier this year, we asked her to take part in a group show that was really close to my heart around the mental and physical health of women, and she created an extraordinary large-scale piece for that, which just wowed us. Olivia studied painting in Florence at the Charles H Cecil school, which is very traditional, but what is so interesting in what she is doing is blending traditional portraiture techniques with modern day fashion, in order to comment upon how fashion has held women back throughout history – the patriarchal structure of fashion past, and women wearing corsets, for example. Olivia actually paints a lot of her women in corsets as a way for them to own what a contemporary corset is in this era, and show how we're now wearing them in a completely different way. We love the way she addresses these heritage and historical references. I think she's saying something really important, and is one to watch.

    Serpil Mavi Üstün (chosen by Elli)
    Serpil is originally from Turkey, and is an incredibly independent woman. What makes her so interesting is the clarity of communication that comes through her artwork, despite the fact that she is not confident about her ability to communicate in the English language. As an artist, she is absolutely concerned with the existential condition, and there’s a black humor to her work, which is incredibly winning. In the last exhibition, she exhibited a headless torso carrying a burnt birthday cake, and on top of the icing were over-the-counter drugs – so, the stories that she tells deal in these notions of the perfection of modern day women, and how we often cannot actually cope with what is projected on to us. And what is so important in that the work is that it has this sense of black humor, without it ever being bleak. I just bought a portrait of hers with a woman lying on the beach in a state of beautiful calm repose, and yet there's a snail wandering towards her, which is dissonant, and, actually, kind of freaks me out. There is an inherent political element as well in the work, in the kind of freedoms that she's choosing to show us.

    Alice Herbst (chosen by Millie)
    Alice Herbst is based in Copenhagen, and this recent exhibition was our first time working with her – we both just completely fell in love with her work. Her paintings are these interesting worlds within themselves, and it was extraordinary talking with her about her practice, because every painting comes from a photo shoot that she does, where she pulls out clothing from different eras, and dresses up and takes photographs of herself in them to almost transform her character into someone else. Then she asks the question, what scene would they be in? In which moment in time would they fit? This process then develops into its own story. That’s why, when you look at her work, every painting is of a woman in a different scene – often doing quite mundane tasks, such as making a coffee in the kitchen, but always capturing a really nice moment of stillness. Alice is looking at the world from a very different and unique perspective, and every time we meet an artist who genuinely fulfills that remit, it's really exciting.

    Jenya Datsko (chosen by Elli)
    We have found that female collectors identify strongly with the contemplative women Jenya paints, all of whom look like emblems of strength and determination in everyday settings. I personally get a really genuine connection when I look at her work, because I feel it's both about me, and about any woman. What I find so incredibly powerful is when I stand in front of a painting that really connects – it’s a feeling like no other. I love it when one piece can evoke any number of emotions for whomever is standing in front of it, and this is what I see in Jenya’s work.

    Nancy Cadogan (chosen by Milie)
    We’ve been working with Nancy since we opened the gallery, and as an artist she has this extraordinary connection to literature. Her work is all about telling stories and, much like Jenya, she actually aims to create a moment of stillness. Nancy has actually become very well known for painting women in that moment of stillness, but she always adds these interesting references and symbols in the works. The painting we had in the most recent exhibition is quite unusual for her, because it's a beautiful love story where the woman is handing a man a flower across the divide of two paintings. Nancy hardly ever paints her subjects with their eyes open – they’re often depicted in their own very serene state of being, but these two figures across the canvas are fully connecting with one another, which is a departure from her usual work.

    Hope Turnbull (Chosen by Elli)
    We discovered Hope’s work at City & Guilds, and we've watched her grow as an artist. Hope examines the mundanity of life, and she asks the viewer to really engage in the situation that's being presented. So, for instance, she’ll paint a person sleeping at a table, where normally you'd expect to see a person sleeping in a bed. And what she is doing is saying, actually, you can sleep anywhere, and I'm trying to get you to actually think about sleeping, and begin to ask some questions. She almost has a conversation with the viewer. In one of her paintings, for example, is a character who's ironing, and it’s kind of presented as a moment of repose, but you are asking yourself if it is mundane and boring? Or whether there is something really comforting in being able to do something repetitious at home that you've done for years, in a world that's supremely anxious and anxiety ridden? I find her paintings very serene and comforting, and, for me, it’s always about connecting with that one thing in the work that makes you feel something – I think that sense of connection is why art is so important.

    Face To Face II exhibits until the end of July. You can find out more about Gillian Jason Gallery here.

    Images (top to bottom): Screen Time II (2022), oil on canvas by Serpil Mavi Üstün; Noonday Dreams (2023), oil on canvas, by Nancy Cadogan; Fortune Teller (2022), oil on acrylic-primed canvas, by Alice Herbst; Late night in Mallorca (2023), acrylic on canvas, by Jenya Datsko; Sunday Evening (2022), oil on canvas, by Hope Turnbull. All images courtesy of Gillian Jason Gallery

    Interview by John-Paul Pryor