Sunday, August 17, 2014

Too Smart for Her Own Good: The Blazing World

“...she would reveal the truth, so people would be forced to admit that female artists are overlooked.”

Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014, Simon & Schuster) is a fitting follow-up to the last book I reviewed, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol). Like Solanas, the protagonist in The Blazing World, Harriet Burden—who goes by Harry—is a gender-bending provocateur, hell-bent on getting revenge in the New York art world for misattribution of intellectual property but plagued by judgments about her mental state (and, in turn, credibility).

Hustvedt’s novel is a faux-biography, presented as if edited by one I. V. Hess, Professor of Aesthetics, and published on the heels of a posthumous retrospective show of Burden’s art. A work of metafiction, it’s about society’s gullibility and specifically, its inability to see through fiction. It’s convincing as a scholarly biography, between its analysis of the idiosyncrasies of Burden’s journal entries; a postscript commenting on a vital journal of Burden’s that was recovered as the book was about to go to print; and lengthy footnotes revealing the rabbit holes into which academics leap to track obscure leads…so convincing, in fact, that I actually checked the call number to confirm it as a work of literature. Hilariously, Hustvedt writes herself into the text: in a pseudonymously written article outing Burden’s experiment of having three men exhibit her work as their own to expose gender bias, Hustvedt is dismissed as “an obscure novelist and essayist” (p. 255).

After years of being in the shadow of her gallerist husband, the widow Burden convinced Anton Tish (1998), Phineas Q. Eldridge (2002), and Rune (2003) to participate in the ruse, known collectively as Maskings. All three men had enjoyed varying degrees of success in the art world, so their new, fabulous work made discreetly by multi-media artist Burden wouldn’t appear utterly out of the blue. Oddly, their success was her failure was her success. For instance, when one of the artists is fawned over by the press, critics neglect to identify Burden as an influence. She had enough of a reputation as an artist that it is an oversight, but not such an established reputation that it precluded her pursuit of the scam altogether. She could hardly wait for the moment when she would reveal the truth, so people would be forced to admit that female artists are overlooked. Alas, Rune went rogue and refused to take part in the exposé. He noted flippantly in an interview, “We live in a post-feminist age of gender freedom, transsexuality. Who cares which is which? There are lots of women in art now. Where is the battle?” Easier said from his position than Burden’s.

Burden’s welfare suffered substantially as a result of the botched experiment: she lost weight, temporarily lost the new love of her life, and instigated a physical altercation with her nemesis. Her motivation had been multifaceted, making the betrayal that much harder to take: in addition to wanting visibility, she had wanted validation—not just as a visual artist, but arguably as a writer and as a self-made philosopher. Perhaps Hustvedt is conducting an experiment of her own, to gauge the reader’s self-importance: if you recognize an obscure art reference or a historical feminist reference within The Blazing World, how does it make you feel? Knowledgeable? Knowledgeable and therefore superior? Consider two different readings of Burden: her best friend, Rachel, described her as having “an immense appetite for ingesting as much learning as she possibly could” (p. 48), while Eldridge, who was fond of Burden, said of her, “She knew too much, had read too much” (p. 216). Undeniably learned, Burden frequently quoted the greats from history in her journals, requiring the editor to act as an interpreter by way of inserting footnotes. The footnotes, being objective by their very nature, contrast Burden’s impassioned writing.

The highs and lows of Burden’s burdensome experiment unfold through chapters presented as contributions written in memoriam by characters interspersed with journal excerpts. In these seeming primary sources, the characters veer off topic to share loosely related details about their pets or people’s auras, emphasizing their lack of investment in the experiment. Harry’s obsessive nature appears pronounced in comparison, bringing to mind the female-associated term, hysteria. There are some obvious foils, like Rachel, the psychotherapist best friend who identifies Burden’s post-betrayal behavior as irrational; Bruno, Burden’s new male love interest, who is as unmotivated as she is prolific; and even her granddaughter’s friend, who is able to forget a spat the very next day.

It might be argued that Rune gets what was coming to him when he dies during his own performance art. As a result, there are posthumous accounts of his life and legacy and a surge of interest in his practice. Frustratingly, even in death, Rune and Burden compete for attention. On the upside, reading his sister’s account humanizes him and creates empathy, leaving the reader conflicted about whether or not to detest him.

In addition to astutely capturing the complexity of the gender bias in the art world, Hustvedt characterizes it well overall, from graduate students’ overuse of theory to punchy descriptions like critic Clement Greenberg, right-hand man of Jackson Pollock as “a successful dictator” (p. 172). That Hustvedt holds a PhD in English and has lectured on art in university and museum settings comes as no surprise. In the running for the Man Booker Prize, The Blazing World is deserving of a place on every academic and art lover’s bookshelf.

Cover reproduced with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Prettying up Feminism: The Coven at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse

“…the ironic mimicry of girlhood…”

I stopped by La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse in Montreal on Friday night for the opening of the window installation, Girlhood, curated by Luna e los Santos. On the heels of SlutWalk and its strategy of reclaiming what is deemed negative, it aims to celebrate the state and/or attributes of being young and female in spite of girlhood’s bad rap. Girlhood features the work of 13 artists, more than half of them Montreal-based, from a 14-member feminist collective known as The Coven. A fabric hanging of digital reproductions of members’ work faces the street; a wooden bench is partly covered with repeated white text from Samantha Conlon that says, “I pledge allegiance to girlhood”; and on the windowpane, a variation of the white text proclaims multiple allegiances. The arrangement of images is a nod to the Pinterest generation (which seems appropriate, given that the artists who have provided their ages in their bios are in their early- to mid-twenties).

During the opening, a different selection of images than is shown in the vitrine rotated on a projector inside the exhibition space. As with the fabric hanging and also the press release, no titles were included for individual works even though titles can be found for some of the same images on the collective’s Tumblr site. It’s a shame because titles could have provided an entry point for viewers. Just as titles are not associated with individual works in the fabric hanging, press release or slideshow, artists’ names are disconnected in all three. On the one hand, this curatorial choice captures a communal sensibility and refutes the notion of artistic genius, which has historically been associated with men rather than women. On the other hand, attribution in the visual arts was hard won and since lack of recognition for female artists has been an ongoing challenge, it gave me pause.

There is definitely room for improvement in the presentation of the images in the vitrine. One of the images towards the top contains graphs which cannot be read from the sidewalk, nor can the graphs be deciphered in the corresponding thumbnail on the invitation posted in the lower right-hand corner of the window (which, oddly, is surrounded by what looks like white, soapy strokes). The window frame bisects a number of images, while valuable real estate is taken up by utilitarian pink borders between images. One piece, which says, “Things 2 make me better than u” (reminding me of an elementary school classmate’s brazen t-shirt that said, “Everything boys can do girls can do better”) is fragmented vertically on the fabric hanging and horizontally on the invitation. The punchiness of some images is sacrificed to the structure of the window; for example, part of a sword is covered, making it seem less threatening, and the shock of fuchsia hair on a goth girl is obscured (shown here), preventing the appreciation of its contrast with the blonde hair of the Playboy model on her t-shirt.

The emergence of collectives like the Coven, and other groups I’ve blogged about such as the New York-based tART and the international Ardorous, is exciting. One collaboration in particular stands out as being parallel and that is the Toronto-based GalGalz. The duo of female gallerists writes, “…our Girlie feminism is an imperfect, personal response to our experiences, and it feels powerful to us. By seeking strength and community in girlieness, we feel that we’re reclaiming what’s relentlessly cast as weak, silly, dismissible and frivolous…” (1) Like the Coven, GalGalz employ pink branding. The colour palette and the frills that accompany it are non-threatening, but are they also inadvertently dismissive, like campaigns against breast cancer? They pretty up feminism, but there’s no escaping the fact that the issues tackled by feminism are ugly. To return to the window text about allegiances, the first one says, “I pledge allegiance to sexting”; personally, when I read that, my mind goes to the late Rehtaeh Parsons, and I feel the opposite of celebratory. Additionally, the risk (or thrill) of adopting a girlie aesthetic for feminist purposes is that it’s hard to tell the difference between the ironic mimicry of girlhood and the hearts and smiley faces that adorn the placards held by young women online to denounce feminism. Thus, having a clear agenda is helpful—albeit challenging for artists with different practices coming together. The press release reveals a bit about their agenda, but it is not as developed as the GalGalz’ online statement.

Although the press release states that the artists embrace the frills of girlhood, aside from a silkscreened image of a candy heart, a painting of a jeweled crown, and a photographic image of a My Little Pony toy presumably embedded in icing, the subject matter in the fabric hanging is adult. Images of little girls are not conjured by pins projecting out of underwear to mimic pubic hair; well-endowed female figures dancing in a circle; or female figures with hairy appendages and droopy breasts (the latter by Charlene Bataille, shown here, are particularly strong). Because the focus appears to be on the signifiers of femininity, rather than on what they signify, it’s possible the root causes of gender inequality will be overlooked. For instance, the gender-bending image of the girl wearing a Playboy shirt is both clever and progressive. But the theme of girlhood begs the question of what the ripple effect is of pornographic imagery on girls.

The press release notes that the collective exists for the members to find their voice(s), but these unresolved elements effectively convey the very criticism the Coven has identified as being associated with young girls—specifically, to translate from the French statement, that they aren’t sure of themselves. However, their exhibition record demonstrates momentum and it will be interesting to see what they accomplish as they move through the growing pains.

Girlhood closes August 29th.



All photographs taken in situ by Heather Saunders

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Recommended Reading: Valerie Solanas Biography

“Its [the SCUM Manifesto’s] premise was that...women should take over the world.”

Cover reproduced with permission of the City University of New York Feminist Press

Breanne Fahs’ biography of enigmatic, self-described superfeminist, Valerie Solanas (1936-1988) lives up to its gripping preface. The opening paragraph of the book published in April by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York reveals that one interviewee refused to speak about the woman who famously shot Andy Warhol until her death certificate was produced, for fear of retribution from the paranoid schizophrenic. Between reluctant interviewees and a loyal mother who burned Solanas’ archival material when she died, the very existence of Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol) is remarkable.

Exhaustively researched, the book is chock full of quotations whose length prevents statements from being taken out of context. Although this risk is always mitigated by conscientious academics, it is also something of a tribute to Solanas, who became incensed whenever she felt her writing had been misrepresented. With extensive research comes detail, but it may not always add to the tale. For instance, it seems superfluous that the couch an arts editor crossed over to in the Factory right before the shooting was in the art deco style. Ditto for Warhol’s wardrobe selection that day, though it is interesting that he was wearing his trademark silver wig when he was taken to hospital. Fahs’ writing style is also descriptive grammatically; a sentence comes to mind that contains seven adjectives in a row (1). It’s fitting, though, because Solanas was such a complex person that one adjective would not suffice to describe her. Plus, it mimics Solanas’ style; for example, Solanas wrote that fatherhood made females “male-dependent, passive, domestic, animalistic, nice, insecure, approval and security seekers, cowardly, humble, ‘respectful’ of authorities and men, closed, not fully responsive, half dead, trivial, dull, conventional, flattened out and thoroughly contemptible” (2).

That Solanas’ shooting of Warhol appears in parentheses in the title underscores the author’s intention to not dwell on this aspect of her life. Indeed, the near-fatal shooting of 1968 appears just before the half-way point in the book. As a result, extensive consideration is given to her contributions—welcome or not—to radical feminism from behind bars and how she fractured NOW (its members couldn’t agree on whether to support her as a mistreated and justifiably angry woman or distance themselves from her violence). There is a sense of restoring dignity to Solanas, indicative in sensitive comments like Fahs qualifying the behavior of an acquaintance of Solanas as deliberately cruel. Additionally, while it would be handy to have a timeline of her extensive criminal record, it would be at the cost of empathy because the facts would be presented apart from the context that helps the reader understand her plight.

For Solanas, writing became an outlet for her contemplation of gender, although ‘contemplation’ seems too gentle a term. She had a complicated life to say the least: she was an apparent child victim of incest betrayed by her father, a twice pregnant teenager, an adult prostitute in seedy settings like the Chelsea Hotel rooftop, and a green card wife. She embodied the ‘whatever’ quality of queerness that Sarah Liss writes about in last month’s issue of FLARE magazine (3), referring to herself as a lesbian, but choosing occasional male partners, at one point for a few years. At times she projected asexuality, but she could also be overtly sexual—for example, in exposing herself. This ambivalence came through in her manifesto for SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men. Its premise was that men were emotionally flawed and overall screw-ups, so they should be exterminated and women should take over the world. Although the scope of the book is within Solanas’ lifetime, the ripple effect is apparent in contemporary society—for example, in Pussy Riot singing, “Kill the Sexist!” and a Carrier of the Cross for the Orthodox church in which they performed a different song retorting, “If they want to live in a world without men, they should move to an island or the Amazon or something” (4).

Because Solanas spent time in mental institutions (more so than in jail), it has been documented that she had a higher than average IQ. Her radical ideas were intertwined with incredible insight. For instance, she predicted such developments as test tube babies and Viagra. She was a master wordsmith and a perfectionist editor. She demanded respect, but was hardly respectful of her colleagues (for example, comparing Simone de Beauvoir’s writing to comic books and calling the works of Ti-Grace Atkinson, her ally when she was incarcerated, “total shit” (5)). In contrast, Solanas considered the SCUM Manifesto to be “history’s greatest bargain” (6). In part, this was in reference to the fact that its initial sale price was $2 for men and $1 for women. French philosopher, Jacques Derrida declared the text ‘necessary’ while Atkinson called it the “most important statement written to date in the English language” (7).

Broadly speaking, it’s possible that for Solanas, Warhol represented the gender disparity of the art world. Before she met him, she lamented in the manifesto that men “define Great Art” (8). She saw her shooting of Warhol as a moral act that was about artists’ rights (namely writers’ rights) rather than about feminism, which complicated matters for the radical feminist movement. Specifically, she was upset because she felt Warhol had led her on about producing her play, Up Your Ass, and that he had appropriated her comments for his films—which she had reason to believe, since he welcomed a spontaneous cameo of Solanas in one of his films. Both situations must have felt like a blow since she had believed Warhol to be on her side, to the extent that she considered him to be head of the ‘men’s auxiliary’ of SCUM. Even after the shooting, she maintained contact with him, almost always baiting him. For instance when the original publisher of the manifesto, Olympia Press, went bankrupt and the publishing rights reverted to her, she posted an ad looking for distributors; in it, she wrote, “Andy Warhol, peddle it at all those hot shit parties you go to (9).” The challenge for the reader is that Solanas restated her feelings about Warhol and her contact at Olympia Press ad nauseam and there is a point at which reading her harassing letters and verbal slurs loses appeal. This element notwithstanding, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol) will be equally valuable as beach reading and as a scholarly source.

In a visit to the Andy Warhol Museum a week and a half ago, I was glad to see that this book was sold in the gift shop, since the timeline from his life posted on the gallery walls didn’t delve into Solanas’ motive.


(1) p. 47

(2) p. 63

(3) Liss, Sarah. “Love is Love,” FLARE, June 2014: 104-109. Print.

(4) Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Dir. Mike Lerner, Roast Beef Productions Limited, 2014. Film.

(5) p. 307

(6) p. 307

(7) p. 177

(8) p. 63

(9) p. 297

Monday, July 14, 2014

In Defense of Yoko Ono

“…definitely not a SWUG.”

Leaving the North Midway Travel Plaza in Bedford, Pennsylvania on the week-end, I spotted a billboard featuring Yoko Ono, but didn’t get a chance to photograph it. It paired a recent portrait of her with an outdated charge in the form of the question, “Would you take energy advice from the woman who broke up the Beatles?” It was produced by the Big Green Radicals, a watchdog group that critiques the likes of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. According to the BGR website, the campaign (which also includes similar billboards of Robert Redford and Lady Gaga) aims to emphasize the gap between the lifestyles of average Americans and celebrities.

My gut reaction was, “Yeah, probably” in response to the billboard’s question. The reason is that when I think of Ono and environmentalism, what comes to mind is Acorn Piece, a collaboration with John Lennon in 1969 that she repeated solo 40 years later. They planted acorns in easternly and westernly directions to symbolize the union of cultures, and mailed acorns to world leaders, asking them to plant them for world peace. At worst, this gesture would result in the absorption of carbon dioxide through the planting of trees; at best, people would come away inspired. Maybe, just maybe, if we had heeded her advice in Grapefruit (1964) to “Listen to the sound of the earth turning” (1) the earth wouldn’t be in such poor shape.

The billboard is a response to Ono’s anti-fracking efforts with a group she co-founded with her son, Sean Lennon, called Artists Against Fracking. Its placement in Pennsylvania is fitting, given that more natural gas is produced there than any other state on the prime Marcellus Shale stratum. Stephanie Malin interviewed small-scale farmers in Pennsylvania who were in a position to lease land for corporate fracking, and reported that they saw it as a force beyond their control. Additionally, she found that they either felt the environmental concerns were unfounded or that they were balanced by economic benefits. This type of media campaign could play a key role in normalizing fracking for a group that is vulnerable. (2)

Whether or not Ono had a hand in the demise of one of the greatest bands in history is a separate issue from her environmental politics. She is not Pete Seeger, nor is she Midnight Oil. The pairing is simply incongruous. Curiously, the BGR billboard says “broke up the Beatles,” which sounds definitive, yet in Ono’s activist profile on the BGR site (3) it says, “When she’s not helping to break up the Beatles…”. So, which one is it, BGR? If Ono said fracking causes earthquakes in one breath, and helps cause earthquakes in the next, undoubtedly she’d be attacked.

Ono is no stranger to poor reception: for example, in her native Japan, her shows have been advertised using the script reserved for foreign names, while her grasp of English has been mocked in the US, where she is based. (4) The BGR profile of Ono dismisses her experimental music as screeching and as (note the surly quotation marks) ‘performance’. It also describes her as being washed up. It’s unfortunate to see the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the high profile Venice Biennale so grossly misrepresented. On a more superficial note, when Vogue publishes a spread of a woman’s “amazing style history” (5), it means she is definitely not a SWUG.

Fortunately, it would seem that Ono has the last laugh. In attacking Ono with billboards, the Big Green Radicals are actually reinforcing her media savvy. Ono used billboards most famously with John Lennon to protest the Vietnam War, the contemporary version of which is “Imagine there’s no fracking” billboards produced by Artists Against Fracking. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ono should feel vindicated. Her “brilliant use of mass media” (6) is evident not just in her billboards but in her banners, bags, stickers, postcards, flyers, postcards, and badges, all carrying on the tradition of multiples that emerged with Fluxus and made art more accessible to the 99%.


(1) Yoko Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings, New York: Simon & Schuster, reprinted 2000, n.p.
(2) Edith Newhall, “A Long and Winding Road.” Art News, 99.9 (2000), 162.
(4) Jerry Hopkins, Yoko Ono. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, 191-192 and 251.
(6) Stephanie Malin, “There’s no Real Choice but to Sign: Neoliberalization and Normalization of Hydraulic Fracturing on Pennsylvania Farmland.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (2014): 4:1, 17-27.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zanele Muholi at Ryerson University

“My beat is about visual politics”—Zanele Muholi

Since graduating from Ryerson University in 2009 with an MFA in Documentary Media, South African artist Zanele Muholi has exhibited in such high profiles venues as dOCUMENTA and the Venice Biennale. During a return visit from Johannesburg for the opening of her show, Faces and Phases (May 1-June 1 and June 18-Aug. 24, University Gallery), she gave an artist talk last night at Ryerson.

When Muholi clarified that she would be giving an artist talk rather than a lecture, she wasn’t kidding. With thank-yous to myriad individuals interspersed between reflective statements about her work at both the beginning and end of the night, a Q & A in the middle, and a seemingly spontaneous demo of website images toward the end, the audience got a sense of her creative process. Evidently, she makes constant, rapid-fire connections between elements in what unfolds as a constellation. Interestingly, although it would appear that she is not a linear thinker (she admitted to never having had things in order as a student either), her black and white portraiture series of black lesbian women is sequential. Consisting of over 240 images taken during the past 8 years, it has far surpassed her original goal of 25. One of these works is a self-portrait, to underscore the fact that she speaks as an insider.

To return to the constellation metaphor, during her animated presentation, I found myself thinking back to an excerpt from a book I skimmed on the road trip to Toronto. In Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn (Clark Institute in the Visual Arts, 2014), the Raqs Media Collective writes, “Detach yourself, momentarily, from the mothership of art history. Step out for a spacewalk” (p. 4). Muholi invites us to take a spacewalk with her extensive intervention in visual culture. Referring to queer people, she observed, “It’s always challenging to have people like us. You go to museums and galleries and ask yourself, ‘Where am I in all this commotion?’” Later she noted, “Maybe there’s an assumption that galleries and museums aren’t for black people.” Thus, she aims to bring about or enhance black queer visibility. It’s a pressing need: a few weeks ago, a show featuring her art in the Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal was shut down because of pressure from Islamic extremists. Consequently, “being here is like winning the Nobel Prize.” She notes that “these [institutional] spaces sidelined us and we decided to become visible.”

She has facilitated this visibility through portraiture. Muholi introduced herself as a proud black lesbian, and she photographs other proud black lesbians in Faces and Phases. She avoids photographing black lesbians under the age of majority or those who haven’t come out. “I don’t want to be responsible for your closet,” she says. She has formed an organization, Inkyaniso, for the subjects—or ‘participants’ as she calls them, acknowledging the collaborative element—to share their stories (see

“My beat is about visual politics” she says and considers her work to be more about visual activism than aesthetics, and herself to be a visual activist more so than an artist. Indicative of this stance is her statement that she doesn’t want to die young without rewriting history.

Rather than fall back on jargon like ‘the scopophilic gaze,’ she states that the series forces the audience to ask why they are asked to look at these faces at this point in history. South Africa is at a turning point historically. In 2006, same-sex marriage was legalized, and it is the first (and so far only) African country to make the transition. Muholi has photographed gay weddings, making arrangements like not charging for her services in exchange for being able to use selected images professionally. “It’s part of our history. It’s now,” she says. She has also documented lesbian funerals as a political act to expose queercide. 2012 was a particularly brutal year in this regard, with Amnesty International citing at least seven LGBTI murder victims.

Photographing the participants in Faces and Phases is painful, though it may not be apparent from the confidence the participants project. When an audience member asked about her editing process, she revealed that it usually involves tears and a trans-Atlantic call to her therapist. Still, Muholi says, “I decided I would rather suffer for something I believe in than die in silence.” Her work is rooted in love as much as it is in pain. She says that she doesn’t want to limit the struggle to pain because it can’t be moved forward without love. “When we think about black lesbian histories,” she urges, “let’s think about love.”

Faces and Phases, curated by Dr. Gaëlle Morel, is part of WorldPride 2014. If you’re in Toronto, please join me at the opening of The Sex Offensive: Emancipating Gender tomorrow night at the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts, which is also part of the festival.

Image: Mpumi Moeti, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012, gelatin silver print. Source: Copyright: Zanele Muholi and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Woman, Revolt: Ghada Amer at Cheim & Reid

" bravado there."

A former gallery colleague once told me that meeting her husband (of several decades and counting) felt like stepping into a warm bath. For me, that characterizes the experience of viewing the works of Cairo-born, New York-based Ghada Amer. Years from now, I imagine it will still feel just right.

Her current exhibition of recent work at Cheim &Read (Chelsea, NYC), Rainbow Girls, closes on Saturday. It's well-rounded, featuring three floor sculptures (a new enterprise for Amer) and eight two-dimensional mixed media pieces in which thread is dominant. Since 1997, she has combined paint, which she considers to be male, with thread, which she considers to be female. Two of the eight works were made with her partner and long-time collaborator, Reza Farkhondeh, as denoted by the initialism, RFGA, in the works' titles. The Big Black Bang -- RFGA, (2013) is the largest work in the show. At 102 by 132 inches, it is a seeming response to connections drawn between Amer and Jackson Pollock. The size for Abstract Expressionist artists like Pollock was all about capturing the action of the body, but sewing is different. Occasionally, it requires a full range of motion, but often, it's a matter of teeny stitches for nimble fingers--no bravado there. This piece pulses with colour on a dark background, a tamed tangle of sperm-like threads flowing in the same direction and visually overtaking images of stitched, sexualized women underneath, to the extent that initially it appears wholly abstract. At the risk of flogging the Pollock comparison, I will say this: just as attempts to mimic his fractal-filled paintings have been likened to a plate of spaghetti, when I run out of Ziploc bags, my embroidery bag is a mess but has none of the spectacular qualities of this work.

Amer is an interesting counterpoint to the last artist whose work I reviewed, Sarah Lucas, because she is understated in comparison. In fact, in the catalogue for Rainbow Girls, Anne Creissels comments on Amer's ability to hide as much as she shares. A case in point is the egg-shaped, stainless steel filigree sculpture, Blue Bra Girls (2012), in which a female figure's thumbs meet in the negative space understood to be her groin. It seemed fitting that I was distracted by a boy dragging his skateboard around this piece (indifferent to its connotations of masturbation) or that kids were playing hide and seek around another sculpture, because there is a constant element of distraction in Amer's work. With the sculptures, you can't take in the information on the surface immediately facing you without filtering the information (presented backwards) on the opposite side of the sculpture. Similarly, distraction is inevitable in her two-dimensional works, which are a combination of overlaid threads, sexualized images, and feminist messages in Arabic and Roman letters. You cannot rest your gaze on the nipple thrust upward of a reclining female without also processing the text that says repeatedly, "I see my body as an instrument rather than an ornament." Whether this is a mantra or an unheard plea is up for discussion.

Sometimes the text is in block letters coloured in solidly in black or white paint, bold like Barbara Kruger's advertising-inspired photo montages. Sometimes they seem almost noncommittal, like sketches, traces, or perforations. Their repetition, however, shows absolute commitment. It's orderly, not frantic, so it harks back to a time of sewing samplers and a preference for rote learning over critical thinking. There's another association I can't shake, undoubtedly because of the title. In elementary school, I was one of three girls to fill lined notebooks with rainbow colour schemes, declaring our adoration through repeated text for TV stars, musicians, and if we were lucky, the boy next door. Why the celebration of schoolgirl crushes necessitated this behaviour, I have no idea, but I remember it feeling most purposeful. Even though I can't help but see Amer's strands of thread in portraits as tear-smeared mascara, even though I'm cognizant that the least optimistic phrases she uses like, "No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body" resonate in Canada where I'm writing from, I choose to see these works--with their personalized, Jenny Holzer-like truisms and quotations of the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Amina Sboui--as celebratory.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Size Matters: Sarah Lucas at Gladstone Gallery

“…gruff but poetic.”

Nud Nob at Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, New York is British artist Sarah Lucas’ first show in the US in almost ten years.

Featuring large sculpted phalluses and phallic-shaped vegetables as well as sexually suggestive photographs, the exhibition provoked extensive gawking through the gallery’s glass doors when I was there. Of the people who entered the gallery proper, the least flummoxed was a girl around age six. Her only concern was that she wanted clarification about what the woman in the six massive self-portraits wallpapering a room was eating (answer: a banana). Also overheard was a man repeating, “It’s beautiful” when looking at an oversized phallic sculpture. (Did I even need to specify that it was a man who said that?). In spite of the well established concept of penis envy, personally, I found myself thinking of the entry tags at the 1993 Whitney Biennial that said, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” When contemplating why she chooses this subject matter, Lucas says, “because I don’t have one” but cites plenty of other reasons that invite diverse interpretations of her work: “appropriation…voodoo economics; totemism; they’re a convenient size for the lap; fetishism; compact power; Dad; why make the whole bloke?; gents; gnomey; because you don’t see them on display much; for religious reasons having to do with the spark” (Coles, p. 51).

Lucas’ work is blunt, in keeping with the way she speaks. It’s gruff but poetic. As J. J. Charlesworth writes of her work from the 1990s (which includes said banana works as well as Chicken Knickers, the photo in full view from West 24th Street that superimposes a raw chicken on a woman’s panty-covered crotch), its sophistication lies in its vulgarity. Blush and turn away, though, and you might miss it.

One of the nuances is the evidence of the artist’s hand, and I don’t mean that in a Sarah Lucas-double entendre kind of way. Rather, the artist’s hand is revealed through asymmetrical forms and pockmarked surfaces that make for imperfect phalluses. Displayed on cubes of crushed metal cars, there’s a bit of a thumbing of the nose at machismo. Also, the evidence of labour differentiates Lucas’ sculpture from, say, minimalist sculpture (which was also very macho) and emphasizes the kind of labour that isn’t automatically associated with art made by a woman.

What you can’t miss, even if you stick to the street view, is the size of the works. It seems proportional to the cultural value assigned to sex and functions as a reference to the notion that bigger is better—an absurd ode to penis enlargers, breast augmentation, and big numbers notched on bedposts. There’s an element of playful pop mockery with the scale quoting Jeff Koons and Claes Oldenburg, but there’s a sinister quality too: if you’ve seen the movie, A Clockwork Orange, it’s unlikely you’ve forgotten a large white phallic sculpture used in a lethal rape scene of a woman.

There are smaller works as well that Lucas showed in the Venice Biennale last year. The Nuds series began as stuffed nylons that stand in for human figures but look kind of like Gumby. Sometimes they appear with chairs, sometimes with toilets. Sometimes they are breasts, sometimes legs, sometimes intestines. The later versions in the show are bronze, like the large vegetables (which might be eggplant, zucchini, butternut squash; whatever they are, they bring to mind urban myths of self-pleasure leading to hospital visits). The shift to bronze gives them a refined quality that announces, “I am Sculpture.”

As a Young British Artist who is not really so young anymore, being in her 50s, and somewhat androgynous in appearance, Lucas is well positioned to make audiences rethink the conventions of sexual desire by disrupting the privileged male gaze that has dominated art history. You might say she’s carrying the torch for the late Louise Bourgeois. Even so, the extent of the feminist dialogue she encourages has been debated. As a librarian, I have noticed that some of her articles are indexed only with ‘feminist art’ while many are indexed with practically everything but that. Her work has also been called ‘trash-feminism’. Although I have yet to encounter this term as a noun, I assume it to refer to artists like VALIE EXPORT, who entered a Munich movie theatre in 1968 wearing crotchless pants and taunting audience members. Lucas, in turn, has cut a hole in her shirt to expose her nipple in response to Marcel Duchamp’s
catalogue cover of 1941 and she has certainly used base materials to comment on sexuality in the past, like tabloid publications, cigarette buts, and old mattresses. Regardless of whether she’s a feminist, I feel an affinity with her because of her stance that we construct our reality and therefore, we should reflect on that process.

The exhibition closes tomorrow.


Charlesworth, J. J. “Sarah Lucas Profile: From YBA to Classic Pervery—Making the Ordinary Extraordinary.” Art Review. Jan./Feb. 2013

Lucas, Sarah; Cook, Angus; and Fairhurst, Angus. Sarah Lucas: After 2005, Before 2012. Walther König, Köln.

Grayling, A. C. “An Uncooked Perspective on the Nature of Sex.” Tate Etc. Autumn 2005, issue 5.