Thursday, December 31, 2009

All I want for Christmas is...a variety of sexualized images of women eating cupcakes for my art?

“… there are significantly fewer images of men eating cupcakes in Google Images than women, and only one with nudity I found, though my undertaking hardly constitutes a quantitative study.”

My artistic process is not very glamorous, as I get most of my inspiration from wandering around shopping malls while waiting for the next train. Suffice it to say, in the pre-holiday chaos, I steered clear of malls. Generally, though, they are a goldmine for me, because I can witness how gender construction is tied to consumerism. For example, while standing in line at Nordstrom Rack yesterday, I observed what I like to call colour-coded gender socialization: a young girl, about five years old, picked out a pink scrub for herself for the shower. Then her mother prompted her to pick out the blue one for her brother. It struck me that fashion is not the only way we cover our bodies with pink or blue–hygiene is another avenue. I know I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction with these things but it disturbed me that colour and nudity (and arguably by extension, sexuality) are associated so early on. If you think that the economy does not thrive on differentiating between boys and girls through colour, check out this New York Times article on the recent call for a consumer boycott in Britain by PinkStinks: (Motherlode: Boycotting Pink Toys for Girls by Lisa Belkin)

I have actually just started looking beyond shopping malls as inspiration for a new series of works. In making two-dimensional embroideries with pink felt as a base and sexualized images of women eating cupcakes as the subject, I decided to use Google Images as a source rather than something like Xtube, because I feel it offers a cross-section of popular culture. The search string ‘woman eating cupcake’ retrieved some suggestive images indeed. Being a librarian, I indexed the images, and I must say, I was rather alarmed that terms like ‘nude’ were applicable on more than one occasion. Incidentally, there are significantly fewer images of men eating cupcakes in Google Images than women, and only one with nudity I found, though my undertaking hardly constitutes a quantitative study. I could not find sexually suggestive images of girls eating cupcakes, even though many of the details are the same as in the photos of their adult counterparts, such as icing around the mouth, fingers in the mouth, mouths engulfing the entire cupcake, etc. The closest I could find was an image of two adolescent girls flirtatiously sharing a cupcake, which my roommate found particularly disturbing because of their age. Had I found no difference between the representations of girls and women eating cupcakes in Google Images, I would likely have embroidered both and juxtaposed them to emphasize their similarities, but apparently it is not meant to be. Frankly I am relieved that the Internet did not live up to my cynical expectations.

Unfortunately, I am ringing in the New Year with a cold. It remains to be seen if I will be awake at midnight, but I am hoping Home Alone and the sugar rush from the gluten-free cupcake I had for dessert will do the trick. The latter was for research, naturally. Happy New Year, and thanks for reading over the past year…

Monday, December 7, 2009

Controversy on campus

“…as an advocate of unbridled artistic expression and as a supporter of the Neuberger, I am compelled to write about this situation.”

While passing through the train station the other night, I was surprised to see that Purchase College, my place of work, had made the front page of The Journal News. The article ("Hindus ask museum to remove painting" by Gary Stern, December 4, 2009) reports on the impassioned request of Rajan Zed and Bhavna Shinde of the Universal Society of Hinduism, to remove a work from the exhibition, British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967 - 2009. The piece in question, Sutapa Biswas’ Housewives With Steak-Knives (1985), is part of a major show curated by Louise Yelin, which closes on December 13 at the Neuberger Museum of Art.

Before I proceed, I would like to stress that the opinions in this post—unless otherwise stated—are entirely my own and should not be construed as representative of my institution.

As an art librarian, I am never embroiled in artistic controversy, but in my past jobs at galleries, I’ve had to make the difficult call about controversial work. Sometimes the stakes are lower—for example, deciding whether to make concessions like lowering the volume of sound-based art to appease neighbours who work night shifts. Sometimes the stakes are higher—for example, choosing whether edgy work should be removed because the police might be called in with allegations of pornography. It’s not an enviable position, and truthfully, I’m happy to be in the less contentious world of call numbers. However, as an advocate of unbridled artistic expression and as a supporter of the Neuberger, I am compelled to write about this situation.

I don’t see it as my place to comment on the representation of the Goddess Kali in this two-dimensional mixed media work, which is at the heart of the controversy. Whether she is or is not rendered in an appropriate manner is a question that others will debate. What I will say is that reading blasphemy into a contemporary work featuring a deity, let alone in a self-portrait, seems almost inevitable, for as Heather Elgood writes, “Among Hindus the act of sculpting or painting an image of the deity is sacred”.

Google the Neuberger controversy and undoubtedly you will read that Biswas has appropriated imagery from Artemisia Gentileschi’s oeuvre. While it is tempting to fixate on this element as a means to situate her work in feminism, I actually see it as a reminder of the incompatibility of seemingly compatible mindsets and the instability of presumably unshakable reactions to art. This is a lengthy tangent, but I promise that there is a point. Feminist art historians have traditionally seen Gentileschi’s paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes as a feminist response to being raped by her artistic mentor, Agostino Tassi, but recent discussions—most notably by Elizabeth Cohen—counter that we should not project modern-day psychological associations of rape onto a different time period nor identify feminism in a pre-feminist era. In essence, the tragedy was that non-consensual sex destroyed Gentileschi’s honour and ipso facto, her matrimonial eligibility. Rape as a psychological violation simply did not exist as a concept at the time. As contemporary viewers, we want to see Gentileschi’s paintings as a feminist pay-back but it does not jibe. Although impassioned interpretations can seem so logical that they ought to be unshakable, consider that Artemisia’s initial portrayal of Judith slaying Holofernes was at one point attributed to Caravaggio (Lapierre). In other words, reactions to artworks can swing like a pendulum. One group can be absolutely convinced that their interpretation is correct, while another group believes that they are in the right.To return to the point about anachronistic applications of the concept of rape, just as modern day society and Baroque society seem like they would have comparable mindsets about something as horrific as rape, the art world and the religious world seem like they ought to be compatible, especially considering their relationship through patronage. However, art and religion are uncomfortable bedfellows. Assuming interchangeability with their value systems and visual codes has great potential for disappointment and offense.

Ultimately, I feel that removing Biswas’ work would be problematic on several levels. First, it would imply that museums necessarily endorse the opinions and agendas of the artists whose work they exhibit. To remove it because it is deemed to be disrespectful would mean that museums must morally agree with the content of all work exhibited. Where is the line drawn, I wonder? The art world would be bereft of pivotal works like I Like America and America Likes Me by Joseph Beuys, because surely forcing a coyote to be inside a gallery is disrespectful, at least in the eyes of animal rights activists. Rather than being a moral compass, I see the role of a public gallery as being neutral—as providing a context for artwork to be considered and as encouraging dialogue. The dialogue would be cut short with the removal of Housewives With Steak-Knives. Moreover, Indian expatriate artists suffered from virtual invisibility for far too long in Britain, and their inclusion in this exhibition is critical in acknowledging the importance of Indian artists to contemporary art. Even if the Neuberger were to acquiesce, removing Housewives with Steak Knives won’t make it go away. The democratic nature of the Internet will ensure its continued visibility. The irony is that the attention which has been drawn to the work will inevitably expose more people to it than if no request for removal had ever been made. Anyone familiar with Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ or George Heslops’ Jesus on the Cross? I thought so. Where Biswas’ work differs, from what I can tell, is that it isn’t intended as shock art.


Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts. London and New York: Cassell, 1999. Print.

Cohen, Elizabeth S. “The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History.” Sixteenth Century Journal, volume 31, no. 1, (Spring 2000): 47-75. Print.

Lapierre, Alexandra. Artemisia: A Novel, Endnotes. Transl. Heron, Liz. London, England: Chatto and Windus, 2000. Online.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Masturbators

“After opening our library’s link to JSTOR, I searched for ‘masturbation AND art’. I came up empty-handed.”


This morning I was surrounded by nine masturbating men. It’s not as strange as it sounds. It was at Foxy Productions gallery in Chelsea, the men were paid porn stars, and it was life-size projections that encircled me.

New Media Studies faculty member Shaka McGlotten joined me for the closing of Sterling Ruby’s The Masturbators. As we made our way through the space separately, I found myself wondering what opening night would have been like. For one thing, as a viewer passes by the projectors, the image becomes eclipsed, which means the visual experience could have been fractured dramatically. It would also be nearly impossible to hear the virtual circle jerk of audio—the circular arrangement of speakers emitting smacking noises, groans, grunts, and expressions of self-approval (then again, seeing a man give two thumbs up after ejaculating into his own mouth communicates self-approval just as effectively). One benefit of being there on opening night would have been escaping the sensation of being outnumbered, of being surrounded on all sides by pornographic performers.

Challenging the distinction between art and porn, turning the gallery visitor into an unwitting voyeur, and assuming the hybrid role of artist-capitalist by paying performers are all issues that have come up in my previous blog posts. So the question is, does the work bring something new to the discussion? Shaka argued that it could be seen as turning the gallery into a peep show, which he aptly saw as fitting for an area with an extensive history of public sex. I feel like the public private divide is actually the most intriguing element of the show. The recordings were taken in the artist’s studio, in a white cube that mimics the gallery space, disrupting the distinction between public and private. I have to say, I picture the gallery-going demographic as being more liberal than their non-gallery-going counterparts, which makes me curious about the impact this show would have if it were unavoidably public (say, as projections in storefronts).


Before visiting the exhibition, I spent some time researching the place of masturbation and pornography in visual art. My intention was to situate the work in what I found, but I have decided instead to use the experience to explain research strategies.

Although it is tempting to begin every search on the Web, there are significant differences between academic sources and less regulated sources. You have to be aware of the kinds of sources you want to end up with. In this case, searching a database at your educational institution will turn up articles written by professionals but searching online would probably lead you to porn. Scholarly journals are more likely to use medical terms, whereas popular journals or lay press are more inclined to be crass. Always remember to select your search terms accordingly. Allow me to demonstrate.

After opening our library’s link to JSTOR, I searched for ‘masturbation AND art’. I came up empty-handed. ‘Masturbate AND art’? That’s the ticket: 16 results. Now that’s a great opportunity for truncation: a wildcard symbol, like * or ? accounts for variants in spelling at the end of a word—i.e., masturbation and masturbate. Truncation symbols vary from database to database. As to why ‘AND’ is recommended for databases when Google doesn’t require it, again, not all systems are alike.

In expanding my search to reflect the artist’s use of porn stars as subjects, I had a few options: I could search ‘masturbation AND art’ and do a separate search for ‘pornography AND art’. Alternatively, I could combine them: ‘masturbation AND pornography AND art’. However, the more detailed you are, the less results you’re likely to receive. I settled on the Boolean operator ‘OR’. Searching ‘masturbation OR pornography AND art’ would hypothetically bring up articles on art that address masturbation and articles on art that address pornography, but not necessarily both.

Half of the research battle is in articulating a topic. I had a feeling that visual art would have embraced masturbation well before society in general, so I was interested in learning the timeline of social acceptance. While it might seem logical for me to look at history databases, I wasn’t really looking for the history of masturbation per se. I am not actually interested in how our ancestors were passing their time. So really, this subtopic is the history of the perception of masturbation. In this case, databases that focus on psychology or sociology might be more suitable.

From there, I chose my search terms: soci? for the words ‘social', ‘societal’, and ‘society’; accept? for the words ‘acceptability’, ‘acceptance’, and ‘accept’ in combination with masturbat?. When my steps were repeated back to me, it excluded my ANDs, and I noticed that the search string looked vaguely like texting to my Generation X eyes: soci? accept? masturbat? Beyond considering synonyms, it’s also useful to brainstorm antonyms. For example, I could use ‘masturbat? AND stigma’. There’s no need for truncation with ‘stigma’, unless I have an interest in stigmata and masturbation. I don’t even want to envision the scenarios where those two concepts would intertwine.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Portraiture of the psyche

“It’s so much more palatable to formulate an art historical response than a psychological response. Who wants to purposefully relate to turmoil and anguish?”

Even though I make sculpture about female sexuality, I was eager to see Antony Crossfield’s photographs of apparently asexual male nudes at Thursday’s opening of Foreign Body at Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn. Our work may have little in common on the surface, but we both address the relationship between the body and identity, although my focus is on the clothed body. Crossfield’s eerie portraits feature overlapping bodies thanks to the trickery of digital photography (for images, see Some are subtle juxtapositions with convincing transitions between forms, and others are obvious and jarring, but all of them appear inseparable in a tragic, Kafka-esque manner. They seem to allude to an alter ego or a beast within that is trying to escape, with neither figure necessarily dominant. Therein lies my fascination, as I use the cocoon metaphor repeatedly in my own work. In the cocoon sculptures, the sensation of escape is helped along by a transparent layer torn and gouged to allow portions of the underlying bodily form to poke through. The main reason I wanted to see Crossfield’s work was to take in his luscious transparency firsthand, to find inspiration for the see-through organza I’ve been using as a stand-in for skin. Seeing the works in person, I was also affected by the dilapidated setting for the figures. I felt an affinity with the grubby wallpaper and rusty radiators, since I aim to capture a sense of disrepair in the cocoons to offset their seeming perfection and prettiness.

Each of Crossfield’s interactions, if you can call them that, occurs in a domestic setting. Some are more intimate than others, like a bathtub or a bed with rumpled sheets, but all of the household interiors frame the figures as representations of the private self, as revelations of the psyche. The press release is clear about positioning the works as psychological statements about the lack of fixity of the self. In spite of having access to this background information, I found myself continually returning to art history to make sense of the works, with a secondary impulse to interpret them sexually. Perhaps simplistically, I saw the jigsaw-puzzle-like figural formations as modern-day riffs on cubism, and the promotional image of a limp, languished figure on the lap of a stern-looking man as a photographic version of Michelangelo’s Pièta. It’s so much more palatable to formulate an art historical response than a psychological response. Who wants to purposefully relate to turmoil and anguish? To bring this back to my own work, in approaching a controversial topic like gender identity, can I expect viewers to eagerly face the disturbing prospect that their identity is to some degree beyond their control or that they are unconsciously shaping the gender of others in a potentially damaging way? Do I want to make the kind of work that makes people so uncomfortable that they do not to want to engage with it at all?

While making my way through the exhibition, I was reminded of how difficult it is to avoid bringing your own thematic interests to bear when looking at someone else’s work. Although my mind did go to the concept of the Split Self, entertaining the psychological reading of Crossfield’s work, I was more inclined to see the animated, scrambling figures as engaged in the awkward throes of passion. Even the melded figures that appear perfectly still strike me as powerfully sexual. These figures, which have apparently resigned themselves to their fate as circus freaks, have limbs that overlap as if in an inevitable embrace. Sometimes I really wish that I could enter a gallery and leave my art history training and my studio art practice at the door.

Friday, October 30, 2009

What would mother say?

"It reminds me of the Victorian-era books written for women that cautioned against being enthusiastic in the bedroom, lest their respectable marriages turn into incessant orgies."

Dotty Attie’s What Would Mother Say? opened last night at P•P•O•W Gallery in Chelsea. As the title implies, the painting series has a cautionary tone. In linear fashion, the detailed works depict figures engaged in apparently worrisome behaviour (smoking, overeating, being affectionate with the same sex, playing ‘doctor’ as children, etc.). Each debaucherous act is represented in a set wherein the subject is male and another in which the subject is female. The subjects are initially shown as children, and later as adult variations of themselves, with liberties intentionally taken with likeness. Each has the same rhythm, with the series of images interspersed with smaller painted canvases containing the text “Keep That Up Her/ His Mother Said” followed by “And Who Knows What You Could Become”.

The male figures always get the better deal. Take, for instance, the set about playing with toy guns (Shoot I and Shoot II, both 2009). The male figure becomes a soldier but the female figure becomes a killer who receives the death penalty. The implication is that the mother asks ‘Who Knows What You Could Become’ in an encouraging way to young boys, and in a threatening way to young girls. It would seem that no matter what a young girl does, her sexuality will ultimately define her. Aside from the death penalty image, I think every conclusion of the projected female future ends in nudity, and usually of the scandalous sort. It reminds me of the Victorian-era books written for women that cautioned against being enthusiastic in the bedroom, lest their respectable marriages turn into incessant orgies. The message is that girls and boys/women and men cannot enjoy the same things without the females becoming disgraced. In her artist statement, Attie explains that her definition of feminism involves no barriers to action and no expectations. This exhibition, then, points to the absence of feminism, by highlighting gendered barriers and behavioural expectations.

The artist is only a few years older than my mother, so I was curious to see her perspective. I was curious to know what behaviour could be considered worrisome. In every scenario, the mother holds her hands to her face, expressing concern. In the scenes that follow, which the viewer understands to be in the mother’s imagination, the appropriation of images like Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara embracing situate the artist in my mother’s generation, which brings me inexplicable comfort. The worries of yesteryear seem so much more manageable than the problems my friends and I face.

Another reason that I wanted to see the exhibition was because of potential overlap with my own work. Last year, I had a show called When I Was Just a Little Girl…Que Sera, Sera? which considered how much of female identity is fixed from an early age. Although my work is first and foremost about gender socialization (i.e., girls as passive recipients of gender expectations), the more I read gender theory, the more I think my work may come to address gendered behaviour (i.e., girls actively shaping their gender). I am very interested, for example, in seeing how many little girls are dressed as fairies, ballerinas and princesses for Hallowe’en tomorrow, and how many of their older counterparts choose costumes with as little coverage as possible. I was even thinking of making a tally or buying up discounted girls’ costumes for a series. Keep that up and who knows what I could become?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The incidental feminist

“…an artist may actually be driven by something less weighty like focusing on the things they like, be they alligator purses or cakes.”

Laurie Simmons’ discussion with writer/curator Marvin Heiferman at the International Center of Photography took an interesting turn last night when the thorny question of feminist intent came up. She stated that she does not want to repudiate her reputation as a feminist artist, but that making feminist art is not her agenda. It is easy to see how her oeuvre has been cast in this light when you consider photographic works like Walking Cake I (1989), in which a fuchsia and white cake with precariously lit candles dwarfs porcelain legs, replacing the female torso and head entirely; Underneath (1998), a series of women’s widespread legs with miniature houses below; and Color Pictures (2007-09), a series that incorporates cut-out female porn stars with overlaid undergarments in dollhouse settings.

Simmons recalled that the very first review of her work cast her as a feminist. While it was not a reading that she intended, she was not indifferent to its impact. She rightly asked, “How much was I influenced by the first review of my work?” The dialogue that is established between artist and audience is bound to be influential, though not necessarily symbiotic. That first review has also coloured people’s subsequent expectations of her work. She sounded immune to reactions that her work has strayed from appropriately feminist subject matter, for she said, “I don’t think I was ever there in the first place.” Simmons considers herself to be a political person, but not a purposefully political artist.

She does not see her work as ardently feminist because there is no element of anger. Rather, she feels like an observer, which reminded me of photographer Susan Anderson, whom I recently blogged about. Simmons’ work has always been about women, but not about questioning their roles: “I make my work about women because that’s what I am and that’s what I know…the condition of being a woman is so interesting to me.” She has rarely made work about men. “I can’t. I try,” she explained. (I was nodding my head when she said this, having recently made my second piece in a decade that addresses male socialization. As to her comment about anger, I have to wonder if my feminist angst helps or hinders my work. Unlike Simmons, I am not an incidental feminist. I have to wonder, after writing blog post after blog post to contextualize my work in feminist art historical scholarship, will I be seen as an overbearing feminist?).

Although great importance can be attached to presumed artistic motivation, an artist may actually be driven by something less weighty like focusing on the things they like, be they alligator purses or cakes. Simmons loves fashion, so she has engaged in collaborations with designers like Thakoon Panichgul, who made a line of clothing from fabric featuring a rose on legs and Peter Jensen, who made paper dolls with tiny garments, which Simmons photographed in her characteristic style in dramatically lit interiors. Jensen’s model in a pink satin dress with juxtaposed massive overlaid pearls has the effect of wearing shackles, drawing attention to the blurred line between the quirky and the subversive in Simmons’ work. Even though her approach to work sounds lighthearted and playful when she describes it, this is not to say it is not consuming and powerful. When you really get into your work, Simmons said, “it knocks you off your feet. It destroys you.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Working through gender

“It was disappointing to learn that my ‘gender aptitude’, or what I think of as gender conformity, was precisely in the middle of the spectrum, under the category ‘gender novice’. Ouch.”

In spite of a car accident that foiled our Canadian Thanksgiving plans, my husband and I made it to Toronto in time to catch the public preview of the Textile Museum of Canada’s BMO Shadowbox Fundraiser, which includes a piece by me. Once we boarded the overnight bus on Tuesday, I asked for my passport back. My husband held both of them out and quipped, “Which one of us do you want to be?” To appreciate the joke, you need to know that in my post-grunge oversized knit sweater phase, and when he had long hair, we were mistaken for each other from behind on more than one occasion. The joke was also in response to my reading material, Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook (1998, Routledge).

I found the book accidentally at Bluestockings while looking for theory to contextualize a bibliographic analysis of feminist erotica that I am planning with a colleague. For once, I had a commercial transaction related to my art that didn’t embarrass me. Maybe it’s because the prospect of being confused with the brave sort of person the book is geared towards is flattering. Written by a transgendered author, My Gender Workbook is intended for individuals who currently transgress gender or are flirting with the idea of it. Bornstein points out that even asking questions about gender is transgressive, so it could be argued that as an artist, I am marginally part of the target audience. However, while I regularly ask questions about gender in my work, it’s on a societal level, not an individual level. Even so, based on my latest blog post, I thought it might be prudent to see where more self-reflection could take my practice.

It was a treat not being the one asking questions about gender for once. From the many open-ended questions, I felt my most noteworthy answer was to the question, “What does simply being the gender you were assigned at birth give you?” (p. 68). My answer? “Consistency.” From the many multiple choice questionnaires, the answer that most resonated with me was the question about defining gender: “Gender is what happens to me when I get dressed in the morning” (p. 15). In my art, I argue that clothing is a means to construct gender from infancy onwards. Interestingly, when the author tries to liberate the reader, her advice is to engage in genderless behaviour that makes you feel “like a little kid” (p. 77) but I would argue that adopting that mindset does not entail escaping gendered constraints. I remember being a little girl who refused to wear pants, who thought it was impossible for women to have jobs like firefighter, police officer, doctor and principal. Maybe the two are related, maybe not, but the adult version of me cringes at the memory. It’s odd that clothing plays such a strong role in gender construction since Bornstein points out that gender and sexuality get confused, making genitals the qualifier of gender in society. Clothing just covers them up.

I don’t feel personally conflicted by the hierarchical dynamic the author exposes in which two socially privileged monogendered identities are the only options. Where my personal struggle exists is in fitting the bill for the feminine ideal (based on the author’s criteria, not my own arrogance) but also being a feminist. I was surprised that the author encouraged readers to look at visual art as a way of working through gender issues. She takes it to the next level, asking “Can your gender become a work of art? Can you become your own work of art?” I was bewildered because I can’t seem to reconcile the relationship between my personal and artistic leanings, between my inclination to strive for the feminine ideal while simultaneously critiquing it.

Overall, this book was a delight to read even though I have no aspirations to bend my gender. It was disappointing to learn that my ‘gender aptitude’, or what I think of as gender conformity, was precisely in the middle of the spectrum, under the category ‘gender novice’. Ouch. As someone who has been reading gender studies theory more lately, I had hoped I would do better. But maybe that’s right where I, the fickle feminist, belong. After all, I take liberties with my artistic presentation of gender but not my personal expression of it. I have no desire to live outside the system, but I do wish for a world where there is increased consciousness about gender assignment and reinforcement.


Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The candour of Canucks

“…when does the liberal, exhibitionist element of my art become alter ego, become fantasy, become reality?”

When my Canadian mail was hand-delivered to me this week in the US, I caught up on an issue of Macleans a month late. Lianne George’s article “You’re Teaching Our Kids WHAT?” about pleasure-centered sex education caught my eye because the introduction mentions the Toronto store, Good for Her.

I had a flashback to my visit to the store in the dead of winter to pick up a rush order for sequin pasties to use in my cupcake bra (something I need to arrange again for my exhibition, Titillate, this spring at Gallery 1313). The store offers a sex-positive environment that by all accounts should make anyone comfortable. In principle, I am an ardent supporter of the sex-positivity movement. But, as I have let on in past blog posts, I find that I can walk the walk academically, but not talk the talk personally. Blushing with embarrassment, I am sure that I was as red as the pasties when I went to pick them up, wanting to cry out to the non-judgmental staff, “They aren’t for me—they are for art! ” It didn’t help that I was feeling unlike myself already. Wearing extremely heavy makeup for the photo shoot, I felt the impulse to add, “I don’t normally wear this much makeup. I’m a feminist!” as if one precludes the other. Interestingly, this discomfort is notably absent when I am performing for the camera. Although I have always thought of this process as strictly documentary, it begs the question, when does the liberal, exhibitionist element of my art become alter ego, become fantasy, become reality? When does ambivalence become acceptance? Perhaps the existence of this blog post indicates that the moment has arrived.

Being linguistically oriented, I can pinpoint with conviction the first time I encountered the word ‘ambivalence’ (as I can with many other words). It was in high school while researching Pablo Picasso, who was as much a womanizer as an artistic genius. The interplay between his personal and artistic aspirations struck me, but I was especially affected by the ambivalence towards women prevalent in his work. The very concept of ambivalence, this irreconcilable tension, has become central to my artwork over time; an excerpt from my artist statement reads “Hopeful and hopeless, the cocooned forms appear to simultaneously break free and become further bound.”

Artwork, particularly of the conceptual vein, is a safe haven for avoidance, non-fiction writing less so. In contemporary art, ambiguity is a virtue, a sign of sophistication. The interplay between my personal and artistic aspirations has always been nebulous to me, but it was a comfortable situation because no artist wants to give away all of the answers. However, as I read George’s article about the information gap facing teens who want details about healthy sexual relationships, I realized that I have been struggling with my own information gap as an artist. Beyond the obvious feminist agenda, what drives my practice? Moreover, what is with the pervasive sexual ambivalence? The best I could do a year ago was to say that there was sexual ambivalence, let alone deconstruct it.

The Macleans article, which describes the progressive direction of sex education in Canadian high schools—Alberta notwithstanding, where students can be excused from class when sexuality and sexual orientation are being discussed—was clarifying because it made me reflect on my own experience as a student. The very year that my male elementary school teacher was arrested and charged with sexual abuse, the replacement teacher introduced the book, Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle (1973, Lyle Stuart Books) and our gym teacher introduced the all-powerful anonymous question box. No counseling took place after the teacher’s arrest, but it should have. I don’t doubt that we were all affected on some level, as victimization takes many forms and not all of them dovetail with the law. No wonder sexual ambivalence reared its ugly head in my artwork and I became wary of men. The disparity between sex-negativity and sex-positivity in a single year was too great to wrap my prepubescent mind around.

Through the process of immersing myself in sex-positive feminist writings, exhibitions and events as content for this blog, maybe I have subconsciously been trying to bridge the gap between sex-negativity and sex-positivity, between ambivalence and acceptance. Instead of finding clarity in these logical sources, I found it in the unlikeliest of places. It seems that the cocoon metaphor that I have been using in my sculptures is not just a safe haven for avoidance, but an apt metaphor for my life, a reminder of the importance of gestation. Patience is a virtue after all, not ambiguity.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Out of the (glossy) mouths of babes

“While Doonan’s account of ‘tarted up tots’ vying for ‘the pink spotlight’ may have been tongue-in-blushed-cheek, he took an objective stance on pageants that bordered on defensive.”

Barbie may be 50 this year, but her youthful likeness thrives in today’s beauty pageant world. I thought so instantly when I saw Susan Anderson’s photographic portraits of child pageant contestants at a book launch and discussion held at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena on Thursday night.

Viewing the homogeneous group of petite pretties featured in High Glitz (2009, powerhouse Books), I had two reactions in quick succession. Initially, I experienced shrill delight at seeing the prominence of feminine signifiers (it means that I have no shortage of inspiration for my artwork, which is about gender socialization through clothing, or simply put, why little girls like pink). Once this excitement subsided, I felt nauseated. Maybe if I watched the TLC show, Toddlers & Tiaras, I would have been prepared for the degree of artifice. I was aghast at the fake eyelashes, fake tans and fake dental veneers that replaced fresh-faced girls with tiny versions of over-processed women. Truthfully, I felt like the entire cohort of ‘popular girls’ from my high school was staring me down, reminding me of their supposed superiority. I felt freaked out for today’s generation of young girls, but I also felt freaked out for adolescent and adult women. The photo of a girl in a high-cut swimsuit that showed off her hairless body served as a scathing reminder that women in their natural state are incompatible with society’s notion of attractiveness.

I have spent more time and more money than I would like to admit sourcing out little girls’ pink formal wear from clothing stores to use in my artwork. At the checkout, there is the inevitable cooing from sales clerks and fellow customers, none of them realizing that my purchase is the first stage in a feminist critique. I felt a similar feeling of being the odd-one-out at this event, both when the audience cheered for the real-life pageant winner who graced us with her presence, and when Barney’s creative director Simon Doonan read his essay from High Glitz. Everyone laughed at all the right parts while I scribbled frantically in preparation for this blog post. While Doonan’s account of “tarted up tots” vying for “the pink spotlight” may have been tongue-in-blushed-cheek, he took an objective stance on pageants that bordered on defensive. He praised them for teaching skills like endurance, and cautioned against knee-jerk reactions, saying that it’s “easy to act disdainful and superior”. Slinking down in my seat, I felt like the feminist curmudgeon, a stereotype that I detest.

Anderson, a Los Angeles-based artist, also took a fairly neutral stance. Although she is “not a performer”, she said that if she had a daughter, she would not be opposed to her entering pageants. Anderson also emphasized the dedication of contestants’ mothers being on-call for their daughters during 14-hour days, doing things like sewing sequins and curling ringlets. Hearing Anderson speak about her series, I perceived the stellar portraits as having an anthropological bent, but it disturbs me that they could just as easily be featured in a pin-up calendar.

I tried to follow their lead and be more objective in my reaction. Thinking about the fact that the subjects selected their own props and posed themselves, I conceded that they had a role in constructing their identity. But that made me think back to Grade One, when many of my classmates elected to dress as Madonna for Hallowe’en, oblivious to the fact that they looked like prostitutes. Looking at Anderson's photo of a little girl wearing Go-Go boots and a mini-skirt, or a backless, off-the-shoulder dress, I got shivers, thinking that the pageant contestants don’t even understand the implications of their attire. Doonan, however, defended the over-the-top nature of pageant aesthetics: it is “like Liberace, like Elvis, like Siegfried and Roy—it’s fabulous”. But is it fabulous to cast girls in sexy roles and to suggest that their worth hinges on their looks? Is feminist antithetical to fabulous?

Later, I ruminated on Doonan’s comment that it is “easy to act disdainful and superior,” asking myself, is making critical feminist art ‘easy’? I don’t think so. For one thing, I struggle with hypocrisy. I can ask scholarly questions about gendered preference, but I am not opposed to buying my niece a fancy pink dress for a Christmas gift because let’s face it, she’ll love it. And she is not alone. Looking at the portraits in High Glitz, the pageant winner remarked to the audience, ‘All the dresses look pretty and their hair’. Out of the mouths of babes…

For more information: click here

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reading art

“...excerpts from novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set the tone at the gallery’s entrance.”

“I’m totally having a Hiroshi Sugimoto moment,” I mumbled in awe, standing in front of Dominique Gonzales-Foerster’s dioramas yesterday at Dia at the Hispanic Society in Washington Heights. My mind immediately went to the Japanese photographer’s luscious black and white photographs of museum displays that meld two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, replacing artifice with realism. Sugimoto might lean towards realism and Gonzales-Foerster surrealism, but there is a magical quality that links them.

After culling her personal library collection and that of the Hispanic Society, Gonzales-Foerster has inserted weathered paperbacks into naturalistic settings that range from desert to rainforest. Intended to be imaginary landscapes, they are the outgrowth of listening to the Buena Vista Social Club, which makes me love the installation that much more. It’s simulacra punctuated by realia in the form of books. Are the books discarded arbitrarily or placed deliberately? My guess is the latter, since their selection was carefully curated: each was chosen for its geographical setting or the locale in which the author wrote the book. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, appears in the desert diorama. Either way, they feel like relics of civilization, like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. The books are the only inhabitants of these scenes; there is no evidence of animal life. Single pages, curled up at the edges, evoke skin that has been shed or bones that have disintegrated into near-dust. Others appear more animated, such as an open book that is spot lit and suspended, like a bird in flight.

As a librarian, I was drawn in by the collecting impulse. Ultimately, I read the dioramas as a cautionary tale. Being immersed in a college setting where research generally begins online instead of with books, I saw these castoffs as symbols of the decline of knowledge, the side-effect of not evaluating information effectively. These are the survivors, but so what? That’s melodramatic, sure, but excerpts from novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set the tone at the gallery’s entrance.

As an artist, I was affected by the implication that creative output can be a person’s legacy. Artworks—traces of who an artist is—persevere for the next generation to ponder, dismiss, react against, build on, or appropriate. The obsession with lineage in art history has fallen out of favour, but it’s still a reality, and very much a seduction. Gonzales-Foerster is quoted in the New York Times* as saying “With a library,” she said, “you slowly build a biography for yourself” and I think the same is true of art making (or blogging, or any creative endeavour, for that matter). Biography becomes legacy somehow, whether intentionally or not.

Upon leaving, I had a very strong urge to reread Anna Banti’s fictional biography of Artemesia Gentileschi. In the heartbreaking introduction, the author mourns the loss of her initial transcript, an unlikely casualty of WWII bombings. I imagine that Gonzales-Foerster would be pleased that her installation made me want to crack open a book.

For more information: click here.

*Kennedy, Randy. “It’s only natural, this thing for books.” The New York Times. Sept. 18, 2009.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Yinka Shonibare MBE at the Brooklyn Museum

“Although I am prone to look for the sexual element in art, I read this work more as revisionist art history…”

It was well worth the two hour trip on public transit to catch the closing of Yinka Shonibare MBE’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum this week-end. I know I am supposed to view Shonibare’s work through a political lens and use terms like deessentialism and deterritorialization, but can’t I just decline? Can’t I just say that I am fascinated by his use of fabric in sculptural installations?

Born in London to Nigerian parents, the artist explores fabric as an ethnic signifier (therein lies my personal fascination, since I am fixated on baby dresses as feminine signifiers in my own work). His signature style includes headless mannequins dressed in Victorian garments made from wax fabric associated with African fashion, even though it is produced in the Netherlands. These mannequins are posed in settings that disrupt our notions of the Dandy lifestyle and of the relationship between race and class. To get back to formal concerns, I wanted to see the exhibition because my cocoon sculptures are also headless forms where subtle folds in fabric differentiate figures from one another. I suppose I am more interested in identity creation than in identity politics.

The exhibition includes video and photography, but I am going to focus on two installations in particular. Images can be viewed at

Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002) shows figures fornicating on and amidst baggage that represents the Grand Tour, which was a rite of passage for well-off men for more than cultural edification. The one work I couldn’t get past was of a ménage à trois in which the buckled shoes of the topmost man barely graze the floor, placing his dead weight on the poor woman’s bosom. The erotic nature of the installation is fascinating, because there is so little skin exposed. This thought brings me back to my last post on underwear and the role of clothing in sexual behaviour.

The Swing (After Fragonard) (2001) recreates Jean-Honoré Fragonnard’s Rococo painting, The Swing (1766) of a woman flirtatiously swinging in a pastoral setting with her shoe cast off. As would be expected, her Victorian dress is rendered in Dutch wax fabric, which has been interpreted as emphasizing the universality of sex. Although I am prone to look for the sexual element in art, I read this work more as revisionist art history, as a reminder of the heavy bias towards the West in the discipline. Anyway, to get back to the sexual aspect of the work, the installation is cordoned off, so the view is controlled. This sounds irrelevant unless you know some of the history of the work. It was a controversial commission by the man who appears in the foreground of the painting. He is positioned in such a way that he has a full view of the woman’s genitals, which would be unobstructed because of the minimal selection of undergarments in this time period. Neither the viewer nor the priest pushing the woman on the swing have access to this peep show. In Shonibare’s installation, the audience is likewise denied a view up the woman’s skirts. Nonetheless, as with Gallantry and Criminal Conversation, the arrangement of the clothing alone is sexually suggestive. Interestingly, Shonibare has excluded both male figures in the installation, which causes me to see it as an endorsement of self-satisfaction. Uh-oh, following the logic of Michael Schwartz, the chief of staff for Senator Tom Coburn, could art turn a viewer’s sexuality inward, making them homosexual?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Skivvies and sexuality

“…there was one subject who must have been ‘going Commando’ when the photographer approached him.”

Last night was the opening of Ana de la Cueva’s El Paquette, an installation of faux underwear packages featuring the artist’s male friends, relatives and past lovers as models. At JANE KIM/ Thrust Projects these cardboard boxes in plexiglass cases showcase men in contrived poses against neutral backgrounds with sexually suggestive text. The promotional image, for example, says ‘double support for maximum appeal’ on a package of twins modeling briefs.

Although not all of the subjects have a sexual history with the artist, their sexuality seems to be the intended focus, since the press release notes that the text on the packaging is gleaned from interviews about the subjects’ fetishes and favourite positions. There is a disturbing ambiguity in some; a reference to ‘papa’, for example, connotes paternal relations as well as who’s-your-daddy proclivities. With the figures cropped fairly consistently from nose to knees, keeping the focus front and center, they should seem sexy. After all, it references the art historical practice of objectification through truncation.

Nonetheless, there’s something about the subjects that doesn’t strike me as overtly sexual. Maybe it’s the lighting, or the spontaneity of the photo shoots, as the artist photographed the subjects wearing the undergarments they had on at the moment of confrontation. Most are utilitarian, though there was one subject who must have been ‘going Commando’ when the photographer approached him. I wonder if my failure to read the figures as sexualized is because the emphasis is on clothing. Men have a smaller range of undergarment options than women, and they aren’t faced with the same social pressures to incorporate sex-specific clothing into their erotic personas. How many men have excused themselves to go slip into something more comfortable? With the focus of El Paquette being on men in their underwear, the viewer cannot tell whether the figures actually felt sexy at the time of the shoot. Were they women, however, the presence or absence of lingerie would be a clue. (That causes me to wonder, would a male heterosexual artist get away with mounting a show like this? Would the female subjects oblige, or would they be stopped by insecurities about their bodies? Would representations of past lovers be interpreted as trophies? Since I can think of at least two female heterosexual artists who have made work about past lovers, does that suggest a double standard?)

I feel like I had to search a little too hard for meaning in the work. I can see merit in contrasting the idealism of advertising with realism and relative lack of objectification, but it might just work against the series. In typical advertising, the subliminal message would be “buy this underwear so you can have sex”. In these photographs, however, there is no sexual tension between artist and subject since all are former lovers, presumably platonic friends, and relatives, thus the message reads as “some of these figures had sex with the artist and they trust her enough to be photographed in their underwear”. That, to me, doesn't carry the same intrigue as was implied by the 'double your pleasure, double your fun' promotional image. Ultimately, the installation feels more like art, and less like advertising. That is to say, if these packages were snuck into a store, the difference would be obvious. Appropriating the advertising aesthetic is not an easy thing to accomplish in art but to be convincing, it has to be head-on. Pun intended.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

T & A (Transgression & Art)

If read as the three figures interacting, the work really pushes the viewer’s moral boundaries…

I am pleased to say that my blogging hiatus—the result of a nasty cold at the busiest time of year on campus—is officially over. And now for an exhibition review…

Because over 70 works comprise the 30-year survey of Genesis Breyer P-orridge’s notorious art career, they are hung in close proximity to one another at Chinatown’s Invisible-Exports. As a result, my head couldn’t have been farther than a foot away from that of a gentleman viewer when I took in the first ‘beaver shot’. Just then, I heard an authoritative-sounding “Very Dada” from behind. Actually, I would have gone with ‘very surreal’. “Oh wait,” I realized, “the gallerist is referring to the artworks, not my extraordinarily awkward viewing experience.”

I incorrectly assumed that I had become desensitized to pornographic images after compiling a binder of pornography photocopies for a colleague last week, which I procured from the Sexual Representation Collection at the University of Toronto. Alas, I was a tad squeamish viewing the array of collage, photomontage and photographic works that appropriate pornography. I waited until I was on the train home with the list of works to give G.P-O (as s/he is known) due consideration. Even then, I kept wondering if my seatmate was eyeing the images with curiosity, and me with judgment. Although my art alludes to erotica for shock value, it seems that I can dish it out but not take it.

In my embarrassed state, I initially found the most accessible works to be the humourous ones. Some read like one-liners, such as mail art featuring a banana poking out of a man's pants, and a collage that combines a label for cock-flavored soup with predictable pornography. This is not to say that a one-liner cannot be successful, and given the childish humour associated with sexuality, it is extremely appropriate.

Once I poured over the list of works, I was actually more impressed by the ones revealing the artist’s dark sense of humour. Allow me to preface my reactions with some theory. As strange as it sounds, collage is a sexualized medium. Of surrealist and Dadaist collage, Lydenberg (1988) writes, “everything that is juxtaposed in collage…can ‘make love’; the procreative possibilities, therefore, are staggering”(280). Meanwhile, Derrida (as paraphrased by Ulmer, 1983) believes, “If the clipping is associated with ‘castration’…the montage or dissemination of the fragments thus collected in the new frame is associated with ‘invagination’ (collage/montage is a bisexual writing)” (90). If these quotations seem far-fetched, consider the following works.

Untitled (mail art to Robert Delford Brown) (1977) superimposes a photograph of a woman performing felatio with a portrait of a man in a suit, conflating cropped penis and tie. What I love about this piece is the hint of a smile on his face, as if acknowledging the sexual act; the power reversal suggested by her dominance (both in size and because she is in colour while he is in black and white); and the contrast of his suit, a signifier of formality (read: public costume) with a private act that generally excludes clothing.

Similarly, Education Sentimentale (mail art to Jean-Pierre Turnell) (1978) shows a young child whose arm morphs seamlessly into an arm and hand spreading the buttocks of a woman to display her genitals. If you can get past the disturbing combination of children and pornography in the same image—a common pairing in h/er oeuvre—such works are captivating. For instance, a work of the same name and year as the Turnell piece juxtaposes a photograph of a woman masturbating in the foreground, with two children in the background. The children's downcast eyes mirror those of the woman, and hint at child sexuality, connoting the pleasure of looking at oneself during a sexual act but also implying sexual shame. If read as the three figures interacting, the work really pushes the viewer’s moral boundaries by establishing the children as voyeurs.

The transgressive nature of the works should come as no surprise to those familiar with the artist. G.P-O is infamous for being called a ‘wrecker of civilization’ by the British art minister in the 70s because of the controversial exhibition, Prostitution. In recent years, G.P.-O made headlines for undergoing a remarkable process of collaborative plastic surgery with performance artist and late lover Lady Jane Breyer, to resemble one another as much as possible.


Lydenberg, Robin. “Engendering Collage: Collaboration and Desire in Dada and Surrealism”. In Katherine Hoffman, Collage: Critical Views, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988, 271-286. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory L. “The Object of Post-criticism. In The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Post-modern Culture”, Hal Foster, ed. Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983, 83-110. Print.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stripped, Uncensored

“Between the disco balls and the purple crepe paper lining the walls as an unconventional backdrop for artwork, it felt like this was the prom these gay men never had.”

“Just half a glass,” I cautioned. Only a trickle came out.

I can’t remember when the bartender winked at me. Maybe it was immediately before he turned away from me and revealed his Speedo, bent over to pick up a new bottle of wine, and flexed his biceps while uncorking the bottle. Or it could have been after he saw me awkwardly try to look away.

No, you haven’t stumbled onto a romantic fiction site. This is my account of Tuesday night’s release for Bruno Gmuender Books' Stripped, Uncensored that I attended with our LGBTQ librarian, Sarah Van Gundy. When we arrived to the packed room at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Chelsea, we were the only women there.

I realize that I don’t represent the target audience for the evening, but for what it’s worth, these are my impressions of the exhibition and party that showcased artists from the book.

The tone for the evening was established when each guest received an editioned postcard-size reproduction of a couple having a very good time, courtesy of the Center and NEXT magazine. The x-rated portions of the beautifully rendered work were covered with a paper slip. The work in general was heavy on sex, treading the line between art and porn. Clearly, it appealed to the gay male crowd (case in point: I had to move out of the way so an admirer could photograph an artist in front of his work). I won’t lie—the work made me blush, even though I volunteered to do two days of research in Canada last week on gay pornography and art for a colleague (one day was spent looking at no-holds-barred gay artists at the library and archives of the National Gallery and the other was spent perusing pornography at the Sexual Representation Collection at the University of Toronto).

Interestingly, although all of the work in Stripped, Uncensored was figurative, not all of the work was homoerotic. There were also quite a few facial portraits of men, such as haunting paintings by Michail Tsakountakis. Being privy to the sexual orientation of the artists caused me to see these works as equalizing in some way, as if purposefully deemphasizing sexuality and proclaiming ‘we’re all people’. Or maybe they are more a celebration of pretty boys and I’ve missed the point. At any rate, it does raise the thorny issue of whether an artist’s sexual orientation (or biographical details in general) should be read into artwork.

All in all, the show didn’t take itself too seriously. Rather than coming off as thumbing its nose at the gallery world, it seemed to be about gay and artistic pride. Sales people wearing big ribbons made their way through the crowd, placing oversized red dots on the works that had sold. Bins of artwork were poured over by visitors in flea market fashion. Between the disco balls and the purple crepe paper lining the walls as an unconventional backdrop for artwork, it felt like this was the prom these gay men never had. (I am projecting because my prom date was Rick Telfer, who hadn’t yet come out. Although we had a grand time, I imagine he might have preferred to bring someone else. He went on to lobby for others to have that same right for high school prom: to read more about his activism, click here and for extensive background information, click here.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Maternity and artistry

"This blending of personal and professional selves underscores her argument against feminism and maternity being mutually exclusive."

Until I was on the Go bus from Mississauga to Toronto after visiting a friend from Europe the other night, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to describe Andrea Liss’ Feminist Art and the Maternal (2009, University of Minnesota Press). My writer’s block was unblocked by the jocular expressions of my friend’s nine-month-old son and by feeling his tiny fingers clutching my toes. I figured the usefulness of the book for me would be in the examples of artwork, since my work centres around baby clothing and socialization, but Liss’s style of writing is what really stood out for me, as a model for academic/personal blog writing.

Liss’ unique writing style involves the interspersion of personal memories throughout the text. She recalls meeting an artist at a conference, for example, which segues to a memory of being away from her feverish infant son to attend the same conference. In a blog, this degree of self-disclosure would be unsurprising. In a scholarly book, it is surprising, and beyond that, it is refreshing. The separation of personal and professional selves in the academic world is possible, but it’s an illusion and not necessarily a helpful one. I realize that the notion of the personal being political is hardly novel, but I haven’t seen a book with this approach before so I was quite taken by it. Her assessment of artwork is still authoritative and well written, even if the reader is privy to details of her personal life. Especially in a book about mothering, why shouldn’t Liss include an entire chapter about the impact of her breast cancer on her relationship with her son? And why should a writer’s outlet for sentiment be restricted to a dedication page at the front of the book?

This blending of personal and professional selves underscores her argument against feminism and maternity being mutually exclusive. Also encouraging is the unstated point that maternity and artistry aren’t mutually exclusive. I remember watching an interview with gallery director Olga Korper in a gender studies class I took for pleasure at Nipissing University, in which she noted the challenges that motherhood places on studio output. Liss’ myriad examples of mothers making art provides a positive counterargument. Maybe the issue is quality and not quantity, because the work these women are making wouldn’t exist without their experience of being a parent. At any rate, Liss describes interesting examples of art from the 1970s onwards which range from documentary (women capturing the minutiae of their children’s development) to therapeutic (mothers working through the untimely death of their children). I like that she opens her book with an account of her student’s performance, evidence that she doesn’t restrict her roster of artists to the ‘usual suspects’. This inclusivity strikes me as suitably feminist, although I am left wondering, is anyone focusing on artworks by men about the joys of parenting, assuming they exist?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Boxing Gloves & Bustiers

" has become a mirror to a lot of artists." --Kate Gilmore

On Wednesday, the dentist asked me if I wanted to stick around for a root canal or book a later appointment. "Hmm," I thought. "Should I get my first root canal spontaneously or catch the next train downtown to see an exhibition curated by a colleague?" The choice was simple: I was on the 3:58 to Grand Central. It seemed that the cosmos was chastising me though: the first scene I watched in one of 14 videos made by women in Soho20's Boxing Gloves and Bustiers featured a large tooth used as a key.

Curator Kate Gilmore, who works on the same campus as me, was kind enough to agree to an interview. Here's what she had to say about the show.

Q-The title Boxing Gloves & Bustiers prepares the viewer for a show that is both girly and grrrly, if you will. Do you see the title as referring to a spectrum that a single woman might inhabit, to alter egos, or to something else entirely?

A-I actually did not come up with this title. It was a title that was already picked and I juried the show from a large group of people who sent in videos. That said, my impression is that this was a show about women who were very comfortable being women--both in terms of reflecting a stereotype of female sexuality as well as reflecting a non-stereotypical assumption of female sexuality.

Q-Artists like Ronnie Cramer and Jody Wood redefine our notions of acceptable female behavior with with their physically aggressive female protagonists. Cramer profiles a very dedicated female wrestler and Wood attacks women in public spaces in what feels like a spoof. What has the reaction been to works like these in the exhibition?

A-I think all the works in the exhibition have received great reactions, but I haven't been around on a daily basis to give you the detailed responses. I do, however, feel that these pieces in particular reflect a strong aggressiveness in the female characters, allowing the audience to view an unexpected reality. Especially, the Ronnie Cramer piece because this is a documentary project where these actions are really taking place as opposed to planned and "acted".

Q-Anybody can be a star these days, with YouTube profiles and reality television shows. Do you think the performative element of video, where you feel as if the artist is performing for you alone, is more prominent now as a result? I'm thinking of works like the one in which Valerie Garlick sings 'I've got you under my skin' while scratching her sunburned arm until the flakes are thrust at the would-be viewer, and of Katarina Riesing's 'Duet', in which she lip synchs 'Don't go breakin' my heart' while remaining indifferent to the bloodbath she's participating in, with a the-show-must-go-on kind of perkiness.

A-I think video has become a mirror to a lot of artists. Artists are using video as a very self-reflective tool--an inexpensive, relatively easy, fast medium to get their messages across and to create new forms of self-portriature. Video and the simple means to put it out in the world allows artists to have a more immediate reaction to their work. Is this a result of YouTube or reality television, I'm not sure, but I think the moving image and the creation of that in a relatively simple and fast way is very attractive to a lot of contemporary artists.

Q-I found a number of the works difficult to stomach, like Yi Hsin Tzeng's in which buckets of paint are poured over a woman's head (it reminded me of waterboarding) and the one in which a naked woman is strapped to the underside of a table and awkwardly attempts to crawl around a room. Did you find the process of vetting the submissions to be taxing in this way? I imagine that it could have been overwhelming.

A-I really enjoyed jurying the show. Sure, there was a lot of work to look at--some good, some bad, some difficult, some easy, but, as an artist myself, it is great to see all these people working in interesting ways and trying to function withing this theme. I appreciate work that is "hard to stomach", if it makes sense, is well executed, and fully expresses the theme at hand.

Q-With so many artists making their videos available online, do you feel that the role of the curator has changed when putting together a show of video art?

A-Maybe. I am not a "curator" per se. I have done a couple of curatorial projects, but I, in no way feel that I can give you a full answer to this. That said, as an artist who works in video, watching videos online is a very different experience than seeing them in an exhibition--watching work on flatscreens, projected, in installations, etc. If a curator is just looking to the Internet to put together video exhibitions, we might have a serious problem on our hands!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Stopping to smell the roses

“…I encountered a work in the A.I.R. exhibition that snapped me out of making snap judgements.”

The best time to traverse the Brooklyn Bridge is immediately after a thunderstorm. The temperature plummets and few people are out strolling, so you can cross in record time. On Sunday, I walked two-and-a-half hours from the lower east side to D.U.M.B.O. via the bridge and back again, to check out the new A.I.R. Gallery exhibition. Curated by gallery director (and Purchase College graduate!) Kat Griefen, tART @ A.I.R. features a diverse array of works from the tART collective, ranging from formalist to feminist. I was disappointed to learn that this group of artists is pronounced ‘tee-art’ rather than what I had mistakenly assumed: ‘tart’. The latter would be so cheeky (and I must admit, I have the convergence of feminism and baked goods on my mind because I’m about to make a shadow box of fibre cupcake sculptures for a Canadian fundraiser).

Just as I enjoy walking briskly in the city, I tend to breeze through galleries. It might be the result of having worked at a commercial gallery and observing gallerists and collectors make quick, intuitive decisions. During this time period, I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario with my friend Melanie and was amazed by the amount of time she spent with each piece, carefully considering all aspects. It made me aware of how ruthless I was. The problem is, my ‘speed viewing’ has made me somewhat resistant to media that demands a set amount of the viewer’s time, like video art and sound art. Interestingly, I encountered a work in the A.I.R. exhibition that snapped me out of making snap judgements. It made me realize that maybe art doesn’t demand time from the viewer so much as it rewards the viewer for investing an adequate amount of time. I am cognizant of the hypocrisy in my behaviour, as I sometimes include subtle contradictions in my work* and hope that viewers will take the time to notice. I want my own audience to work hard. Shouldn’t I be expected to do the same?

The work in question is Hvalreki (2009) by Rebecca Loyche. Allow me to describe the work as I encountered it: I put on the headphones and watched black and white footage of a woman signing in translation as an impassioned male voice, perhaps a politician, played in the background, dominating the sound of crowds. I made instantaneous assumptions about the woman being critical but not as critical as the man in power, about the woman as symbolic mediator, possibly more nurturing and connected to the masses. The silent woman juxtaposed against the booming male voice was very effective indeed. Not familiar with the language, I wasn’t inclined to keep the headphones on for long, but as I was about to disengage, the voice switched over to an impassioned female voice. Was it an opponent of the man? A colleague? Suddenly my assumptions had to make room for new possibilities. The work couldn’t necessarily be reduced to a male-female binary, at least not in the way I had imagined. I became curious about the work so I looked up Rebecca Loyche. She did a residency in Iceland where she joined the Women’s Emergency Government group and was inspired by protests, some of which are related to a shortage of information (which piqued my interest as a librarian). When I researched the Women’s Emergency Government group, I read about their use of a pink dress to drape a political statue. Lesson learned. Pink dresses are the mainstay of my artwork. Who knows what I’ve overlooked in the past that is not only interesting in its own right but that could contribute to my own development as an artist?

After I left A.I.R., I made it a personal goal to be more open-minded about art that takes time to view. So far so good: only three days later, I went to a show of video art curated by Kate Gilmore. Stay tuned for more about that exhibition.

*In my Aberration sculpture series, I depict an abstracted cocoon, made of baby clothing and fabric, at various points in time. They appear to grow from left to right as they increase in size. There are more elements of embroidery on the clothing replicated on the outer surface of fabric, so it’s like the babies are developing new features or at least their existing features are becoming enhanced. I like to include a few anachronisms for good measure…bits of embroidery that suggest a reversal of time from left to right. I’m not trying to be difficult. Rather, I am responding to the tension of not knowing whether the cocooned forms are breaking free or becoming further bound.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A stitch in time

“I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a panel discussion this much...”

This morning on the train, a woman complimented a friend on her blouse, which she explained had been custom made by a seamstress. “Oh!” her friend replied with delight. “I sew a lot of my own clothing!” It dawned on me that it has been years since I sewed my own clothing, even though I did it all the time in high school. Unlike my sister who followed patterns diligently and produced clothing that looked exactly like it should, I took liberties and reveled in the challenge of correcting my mistakes. There was something very satisfying about determining how all of the pieces fit together, and that’s probably where my interest in fibre sculpture really began. I made dresses with grommets, skirts with asymmetrical hems, and even a quilted skirt with a secret pouch to hide money in case I got pickpocketed at my first concert (Lollapalooza, if you’re wondering).

I learned to sew long before adolescence. My grandmother—or Grandma Saunders, as my sister and I called her—taught me to avoid sewing with a strand of thread longer than your arm, and my mother showed me how to sew on a steel machine attached to a clunky desk (from the era of televisions with wooden exteriors that resembled furniture). In high school, I befriended Joann Schelstraete, who is now a successful designer at Danier Leather but at the time she was still studying fashion design. Anyway, at some point shortly after she graduated, I think in my first year of university, we went to an exhibition about fashion at the Royal Ontario Museum, where there was a garment by a classmate of hers. It had lots of stitching, which I would call expressive rather than decorative. I can’t remember her name but I can tell you that a new world opened up to me when I saw it.

Wow, that turned out to be a longer reminiscence than I expected. Writing this has made me realize that I miss having different approaches to sewing, so I decided to sign up for a class (more on that in a moment). What I intended this blog post to focus on was last night’s panel discussion at Manhattan’s Center for Book Arts. Five artists discussed their work in the exhibition, Threads: Interweaving Textu[r]al Meaning, which was organized by Lois Morrison and Alex Campos.

After a dramatic introduction with thunder in the background, Iviva Olenick talked about her quirky journalistic embroideries which document her love life. I enjoyed her presentation so much that I signed up for her continuing education course this fall at Pratt, The Embroidered Art Journal: Embroidery as Narration and Illustration. (I have been meaning to take an embroidery class for several years so I am very excited, especially to find one with a focus on contemporary art). Next up was Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, whose lively discussion of the history of suturing—the focus of his screen printed book—was a real treat. Because I sew cocoon sculptures, I was pleased to learn that when an animal/organism ruptures from its constraints, it’s called a suture. And because my work is about clothing, the body and sewing, I also thought this observation was noteworthy: “[Through suturing,] we treat the fabric of our bodies with the same tools as we use to make the clothing we put on our bodies.” Following Jonathan’s talk was Meda and Veda Rives, twin sisters whose aptly named Mirror Image Press offers art that is as engaging as their identical twin-ness. Their largescale installations of handmade paper containing embedded thread evoke spiritual associations without being heavy-handed. Elise Wiener followed, captivating me with her realization that “Stitching in and of itself was beautiful”, which is evident in her undulating, colourful stitching on LPs from her youth. Her commitment to making a work of art each day for a year is inspiring. The night finished off with Tamar Stone, who stole my heart with her bed books. In these loose interpretations of books, each layer of the doll-sized bed sculptures—the blankets, sheets, pillows, and mattresses—contains embroidered stories about the lives of women based around beds, ranging from tales of midwifery to being locked in a bedroom for apparent insanity.

I’ve never had a conversation with anyone about the versatility of thread, although I did give an invited lecture on stitching as mark-making in a Sheridan College drawing class this past winter. If asked why I use thread and not another medium, here is what I’d talk about: its ability to bind two things together, to be camaflogued through tiny stitches, to form an image through repeated stitches (i.e., embroidery), to create an expressive line by pooling, to create unexpected knotted masses, and to fray. It is to me what paint is to painters.

The show runs until September 12, 2009 and there will be a second panel discussion (featuring Patricia Dahlman, Tanya Hartman, Yoko Inoue, Vandana Jain, Heather Johnson and China Marks). I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a panel discussion this much, so I hope you will try to make it, especially since I’ll be out of town and won’t be able to see it myself.

To view images by the artists:
Iviva Olenick
Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Meda and Veda Rives
Elise Wiener
Tamar Stone

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gallery 2.0

“The work we probably should have seen coming, that was only a matter of time, is Colleen Asper’s seven-by-nine-foot painted replica of the Google search engine page.”

Internet art seems like it should be the ultimate authority on contemporary cyber culture as far as artistic commentary goes. This movement, which operates under a variety of names like, uses the Internet as the intended venue for exhibition, as opposed to works of art that are represented through online documentation as more of an afterthought. Because it has been addressing issues of authenticity related to authorship and appropriation for a while now, I had not expected the non-Internet artworks in Image Search (on view until July 31 at Chelsea’s P·P·O·W Gallery) to strike me as particularly innovative. I was mistaken. The group exhibition, which is about life in the age of the Internet, is very smart. For example, two artists take up the issue of collaborative authorship (or more cynically put, contested authorship): Aids-3D paid an online service in China to produce a painting for the show, and Jason Lazarus similarly made arrangements online for a message to be spray painted on the Palestinian side of the West Bank, which has been documented with a photograph.

At the library, I am currently making lesson plans to encourage the responsible evaluation and use of online images, so the appropriation of images is of special interest to me. Two of my favourite works in Image Search relate to this topic. Christoph Draeger has taken an image from Google Images of the mushroom cloud in Nagasaki and made an enlarged version comprised of a puzzle with the pieces painted a suitably grim black. Its negative space is formed by removed pieces that fragment the image, alluding to pixelation and also to the destruction of nuclear war. Equally impressive is Conrad Ventur’s video of Dolly Parton singing, taken from an anonymous online space. Projected through a rotating crystal, it too is fragmented, resulting in an ethereal image that recalls the unfixed nature of the Internet. It is also reminiscent of the disco-derived aesthetic of photographic images morphing into one another that takes the viewer back to the 1980s era of the footage…that is, for those of us old enough to remember that aesthetic.

The work we probably should have seen coming, that was only a matter of time, is Colleen Asper’s seven-by-nine-foot painted replica of the Google search engine page. Even if it could be argued to be predictable, it nevertheless rings true by highlighting the veneration of Google as the preferred source of knowledge. With the artist’s name wittily entered in the search box, it also serves as a reminder that Google is the ultimate validation of the self, at least if the results are plentiful and favourable. This is an example of appropriation that I will definitely be showing students in library instruction sessions because it taps into our visual culture effectively and also raises contentious issues about copyright. In our library instruction sessions, we definitely don’t skirt around the existence of Google: we use it as a point of reference, as a means of comparison, and even as a complement to the library’s services which are available by subscription only. If I could curate any piece into our exhibition spaces, I think Asper’s painting would be my top choice, as a gesture towards today’s youth about the library being a place of co-existence. I think the student population would absolutely love the painting. To view it, double click on the image in the third row down here. By the way, don’t reset your screen, thinking that you have accidentally been redirected to Google.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Gearing up for my first performance

“The performance will be informed by my new understanding of space as a precious commodity in Manhattan. I’ll be counting on people infringing on my personal space so they are close enough to become part of the performance…”

Last week, I took the overnight bus to Toronto and turned around immediately with my husband to renew my employment paperwork for the US and to add him to mine as a frequent visitor. Along the way, we saw graffiti that said “Read more!” repeatedly. The librarian in me smiled, while the rest of me ached for sleep. I’ve been too tired to heed the advice of the graffiti and get any reading done, but I have been plotting an unconventional way to encourage reading: weather permitting, I’ll be doing a performance this week that will prompt unwitting viewers to read my body. To inscribe words on my own body will surely prove as unsettling as being on the receiving end of a stranger's written comments about my body, but it needs to be done to address the injustice of the latter incident (the details of which I won’t dwell on here), plus it’ll relate to my previous cocoon sculptures that address the phenomenon of text-based socialization through baby clothing.

Too tired to read, I’ve indulged in watching my DVD set of the television show, Felicity. The main character, a college freshman played by Keri Russell (who is now a real-life New Yorker) describes Manhattan as a blizzard in which she is but a snowflake. That line makes me think about the difficulty of capturing someone’s attention in New York. It would be a lot easier to do a performance in my hometown where there is less visual stimulation, but I think I’ve found the perfect place to do the performance in New York. It’s actually the same place where I got the idea for the performance, after seeing a woman wearing the same kind of clothing on which I want to comment. I’ve never done a performance; the closest I’ve come is modeling wearable art for photographic documentation. I’m not quite sure how I will gear myself up for it, but I will admit that I’m making this post to ensure accountability. I’ve stated that it will happen, so now I have to go through with it.

As I’m used to thinking of sculpture with a frontal focus, it will be very strange for me to become the sculpture in a sense and to be moving through space. A quotation by Louise Bourgeois that I saw on the week-end at the Dia:Beacon keeps going through my mind even though I can’t remember the continuation of it: “Space is an illusion.” While walking around the top floor of the stunning gallery to view her work, I believed she was right. Moving towards the bench where my husband sat, I perceived a stationary sculpture to be animated as he went in and out of my field of vision. Likewise, from different vantage points, the security guard was eclipsed by a hanging Bourgeois. But I also had a knee-jerk reaction to the suggestion that space is an illusion. “Oh really?” I thought. Having ample space is the difference between hitting your head on the paper towel dispenser and the doorknob in a puny Manhattan restaurant bathroom and not; it’s the difference between getting a parking space at 2 am and having to go to a parking garage and take a taxi back because your neighbourhood is too rough. (I will recall memories like these when I look at the photograph I just purchased by James Prez of graffiti that says ‘New York Fucking City’). The performance will be informed by my new understanding of space as a precious commodity in Manhattan. I’ll be counting on people infringing on my personal space so they are close enough to become part of the performance, to act as the conceptual completion to the act of assemblage.

I’m off to Pearl Paint to procure some materials for the performance. Stay tuned for photographs this week-end.

P.S. I was in fact foiled by the rain. Now I am just waiting for a time that is convenient for both me and my photographer-husband.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dear Sarah Jessica Parker...

"Cherry-picking from a group of earnest artists also potentially reinforces the myth of the reclusive artist who waits to be discovered".

Dear Sarah Jessica Parker,

Bravo didn’t happen to pass on my request for an interview, did they? Alas, I figured it was a long shot. My hope was to talk to you about the reality television show that is in the works, to be produced by your company, Pretty Matches. Unfortunately, I’m ineligible to try out for the casting call for American Artist this coming week-end at New York’s White Columns Gallery because I don’t have a schedule that coincides with the projected dates of filming. It’s a shame, because I thought it would be fun to say I tried out. Mind you, had I actually made the cut, I probably would have felt conflicted. Here’s why:

I’m not a fan of reality television shows, What Not to Wear notwithstanding, and maybe it’s because they just aren’t realistic. American Artist does offer a semblance of reality by involving real-world art professionals, who will critique the work of artists undergoing art-related challenges, and select a winner who gets a cash award, an exhibition, and a sponsored national tour. However, I have to wonder if it’s wise to fast-forward through the stages of development of up-and-coming artists. Having just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (Little, Brown and Co., 2008), in which he argues that 10,000 hours of practice leads to expertise (attributing the Beatles’ success in part to their grueling performance schedules in Hamburg), I feel like artists might be better served not having all eyes on them while they are still refining their style and technique. It will be interesting to see how the winner sustains his or her career.

Also veering away from reality is the prospect of having artists work outside their chosen media. I’m perplexed about what the value is in this, especially because I’m not convinced of its entertainment value. My husband works exclusively in photography, and I in fibre; if someone made us switch, I don’t think it would be the makings of a good show. It’s imperative for artists to push themselves, but that quality is generally innate for the ones who are likely to make it. Also, I fear that it sends out a damaging message about artists needing to be skilled in multiple media to be successful. Artists who fall into this category, like Michael Snow, are surely recognized for this, but there are plenty of artists who specialize in a single medium who aren’t valued any less because of it.

Cherry-picking from a group of earnest artists also potentially reinforces the myth of the reclusive artist who waits to be discovered. In reality, gallerists and curators have artists on their radar well before they become involved with them because the artists have put themselves out there and aren’t working in isolation. Maybe, ironically, that’s the one realistic element that will be offered up by the show: the artists who are brazen enough to respond to the casting call may have a good shot at getting ahead in the art world because they see the value of exposure. But the type of exposure could be critical. Will the winning artist be respected after the fact? Can a similar model work as, say, American Idol where artists have gone on to strike record deals?

Undoubtedly, American Artist will perpetuate the notion of the art star as well. The thing is, we already have art stars because of high profile art awards. The glamour that comes with those awards is called into question by Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World (W.W. Norton, 2008) by revealing the mixture of melodrama and disappointment that surrounds Britain’s Turner Prize. Melodrama makes for good reality television, for sure, but it sounds like American Artist might be searching for art stars in a context where they already exist.