Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Art of Feminism

" far artists will go..."

Recently, a young black man hopped on Cleveland's #32 bus and bolted to the back. His mother scolded him laughingly, saying, "We fought to sit at the front of the bus! Get up here!" She grumbled, albeit jovially, "Back of the bus..." As he made his way past me to the hard-won front, the woman with his mother referenced Rosa Parks.

This winsome exchange was an antidote to other transit conversations about race that I have experienced here lately. The last black Uber driver I had told me that he looks forward to moving with his daughter to Atlanta because he feels safer there, and he will give up his gun when he relocates. I felt for him and expressed as much. However, I had a hard time relating as a white woman from Canada, where: there are 31 firearms for every 100 civilians (compared to 89 firearms in the US for every 100 civilians); and the last census found that while firearms were the top form of Canadian homicide, they accounted for fewer than 225 deaths in a one-year period (compared to an annual average of 30,000 firearm-related deaths in the US cited by Amnesty International--granted, there is a difference in population, but with scaling, gun-related deaths in the US are more than 15 times that of Canada). So, I ended up blathering about the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. I should have spent more time listening but I was nervous because the previous conversation I had had with a black Uber driver about race relations unravelled quickly. That driver launched into condoning racial profiling in multiple criminal contexts even if it leads to offense or fatalities, foregrounding his comments with the revelation--in a protective tone--that he was in a interracial marriage with a white woman. I tried to employ the skills I learned at the Women's Convention two years ago in Detroit to encourage a broader view by acknowledging an opposing viewpoint before gently nudging it. At the same time, I felt conflicted because in a recent workshop at the ACRL conference in Cleveland, attendees were urged to take up less space when in a privileged position. What prompted me to fall silent for the rest of the ride was learning that he was armed at that very moment, which I did not realize at the time is against Uber's policy.

Back to privilege, never have I been more aware of my own in Cleveland than the spring day I found a broken beer bottle in the grass and carried it for about 5 minutes to the public library, where I wrapped it in newspaper before disposing of it in the garbage can. I kept my arm down, to look less threatening. Along the way, two young black men walked past; one exclaimed in shock. The next pedestrian I passed darted out of the way, giving me a wide berth of several feet. To my knowledge, no one reported the incident. Would that have been the case had the bottle been transported by the first men to cross my path (I ask of a city that has not yet reached the five-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice)?

So, why am I sharing these anecdotes, besides the fact that my blog's subtitle mentions transit and libraries? The book I have been reading, which I now highlight in my penultimate post, is The Art of Feminism: Images that Shaped the Fight Against Inequality, 1857-2017 (Chronicle Books, 2018). Its cover features Deva Pardue's For All Womankind (2016) poster with three upraised fists in various skin colors. The website for the not-for-profit organization founded by Pardue states, "We believe that issues of gender and race cannot be separated." Initially, my impression was that highlighting intersectionality on the cover is a reminder that feminism has come a long way since the first and second wave. However, in the introduction for The Art of Feminism, editor Helena Rickett (chair of the Women's Art Library and senior lecturer in curating at Goldsmiths, U. of London), whom I had the pleasure of meeting back when she was at Toronto's Power Plant, argues that feminism has always been plural and intersectional--though not without its shortcomings.

The book is organized sequentially, giving a sense of how feminism has evolved over the years. It features essays; color and black and white images with easy-to-read didactic texts; an index; and a bibliography organized into three sections that correspond with those of the book. Rickett notes that The Art of Feminism is the first publication to showcase subversive visual expression in the name of feminism from the 19th Century to the present. It begins with a constant back and forth between the US--where the first public discussion was held about feminism in 1848 in Seneca Falls--and England, revealing the mutual influence of their burgeoning suffrage movements; for example, the branded combination of colors in British parade banners was repeated with only slight adjustment by the Americans. Because this pairing of nations dominates the first third of the book, I thought it would be a fitting prelude to me signing off: my final post, which will be the only one outside of North America, will feature an innovative feminist gallery in London, UK.

In The Art of Feminism, works are included by women, men, and non-binary artists like Claude Cahun (1894-1954). From Cahun's captivating self-portrait with a mirror to J. Howard Miller's Rosie the Riveter poster (which, although famous today, had an original print run of only 42 copies), there is a mix of fine art and visual culture. Also included are works on both sides of the feminist movement. Satirical cartoons like a female boater about to be capsized by a wave whose crest is ridden by a boat with a male passenger and a sail that says, 'VOTES,' seem ridiculous now. Personally, I felt a twinge of smugness when I read that these anti-suffrage works are less strong artistically than those of their rivals. The importance of critical acclaim is underscored elsewhere, when the reader is exposed to the impact of exhibitions, such as Kunst Mit Eigen-Sinn. Curated by VALIE EXPORT to unpack "the complexity of art-making within patriarchal culture," it emphasized body-based work and served as a counterpoint to the Venice Biennale that took place shortly beforehand (it also attracted many of its audience members). On the flip side, there are those who work largely outside the gallery system, like the Guerilla Girls with their cheeky exposés of sexism in the art world through posters and the donning of gorilla masks. Parallels of high and low art are touched on in the music world too, such as Beyoncé using mainstream venues like the Super Bowl to bring attention to blackness, condemning police brutality while simultaneously celebrating the importance of family and of cultural contributions by the likes of visual artist Carrie Mae Weems; and Pussy Riot, the anonymous punk band who had three members imprisoned for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in protest of the Orthodox Church's support of Vladimir Putin. Since The Art of Feminism is billed as being about visual art and not music, it would be helpful to have added that Pussy Riot has been cast as an arts collective. For example, as I've blogged about for Paradigm Shift, the book, Punk Prayer for Freedom (2012, Feminist Press, City U. of New York), notes that one of Pussy Riot's many venues has been an art gallery, and their supporters in that publication use terms like performance art, action art, protest art, art attacks, and sacred art to describe their interventions and even the prosecution framed their intervention as “so-called contemporary art.” At any rate, the example of Pussy Riot taps into the question of how far artists will go, and there are many fascinating examples in The Art of Feminism, from ORLAN who underwent voluntary plastic surgery nine times in the early to mid-90s to emulate ideal beauty in art (cherrypicking elements from the Mona Lisa and Botticelli's Venus), and Tanja Ostojić, who became married and divorced to a German artist she met online to draw attention to modern-day mail order marriages in the late 1990s to escape the former Yugoslavia because of civil wars. Key social movements from the recent past are also included, such as #BlackLivesMatter, represented by the photograph of leshia Evans standing stoically as she is about to be arrested, while protesting the shooting death of Alton Stirling in 2016; and the Women's March in DC in 2017, which prompted a pink pussy hat (the symbol of protestors) to be added to the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Some overlap exists between the content in this book and the content in my blog--from coverage of Toronto's Feminist Art Gallery to the New York-based second wave feminist publication Heresies to Sutapa Biswas' painting, Housewives with Steak Knives--making me hopeful that I have done feminism justice in this decade-long project.

This post is dedicated to my mother and sister, who dropped everything last spring to be with me in the hospital when I could barely raise a fist in the air. Three are stronger than one. Happy Mother's Day to both of you!

Cover reproduced via fair use/dealing. Source:

Sunday, April 28, 2019

En Masse: The Collages of Carmen Winant and Jenny O’Dell

“Somebody line 'em up
Line 'em all up
Line 'em up...” ~ James Taylor

In mid-February, my week was bookended by two artist talks that dovetailed uncannily: Jenny O’Dell (lecturer in Internet art and digital/physical design at Stanford University) was the keynote speaker on February 11 at the San Francisco Museum of Art, where I was also speaking in the same symposium, Advancing Art Libraries and Curated Web Archives; and Carmen Winant (Associate Professor; Roy Lichtenstein Chair of Studio Art, Ohio State University) delivered a presentation entitled, Unmaking the Picture, on February 16 back at my home base, the Cleveland Museum of Art, in the Fran and Warren Rupp Contemporary Artists Lecture Series. Below is an overview of how I imagined—through a fog of jetlag—their visual and text-based work in dialogue.

Frequently but not exclusively, both artists appropriate photographs in themed collages with an almost patterned repetition of elements. When evolving her practice, Winant determined that making new images “seemed too…sanitary.” The artist, who trained in photography, described photographs as slick, illustrative objects that can be seductive in their beauty and containment. She later commented, “I wanted to find a way to still use pictures, but destroy that illusion a bit, muddy them up in more ways than one.” And so, in the process of creating unwieldiness, Winant “dispensed with making.” O’Dell, evidently, is drawn to the less-than-sanitary and the unwieldy; witness her residency in the city’s Recology dump, for which she documented one cart of discarded objects per day, “kind of like the undead of the object world,” as part of a mock bureau she created to archive the contents. Even though this project, The Bureau of Suspended Objects (2015), which is one of her favorites, involved producing new photos, when O’Dell speaks about her process generally, she refers to it as, “without mak[ing] anything new.”

Image - Jenny Odell, The Bureau of Suspended Objects, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Image - Jenny O'Dell, 1,378 Grain Silos, Water Towers, and Other Cylindrical-Industrial Buildings from the series, Satellite Collections, 2009-2011, digital prints. Courtesy of the artist.

Image - Carmen Winant, Being: New Photography 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 18–August 19, 2018. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Kurt Heumiller.

Interestingly, both artists referenced their upbringing as informing their subject matter. O’Dell was raised with a heavy awareness of information technology because of her parents’ vocations in Silicon Valley, so she comes by her fascination with Byte magazine, Google Earth, Google StreetView and the like, honestly. Winant credits her mother, who was active in Second Wave feminism until Winant was born, with informing her interest in empowering images such as women bracing themselves for self-defense, and on the more radical end of feminism—living life without males of any age, in a lesbian commune. Winant’s work is perceived as feminist, but she says she hopes that her “work does more than complicate an existing ideology” by “teas[ing] out contradictions...and occupy[ing] that unresolved space.” O’Dell too has worked with feminist subject matter—for example, reimaginging Fountain (1917) attributed to Marcel Duchamp as a female urination device.

Both artists use a process that involves amassing images, which they speak about with reverence. O’Dell has scoured the Internet, archives, libraries, and even office filing cabinets of the City of San Francisco for images. She enjoys encountering hard copy material that she imagines has gone untouched for a great deal of time and her artist statement states, “I am compelled by the ways in which attention (or lack thereof) leads to consequential shifts in perception at the level of the everyday.” Winant, similarly, is interested in haptic images. She pictures them touched and worn away, and appreciates their circulation between people, for example, upon death. She sources her images from book sellers, estate sales, bookstores, and archives, and finds herself registering the contents of book collections obsessively when she visits someone’s home for the first time.

As a librarian, I was excited that both artists spoke about the need for, and the dilemma of, categorizing images. O’Dell, a mixed race artist, expressed concern about the “violence of categories” like race and recommended less damaging ways of finding overlap among images, such as ‘heads’ (see image below). Winant ruminated on the dilemma of what she can reasonably claim as a white, cishetero artist, and offered labels and artist talks as a way to acknowledge absences, such as the dearth of images of women of color in historical childbirth images. She added, “...demarcations of privilege appear everywhere.”

Image - O’Dell recommended Matt Lipps’ 2010 HORIZON series based on Horizon magazine. Reproduced using fair use/fair dealing, from

The tidy nature of Winant and O’Dell’s collages provides a compelling contrast to their subversive subject matter, which is likely to be considered controversial to some viewers. Winant came to this way of working because she felt collage was over-stylized, and she was curious if eschewing composition for a neat arrangement of pictures would be effective. O’Dell’s aesthetic is similarly orderly, almost as if generated by a search engine. In my opinion, displaying images in a loose grid with the retention of right angles and roughly equidistant surrounding space is evocative of science (taxonomies, grids, etc.) and by association, objectivity. As a result, these representations of society feel anthropological more than social critiques that might cause a knee-jerk reaction. The format makes space for closer looking. Through repetition of related pictorial ‘evidence,’ the collages become socially revelatory. One image tells a story, but multiple images telling similar stories expose trends. En masse, each instance cannot be denied as a one-off; collectively, they reinforce a statement of Winant’s (made in specific reference to reproductive health in the context of birthing images): “Information, is of course, power.” She describes the result of repeating a subject like childbirth as making it salient and politically potent, and the same could be argued of collages by O’Dell that address such contentious subjects ranging from fracking and oil pipelines to close-ups of Donald Trump’s raging, open mouth.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Fray from Wray

“...we are all de facto experts in textiles...” - Julia Bryan-Wilson

One year ago today, as if enacting a Grey's Anatomy storyline, I was airlifted* from a regional hospital under life and limb protocol to the country's largest trauma centre where a neurosurgeon operated on me at nightfall. Brightening my spirits when I arrived home from the last of three hospitals was a care package from a friend I've known since before kindergarten--long before we both became librarians. Sometimes a friend knows you so well, they can anticipate your needs (bizarre though they may be) in a time of crisis. For me, that something was the thrill of unwrapping a book about the political dimensions of textiles by an author/ art historian I admired already.

The front cover was, and in some ways still is, relatable to me. Its figure by Chilean artist, Cecilia Vicuña, is made almost entirely of medical bandages. While I was operated on for a single injury, what qualified me for entry into a trauma ward was having multiple injuries--ranging from a collapsed lung (which is fatal for one-third of car crash victims) to a concussion made more dizzying by the rotation of helicopter blades, which foretold three months of vertigo.

I have only gotten around to reading this gift recently because I've minimized the handling of hard cover books to allow myself to heal. Also, I've been prioritizing self-help books with titles like Surviving an Automobile Accident and first-hand accounts (both fictional and autobiographical) of the subject as a means to cope. Rest assured, I'm cognizant that this is my corniest title for a blog post by far, but it's an appreciative shout-out to Laura Wray for sending me Fray (University of Chicago Press, 2017) by Julia Bryan-Wilson.

Although Bryan-Wilson's focus is on case studies in the past half-century, she includes context from the broader history of textiles like: quilts being used to encode escape routes for enslaved people via the Underground Railroad; textile factories being a site of labor organization; and socialist William Morris advocating for the production of well-made goods by hand--all feeding the impulse to read leftist politics into textile work wholesale. As to the time period that is the focus of the book, the reader is exposed to highlights like the establishment of the World Craft Council in 1964 and of the Church of Craft in 2000.

Intersectionality is ever-present in Fray. As Bryan-Wilson challenges binaries like associations of textiles with women rather than men or the split between craft and fine art (with the former seen as inferior), she facilitates a broader understanding of the ubiquitous nature of textiles by drawing attention to contradictory examples and marginalized voices. She is drawn to those who blur boundaries like queer black artist Ramekon O'Arwister, who invites passersby to help make whorls (evocative of sea creatures, in my opinion) in the ongoing participatory performance, Crochet Jam. As a nod to the female family members who taught him to crochet, it is a collaboration of sorts over time in addition to being a present-day collaboration.

Bryan-Wilson observes, "...we are all de facto experts in textiles." Thus, it is appropriate that occasionally, she includes personal anecdotes such as: wearing her mother's t-shirt from the 1970s featuring the text, "Ladies' Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society" with an innocuous-looking floral design; seeing Chilean arpilleras (illegally stitched scenes of political life during the Pinochet era) in a maid's suitcase when she was a student abroad; and writing a friend from high school to ask if she had ever considered contributing a memorial rectangle for her father to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (1987-present). Her wry sense of humor also surfaces here and there, in expressing amazement at the innovatively costumed drag theatrical troupe from San Francisco, the Cockettes, bringing tinsel in their carry-on luggage; in choosing the heading, 'Harmony Hammond Goes Down' to reference the sexual connotations of the lesbian artist's painted rag rug sculptures; and in imagining Freudian language used in a woman-seeking-woman personal ad.

Most of all, what I appreciated about this highly readable book was the visceral nature of Bryan-Wilson's writing--for example, describing cross-stitching as biting into a figure. I am unable to wield a needle at this point in my recovery--pity, because I have commented over the years that I feel most like myself when I sew. Reading Fray gave me that back to a degree as I could picture the manipulation of fabric, which I know is around the corner.

Thank-you to others who sent gifts and flowers, ran errands, visited, called, wrote, etc. as I convalesced. Now, onto year 2 of my recovery!

*When I named this blog, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine medical helicopters making the list of forms of transit about which I would write.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rania Matar at the Transformer Station

“The stars align sometimes.” ~ Rania Matar

Rania Matar met with the Friends of Photography of the Cleveland Museum of Art at the Transformer Station on November 17 in Ohio City to conduct a tour of In Her Image: Photographs by Rania Matar. Organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, it consists of excerpts from four series in color featuring portraits of girls and women, in the US and Lebanon.

Though trained as an architect, Matar told the crowd that she “fell in love with photography.” This happened through the process of photographing the simple, mundane moments of the lives of her four children in the late 1990s. Before she knew it, Matar says, she had embraced photography full-time.

After 9/11, the Lebanese-born, Boston-based artist became interested in telling a different story of the Middle East than what Western media portrayed and one that countered “the rhetoric of the news.” Matar also wanted to explore her dual identity; “I was them and us,” she explains. At the time, she worked in a documentary style and she later shifted to portraiture.

The obliteration of stereotypes has continued in Matar’s portraits. Commenting on Samira 17, Bourji El Barajneh Refugee Camp (2016)—in which the subject wears a vibrant red headscarf and meets the viewer’s gaze—Matar says, “[W]hat I love [is]…there’s nothing oppressed about her.” When her portraits taken in the Middle East and the US are viewed as a whole, she feels that the universality “combats the otherness.” Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan has described Matar’s portraits as defying categories such as “simply American,” “simply Arab,” or “simply Muslim, Christian, or Jewish,” which reflects the fact that the Middle East and the West “do not constitute mutually exclusive worldviews.” (1)

Matar’s warm personality endears her to would-be subjects. She approaches them “literally anywhere,” including once at church on Christmas Eve. In fact, I witnessed her make arrangements for a future shoot with a willing gallery attendant mere minutes before she delivered her talk at the Transformer Station. She estimates that 95 per cent of invitees agree to appear in her photographs. She feels that her success rate is helped by the fact that she is a female photographer who reveals that she is a mother.

Her process is no-frills, without studio lighting or a tripod. Matar, who describes herself as “almost obsessive,” gets right into the action—for example, “climb[ing] all over the bed” when depicting young women in what functions as their private sanctuaries. Matar’s young subjects are often confounded by her use of analog photography (most of the works in the show were shot on film). They’re also prompted to take the photo session more seriously because of not being able to see the results instantly. Matar asks her subjects not to smile, but to look at the camera and express themselves. She monitors the details of the hands, the feet, the eyes, and body language. “The stars align sometimes,” she says. “It’s a matter of seeing it.” Matar uses a medium format camera, and when switching out film after ten shots, she strikes up a conversation. It’s “like pressing the reset button every few minutes,” she says. Expressive and enigmatic portraits follow.

Another semi-autobiographical thread besides cultural self-exploration emerges through Matar capturing the passage of time. Through photographing predominantly females from puberty to middle age, sometimes solo and sometimes in mother-daughter pairings like the haunting Leila and Souraya, Jounieh Bebanon (2015, shown above), Matar says she is “following my [her] own aging in my [her] daughters.” As a mother, she has watched her daughters’ behavior shift in lockstep with bodily changes. She observes that in general, young women eventually express pride in their altered selves but beforehand, there tends to be a phase of “beautiful awkwardness,” a term the artist borrowed from a friend describing Matar’s work. One such example is Lavinia 11 Brookline Massachusetts (2013); the girl tucks a bent leg above and behind herself on the stairs and turns the other foot at a seemingly irreproducible angle. Matar tried to mimic it for the audience but lost her balance. A subsequent portrait shows Lavinia in the same stairwell at age 13, with the earlier photo hanging on the wall in the background. She is still gangly, but what Lois Lowry describes as “awkward ambivalence” (2) is starting to pass, for there is a hint of a smile.

In my own work, which has crossed over into photography on occasion in recent years, I am interested in gender as a social construct, especially the widespread sexualization of young girls in the cultures I know best, the US and Canada. Having observed so many situations where girls don’t have agency, I find Matar’s work refreshing because it’s celebratory and well-intentioned. Evidence of this can be found in the catalog for A Girl and Her Room. The artist statement printed in the catalog describes Matar feeling moved by the girls’ “beauty and strength, the aspirations and dreams…” (3) Moreover, in Susan Minot’s essay in the same catalogue, Matar stated that “…she was struck and humbled by how sweet and vulnerable all the girls were, one after another” and that she attempted to capture “the soul of each girl.” These sentiments contradict the oversimplified reading of her work seen in, for example, online reactions to Yasmine 12, Beirut Lebanon (2012), in which the subject clutches a large, fluffy pillow to her torso—in the process covering her clothing entirely—while flanked by other pillows that feature starlets who might read not just as idols but as competitors. Some interpreted it as a sexualized portrait. In terms of that particular image, Matar points out that protective poses are common at this age. Also, in general, she says that since she isn’t instructing her subjects on how to present themselves, her portraiture retains an element of documentation. By helping young women celebrate their true selves, she feels that she is empowering them. Matar elaborates, “In our society today, we often tend to send mixed messages to girls—they can be who they are, but if they pose a certain way, we then criticize them.”

The exhibition runs until January 13, 2019.

(Quotations are from Matar’s artist talk and from follow-up correspondence by email).

Images – top to bottom:

Matar with Clara 8, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series L’Enfant-Femme, 2012. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in.

Samira 17, Bourj El Barajneh Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series Becoming, 2016. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 24 x 19.2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery

Leila and Souraya, Jounieh, Lebanon, from the series Unspoken Conversations, 2015. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery

Lavinia 13, Brookline, Massachusetts, from the series Becoming, 2015. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 24 x 19.2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery

Yasmine 12, Beirut, Lebanon, from the series L’Enfant-Femme, 2012. Rania Matar (American, born 1964). Inkjet print; 28.8 x 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery


1 – Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, “Introduction.” L’Enfant-Femme, Bologna, Italy: Damiani, n.p.

2 – Lowry, Lois, “Becoming,” L’Enfant-Femme, Bologna, Italy: Damiani, n.p.

3 – Rania Matar, “Artist Statement,” A Girl and Her Room, 1st ed. New York: Umbrage Editions, n.p.

4 – Suan Minot, “Keep Out.” A Girl and Her Room, 1st ed. New York: Umbrage Editions, n.p.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Gripping Jan Yoors Biography

“Without judgment, Dean describes how the polygamous relationship of Jan, Annabert, and Marianne developed and evolved.”

Perfect for a long bus ride to visit my family for the holidays, the memoir, Hidden Tapestry: Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War that Made Them One (Northwestern University Press, 2018) contains corroborated tales that the author, novelist Debra Dean, acknowledges sound improbable. And she’s not even referring to the trio’s unorthodox living arrangement.

Frankly, the first mystery is not how bigamy comes to pass among the bourgeoisie in the Netherlands, but how the friendship of Annabert van Wettum and Jan Yoors that forms at summer camp blossoms into romance after 12 years of separation. Their initial meeting, when Annabert is 7 years old and Jan is 12, is told from Annabert’s point of view although Dean’s source material comes from both parties. As a result, Annabert seems more invested in the relationship. However, one detail tips the scale slightly: after pretending to be married to a fellow camper, Jan assures Annabert that he will marry her one day for real. Later in the biography, the dynamic continues to feel unbalanced: Annabert kept Jan’s photo beside her bed, while Jan called her his “little sister” (p. 101). As Annabert matures, though, the scale tips yet again. After not hearing from Jan for some time because of World War II, Annabert receives a brief update from him and from a friend of his; to the friend, she admits that having met when they were “tiny children,” they “don’t know each other” (p. 103), seeming wise beyond her years. When Annabert and Jan meet again in 1945, she is 18 and he is 23. A delayed reunion makes for a more enticing story, as it allows for a tryst at minimum.

The passage of time before the couple reconnects is not just because of limited travel stemming from the youngsters’ lack of financial independence or from WWII, but also because Jan has a secret life. Captivated when his artist father told him about the Romanji (commonly called ‘gypsies,’ a term contested by some for its arguable racism), Jan sets out to see them with his own eyes near his native Antwerp. He bonds with boys from the Lowara tribe, and a dinner invitation extends to a sleepover. The next morning, in the chaos of a police raid—common for breaking up the congregation of nomadic peoples—Jan is still inside their covered wagon when it takes off. Dean captures the local color of the Lowara, from their feasts to their fortune telling, allowing the reader to appreciate why Jan embraces adventure with them.

Curiously, Jan’s relationship with the Romanji formed outside of his own culture feels more reciprocal than his fauxmance within his culture. His bond with the Lowara tribe deepens when a violent altercation puts Jan at risk and causes the death of one of their own. That the father of the tribe gives Jan a gypsy name and selects a bride for him proves their acceptance of the outsider; Jan declines the latter offer, realizing that he isn’t fully committed to the Romanji lifestyle. Though he leaves the tribe for a while, he crosses paths intentionally with the Lowari and the Romanji more broadly several times throughout the rest of his life. He also writes professionally about their customs to correct existing accounts of the Romanji.

When Jan first parts ways with the Romanji within a year because of harsh winter conditions, his parents, who are described as bohemian (itself coincidentally a pejorative term for the Romanji at one point in time), are startlingly calm to see him return home. They even agree to keep up his ruse by sending Annabert’s letters to Jan to various European locations and by sending his replies out of Antwerp while he travels with the Lowara during the warm months over the next seven years. There is yet another noteworthy tipping of the scale: Annabert records in her diary that Jan was molested by a school priest, which Dean speculates could have spurred Jan to seek escape by following the Romanji. This anecdote suggests that Annabert knows Jan on a deep level, even if clueless about how he spends the majority of each year.

When Marianne Citroen, the third member of the love triangle and Annabert’s childhood friend from school, is introduced, she—like Annabert—appears simple in relation to Jan, whom she does not meet until the couple is engaged. Dean’s writing style changes with the two chapters that introduce Marianne by more than just name, with shorter sentences that feel jarringly abrupt. For example, when her sister died suddenly, Marianne conveyed the news to the maid. Dean writes, “And that was that” (p. 29). At Marianne’s mother’s funeral, she is criticized for crying and Dean writes, “She stopped” (p. 35). A footnote justifies this shift, underscoring its value in evoking childlike simplicity, but it would be helpful to convey the following content within the prose so it isn’t missed: Marianne reveals in an interview that in that era, children were separated from death. “And because you are kept away…” she noted, “you don’t internally grow…I think there was a plug on top of me: nothing drained, nothing grew” (p. 271). In addition to dealing with grief twice in her childhood, Marianne is separated from her Jewish father, when he goes into hiding. A small consolation is that she is surrounded by her original bedroom furniture in two temporary homes. Marianne is reunited with her father but his fate seemed sealed when he is sent to Auschwitz. Miraculously, he survives by doing laundry and being overlooked by guards at the end of the war. As with the local color of the Romanji, Dean conveys the wartime atmosphere effectively. For example, she lists the ingredients Marianne uses to cobble together a birthday dessert for herself during a time of rationing, and she describes people blinking as they emerge after months or years of hiding when liberation is expected from the Allied troops.

Jan also has a difficult wartime experience, which bonds him to Marianne. Because of his connection with the Romanji, he is approached by the British intelligence to encourage the participation of his adopted family in the Nazi resistance. It begins on a small scale, with the Romanji providing food stamps to those in hiding. Then, their involvement expands to blowing up bridges and derailing trains. Jan is devastated by the widespread beatings and deaths of the Romanji when they are caught. Jan, meanwhile, is captured by the Gestapo in Antwerp and imprisoned for six months. His anticipation of torture is as painful to read about as his actual account of torture, which ranges from waterboarding to solitary confinement. In prison, his imagination brings solace as he pictures specific colors of things with a degree of differentiation and reverence that eventually inform his artistic exploration in textiles. Jan is sentenced to death but inexplicably, he is kept alive and permitted to write friends and family. Equally strange, he is released in what may be a case of mistaken identity. He sends a reassuring note to Annabert, Dean writes, so as to not taint her innocence through concern for him. Jan then connects with the Romanji to acquire fake identification to reach Madrid, where he is pulled into intelligence work once more. His new role is to bring people from occupied France to Spain over the mountains, guiding the final group personally with a stranger he approaches along the way. To survive the severe conditions, again, he wills hallucinations about colors. After feasting in Spain, Jan is arrested and sent to a Spanish concentration camp for five weeks. As per usual, Annabert receives a reassuring piece of mail from Spain. In 1945, when he is free at last, Jan makes his way to Annabert in England. Their first kiss is so intense that Jan has to steady Annabert. He becomes honest about his past, professing that he doesn’t want any secrets between them. During their engagement, they travel around Europe so that Jan can show Annabert the places and people important to him from the war. However, he struggles with depression that is likely PTSD, and eventually, he realizes he cannot confide the horrors of the war to his “starry-eyed bride” (p. 137) because doing so literally makes her sick.

While engaged, Jan attends London University, after telling the admissions office that the majority of his transcripts were destroyed in the war. He studies sculpting, painting, international relations, and anthropology. During his trip with Annabert, he settles on becoming an artist. However, his other studies remain significant, for he has been exposed to the pervasiveness of polygamy through anthropology. After what he has endured in the war, Jan is determined to do only what he wanted. Although Dean shares this detail in relation to him skipping class in favor of art making, that rebellious confidence seems to inform his personal life. Jan “wanted to build a new world…one that would be an affirmation of the joy of life, the beauty of the soul and man’s need for beauty” (p. 124).

Without judgment, Dean describes how the polygamous relationship of Jan, Annabert, and Marianne develops and evolves. She regards the women’s respective childhoods as predisposing them to unconventionality, referencing Marianne’s grief and Annabert’s parents’ broken marriage. She speculates that the war further affects their values. Marianne, who is broken by the war and disappointing romantic encounters, feels Jan is the first person to truly hear her when she models for him at Annabert’s request. Annabert’s grandmother warns her that Marianne is going to steal him away from her. Amazingly, Annabert agrees to share him before anything transpires. When Jan first seduces Marianne, he reveals that Annabert had sent him to comfort Marianne. Annabert and Marianne feel he is a genius artist to whom standard rules didn’t apply. Annabert isn’t above jealousy. Marianne feels conflicted and attempts to run away. Marianne’s expired visa gives the trio an opportunity to reflect on their situation when she is forced to leave England. Dean observes that it was through their letters that Marianne is cast as a second wife. Amid family scrutiny, they reunite in the Netherlands, determined to make their polygamous relationship work. Eventually, Marianne becomes Jan’s legal wife when carrying his child; Annabert divorces Jan but includes a note on the envelope with the divorce papers that she loves him very much and she is only doing it so Marianne could marry him. Dean describes sleeping arrangements, public displays of affection, cover stories, run-ins with the authorities, childcare arrangements (both women bare him children), and ambivalence about two additional live-in Japanese lovers. Buy-in for this blogger was difficult, so Dean is wise to end the biography as she does: after Annabert’s death, she shares Annabert’s recollection of a dream in which she discourages Jan from inviting the first of the live-in Japanese lovers to return, stating, “Can we not stay like we are? We [Jan, Marianne, and Annabert] have it so good together” (p. 256).

Acceptance of their marital union is critical, because as Marianne observes, with weaving—a medium that demands precision—“You cannot have your mind wandering away” (p. 179). Jan designs tapestries with modern figures and patterns reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s work, in brilliant colors that recall Georges Rouault. Annabert and Marianne do the majority of the weaving and offer their opinions, taking on a more active role than the typical technician. Dean points out that the polygamous set-up lends itself to the production of tapestries, as weaving was laborious (taking eight hours for both women to weave a square foot) and the women were willing to work without compensation. The self-taught, resourceful trio scrimps and pinches and take on odd jobs as well as side projects when there isn’t sufficient support for Jan’s work. Ultimately, he has a successful career, starting with a solo show in London when he is a student, and securing a solo show in New York in 1953 three years after Jan moves there and two years after his wives follow him. As Jan hobnobs with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, Annabert and Marianne remain isolated, not even realizing that the Stonewall riots had occurred nearby until a few years after the fact. Jan dies at age 55 from health complications related to neglect during his incarceration and his travels with the Romanji. After three decades as a trio, Annabert and Marianne remain together for another three decades, with 100 designs in the queue and a shared commitment to bolster Jan’s (read: their) legacy.

Source of image reproduced in 2019 via fair use:

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Yayoi Kusama and Infinite Possibilities

“...the poignant and the penultimate...”

Before my near-fatal accident in the spring (shown here), the second last thing I did was attend Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Art Gallery of Ontario with my sister (the last thing I did was have pizza with my husband and artist friends). And so it was that Kusama’s work became a visual marker for the last day my life felt normal.

Because humor is my default response to tragedy, in the hospital, I mused that I looked primed for a Kusama performance, with round electrodes dotting my torso. Of course, humor only takes one so far in recovery. My sister and I both wrote therapeutically about my brush with death and referenced the exhibition symbolically, though in different ways. What struck me as poignant was the sensation upon exiting each mirrored room, of infinity being curtailed against will. Simply put, I felt disappointed (distressed, even) to have to leave so soon.

When I returned to work, the installation of Kusama’s touring show began the following day. I must be the only person who flinched habitually when walking past the artist’s large pink polka dot-covered balls, as they are completely charming. In fact the title (Dots Obsession--Love Transformed into Dots, 2007) indicates that they stem from a positive emotion. The reason I bristled is that I kept recalling a photograph from the AGO by the same installation (shown above) where I'm wearing clothing fated to be cut off of me by emergency room staff only a few hours later. Realizing that the show was a trigger, I declined shifts in the very Kusama Lounge that I helped plan, instead becoming oriented in reference so I could provide backup upstairs in the library while my staff engaged lounge visitors.

Over the course of the show, unexpectedly, traumatic associations began to be weaken as new memories formed. For weeks on end, my proudest moment every weekday was remaining steady while using the curb at the north entrance of the museum as a balance beam, cheered on by Kusama’s whimsical polka dots covering the tree trunks nearby. My mother and sister (pictured here) brought my nephew to see the show with me, and my husband joined me later, sparking no negative responses. So fine were these experiences that my husband and I returned to the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh to see my favorite Kusama installation. Back in Cleveland, I offered to write an institutional blog post about the Kusama Lounge; helped coordinate a book display outside of one of the screenings of Kusama - Infinity, the documentary about the artist; and watched said film not once but twice. Now that the show is in its final week, I am starting to put the poignant and the penultimate behind me and facing a future of infinite possibilities. To borrow translated wording from a poem by Kusama--who (as the film shows) experienced childhood trauma, sexism, the stealing of her art ideas and a related suicide attempt, plus public shaming for her use of nudity in art happenings--“I collected my thoughts and got up again.”

To acknowledge that the meaning of the show has evolved for me personally is timely because this week, the Cleveland Museum of Art hosts the inaugural Keithley Symposium with Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Art History and Art and the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities. In this symposium--for which I am conducting a workshop about the serendipitous discovery of social context in artists’ clipping files--the theme is the life of art objects and how their meaning shifts as time passes.

Infinity director and Ohio native Heather Lenz attended screenings of her film on September 22 and 23 at the CMA. At the screening on the 23rd, a theme of resilience ran through Lenz’s Q&A that resonated with me. She described Kusama as “really ahead of her time,” yet lacking recognition for a long time, which was a situation compounded by sexism. Lenz shared, “The thing that propelled me...[was that in] history...I probably learned an average of 1,000 male artists for [every] five female artists.” She set about “[w]riting this wrong in history.” Lenz observes that Kusama’s story has a happy ending, for she has achieved immense success; while there are many ways to define success, but one example is the fact that she’s the top selling female artist alive today. Lenz said with satisfaction, “Her time has arrived!”

Lenz reflected on the fact that it took 17 years to create the film, because of massive challenges like securing funding and convincing people that a “foreign female” subject was worthwhile. She said that ultimately, the process was, “[h]arder than I [she] thought.” She noted that in the film industry, one makes sacrifices that may or may not be practical with no guarantee that things will work out. In the end, though, her “passion project” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and based on the applause at the CMA, it’s winning over audiences.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Reading as Recovery: Black Out

“Martha Ann Honeywell...was born without hands, yet she worked for 50 years sewing and producing silhouettes with an arm stump, her feet (with only three toes on one foot), and her mouth. Talk about a role model for me as I convalesce.”

A full season has passed since my last blog post, but my excuse is much better than lying on the beach: I have been busy narrowly avoiding paralysis and death as a passenger in a harrowing roll-over automobile crash, to say nothing of learning to walk again.

Early in my hospital stay, I was shown a photograph of my face. Two bloodshot eyes stared blankly back at me. No, not bloodshot—blood-filled; the whites had been eclipsed by a brilliant shade of cranberry. Surrounding my eyes were two purple shiners, aptly called Battle signs. The cranberry-purple combination caused children and adults alike to recoil. Eventually, the bruises migrated down my face, drooping into concentric oblongs suggestive of skin melting. It was an illusion exacerbated, at least in my mind, by skin hanging off of my bones as my weight plummeted to double digits. My unintentional gauntness caused the adult diapers I was given—designed for someone twice my size—to feel further undignified. In the intensive care unit, I told the physiotherapist I wanted to make t-shirts that said, 'dignity is overrated.' It was a perspective I developed while prioritizing (read: trying to survive).

Once I was well enough to reach the restroom, I looked in the mirror but didn’t recognize myself. Then again, I couldn’t see anything clearly, since airbags had snapped my glasses in half. Curiously, I hadn’t noticed I was without glasses when I regained consciousness in the car, but I was in shock and fixated on the heinousness of dirt in my mouth. When I finally selected a replacement pair, I still didn’t look right. Even now, when someone compliments my frames, irrationally, I feel wounded. Adding to my probable dysmorphia is the fact that I couldn’t twist my torso after surgery to style my naturally wavy hair, so I got a perm. The curls look uncharacteristically tight and no amount of conditioning makes me feel like my former self. I keep having my hair cut shorter and shorter to get rid of it, and in turn, I dissociate from my appearance. At one hair appointment, I finally felt--with relief--an affinity with my appearance when I was seated in a different area and my reflection was spread across multiple tiny mirrors and fractured, like me.

I decided to buy a few accessories and items of clothing to perk myself up. But then I kept spending. I bought an Alexander Wang top with a partially open back revealing almost the whole spine, forgetting the six inch incision the surgeon made to stabilize my severe lumbar brake. (One broken bone per person is to be expected from crashing with the same force as driving off a 12-story building). By the time I remembered my scar, the garment was no longer returnable. I purchased, and kept, a BCBGMAXAZRIA dress in two sizes because who knew what size I was, really? These items were second-hand, but still... On week-ends, I awoke at 6 am, eager to discover what online deals I might score. I withdrew from friends and allowed myself to see a collection of amiable hand-written notes from online sellers as evidence of a social network. Because I had survived against all odds, I imagined that it must have been for a reason, and the related pressure to do something meaningful (or more meaningful?) with my life was crushing. So, by shopping, I embraced the most superficial aspect of myself--although I do consider fashion/style an art form. How could I not, as a former textiles student? The truly embarrassing thing is that I embarked on this slippery slope after reading the tell-all post by stylist Stacy London about almost going broke further to having the exact same surgery. I read it and actually thought, "Shopping sounds like a good idea." That I nearly succumbed to the endorphins and dopamine associated with shopping while changing up nearly half of my wardrobe is ironic because I was ultra-responsible about withdrawing from opiates to avoid a well-known addiction risk.

When I spotted Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now (Princeton University Press, 2018) in our new books display, my eyes welled up. Not only had I gotten black eyes when I blacked out, but pitch-blackness prompted my only flashback the first night I was home from the (always bright) hospital. Awakening in the night unable to see anything, I thought I was trapped in the car again; when I realized I was safe, I was a split second away from emitting a series of five screams that had queued up in my throat. Moreover, when I encountered this book, it was as if I sensed the inclusion of relatable passages like “...vanished into the vacuum of her silhouette” (p. 57)--relatable because in addition to the details I have shared thus far, I had lost track of the number of times my personhood was flattened and reduced to black and white as I was shunted painfully onto a wooden board for an x-ray or MRI. Thank goodness this catalogue began to shift me from a vortex of interchanging self-images into the more intellectual and frugal past-time of reading.

I brought the catalogue home, but I felt unable to even peek at the introduction for two weeks, as getting back to enjoyable activities like blogging would signify moving forward. All along, though, I have told myself that I cannot get stuck for long. Another two weeks passed before I read the essays within, finishing them in an afternoon because they were so compelling. The next day (today), before I read the final section of didactic texts for works in the associated exhibition, I was reminded that it’s the one-year anniversary of the white nationalist rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville. (Activist Heather Heyer died after being hit by a car, and shortly thereafter, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates died while monitoring the scene from a helicopter). Because race is a recurring theme in Black Out, today feels like the perfect time to come out of the shadows and resume my role as one of many bloggers seeking social justice. So, more on this fantastic catalogue...

Image: August Edouart (French, 1789-1861), The Magic Lantern, 1826-61, cut paper and wash, image: 9 1/2 x 13 3/8 in. (24.2 x 33.9 cm), sheet: 10 1/4 x 13 1/2 in. (26 x 34.3 cm). Bequest of Mary Martin, 1938. 38.145.392. Source:; in public domain.

Before the advent of photography in 1839, silhouettes were a widely and wildly popular memento in the United States. In the late 18th Century, varied subjects, such as European settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved or formerly enslaved people, began to have their contours traced onto paper and cut out. The small portraits existed at the liminal divide between art and craft because they could be produced for only a few pennies and in a range of settings, from taverns to art galleries, by both artisans and artists. Techniques also varied: some silhouettes were produced by candlelight, and others had greater precision thanks to a machine called the physiognotrace.

As a democratic art form, silhouettes could even be generated by the subject. However, to have one’s silhouette made by another hand introduced a performative element, functioning as a means to construct self-identity, which was important in an era of asserting political independence, as argued by Asma Naeem, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Media Arts at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, who organized the Black Out exhibition. My phrasing of ‘another hand’ isn’t entirely accurate, incidentally. One of the better known silhouettists, Martha Ann Honeywell, was born without hands, yet she worked for 50 years sewing and producing silhouettes with an arm stump, her feet (with only three toes on one foot), and her mouth. Talk about a role model for me as I convalesce.

As Naeem points out, at a time when slavery was contested, oddly, an aesthetic flourished that rendered everyone black. That’s not to say there weren’t racialized differences in representation. For example, superfluous details were added by the best known silhouettist, Auguste Edouart, to depictions of white people, like props of sophistication (tea cups, sheet music, etc.). In contrast, depictions of enslaved people, which were made for reasons like aiding recovery if they escaped, featured minimal physical attributes. Also, the identities of enslaved people were often obliterated in silhouettes, as demonstrated by the scrawling of “Mr. Shaw’s Blackman” above a portrait. Abolitionists tended to promote their cause by referencing silhouettes of enslaved people with details added using chalk or colored pencil, representing some recovery of identity. There were also occasional celebratory silhouettes of African Americans, such as Rev. Abssalom directly, the first African American Episcopal priest. Another example of limited celebration is the art historical oversight of contributions by silhouettist Moses Williams, a former enslaved person. Although he produced tens of thousands of silhouettes with the physiognotrace, attributions to him have been lacking.

The history of silhouettes in scholarly essays by Naeem, Penley Knipe, Alexander Nemerov, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, and Anne Verplanck provide context for the four contemporary artists featured in the Black Out exhibition: Kristi Malakoff, Camille Utterback, Kumi Yamashita, and Kara Walker.

The catalogue’s design, by Ray Brooks (Fold Four, Inc.) is noteworthy. Black matte paper, similar to what would be used for silhouettes, is included in the front and back matter (before the half/Bastard title and after the colophon). The catalogue title is cleverly written in a font without negative space (there is no triangular space for a capital ‘A,’ for example), as is the title of each essay. Although silhouettes would translate well into black and white, they are included in full color. The images are of a generous size, often bleeding to the edges or occupying a portion of the accompanying page. There are some gems, like a lesbian double portrait in which two life partners face one another, and Edouart’s complex work, The Magic Lantern (1826-61), containing 10 silhouetted figures, which is featured on the inside front and back cover and opposing pages.

Thank-you for reading. It’s good to be back.

Top image: Gearing up for an 8-hour ambulance ride and enjoying fresh air for the first time in over a week.