Friday, May 22, 2009

The merits of shock value


"...did the Second Wave feminist artists do the hard work, allowing their Third Wave feminist counterparts to get away with coasting?"

Resting a lightweight book on my forearm—perfectly positioned between the crook of my arm and my bent wrist—I made the most of standing on the bus yet again. The trick is to avoid turning pages when the bus is in motion. The book was Art: Histories, theories and exceptions by Adam Geczky (Berg, 2008). It is surprisingly comprehensive for such a short book, not only in terms of the span of time it covers but also in terms of geographical coverage.

Initially, I was going to make today’s blog entry about artists writing throughout history. I would present it as a precursor for art blogs, drawing inspiration from Geczy’s section “Writings by artists”, which traces the relationship between creating art and writing about art to Vasari and other Renaissance artists. “Ta-da!” I thought. “This blogging commitment is going to be a cinch.”

As I was skimming through the rest of the book, however, I was stopped in my tracks by video stills and a brief description of a controversial work that was unfamiliar to me: Zhu Yu’s Feeding my own child to a dog. This work shows a dog eating a fetus, which the author astutely sees as a commentary on politically sanctioned infanticide.

It’s rare that I can’t get a work out of my mind. In this case, I suspect it’s because of the sheer power of it, not to mention the visceral reaction I experienced. Beyond those reasons, I think it haunted me because of the artist’s ability to deal so directly with the corporeal realm. I, on the other hand, have used baby clothing to stand in for the human form in my work. Only in recent months have I incorporated umbilical cords and pudgy arms and legs. I often include hints of sexual characteristics, but they are intentionally ambiguous: they are there if the viewer wants to see them.

I sincerely hope that in the context of my work, subtlety is an outgrowth of complexity, and that it is a strength and not a weakness. At the same time, I realize that it’s unfair to size my work up against anyone else’s because every artist has their own agenda. My work is not politically charged like Zhu Yu’s, but I can’t fool myself into thinking they don’t belong in the same broader category, since mine is also an impassioned critique of society played out in the infant body.

Shock value has a long history in art, so much so that the ridiculous term ‘shock art’ has emerged. (It’s ridiculous in my opinion, because the term will eventually seem anachronistic for each work so labeled as the shock wears off). Feminist art, the category of art that I most identify with, certainly has a history of using shock value and generally it has been in combination with the female body. Ask anyone who the key players are in feminist art and they will probably cite women who used shock value as a tool, like Judy Chicago or Carolee Schneemann. I’m left wondering, did the Second Wave feminist artists do the hard work, allowing their Third Wave counterparts to get away with coasting? Maybe artists of my generation have the luxury of being subtle because the framework and vocabulary for interpreting feminist art was already introduced before our time.

I don’t think that subtle work is any less memorable than so-called shock art. If anything, its complexities may reveal themselves over time. But to occupy someone’s mind as intensely as Zhu Yu has mine…well, that would be a great privilege.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What happens when the lights go out


"I'm always amazed that writing inevitably leads to epiphanies, however small they may seem..."

I took an earlier bus at the end of the work day yesterday so I could hit the mall in search of baby clothing for a series of sculptures. Stuck standing for the second day in a row, I couldn’t write notes, but I did reflect on my day, which was unusually productive art-wise.

There was an electrical shutdown at work, which prompted me to work on things that didn’t require a computer. I was delighted by the headway I made first thing in the morning, without the distraction of the Internet. Specifically, I banged out a proposal for a call for submissions about fibre art.

Through the process of writing about the work, which is about three-quarters done, I managed to clarify for myself why I had made certain choices. I'm always amazed that writing inevitably leads to epiphanies, however small they may seem to other people.

Here is some background about the work:

(Double click on image to enlarge).

My work positions gender as a social construct. I scour clothing stores for garments that highlight the virtually immediate exposure of baby girls to feminine signifiers (namely sensuous fabric, floral patterns, and the colour pink) and incorporate these ‘found objects’ into stitched assemblages. Most often, these take the form of wall-hung abstracted cocoon sculptures.

Using the cocoon as a metaphor for female socialization, I bind and encase girls’ baby clothing in transparent fabric, allowing the garments to stand in for the human form. Hopeful and hopeless, the cocooned forms simultaneously appear to break free from their fibrous restraints through rips and gouges yet become further bound by layers of stitching while being smothered by additional fabric.

My focus over the past two years has been on cocoons that incorporate baby clothing with printed or embroidered text featuring seemingly innocuous messages like ‘I’m a baby doll’. These cocoons are an exploration of text-based socialization imposed, ironically, on a pre-literate group. In the work in progress, part of the word on the bib is hidden, alluding to gender labeling.The piece may be interpreted as questioning whether the hypothetical child will be assigned the label of ‘prince’ (male) or ‘princess’ (female), and whether the child will resist or conform to this label.

After making what I thought was the final text-based piece, I began the Aberration series, which consists of multiple, mostly identical cocoons representing a single cocoon at various points in time. Conceptually, they celebrate the impulse to delight in the growth of newborns and nature alike, but they also highlight the dark side of conformity through malformations that threaten the pink bundles of perfection. From a formalist standpoint, the Aberration series is an exercise in sculptural reproduction and ultimately a defense of fibre as a valid sculptural medium.


At any rate, the realizations I had were these: I had found the same baby outfit in a preemie size, so I decided to add a fourth cocoon to the far left. (I just started a preemie series, the first of which will be in the National Small Works Exhibition in Grosvenor Gallery at the SUNY Cobleskill campus in New York). I concluded that by using a preemie outfit, I was underscoring the vulnerability of baby girls, but also pushing back the timeline of socialization: through this work, I am arguing that gender construction begins even before a baby has been born, through actions like selecting colour swatches for nurseries and accepting gender-specific gifts at baby showers.

I also decided that in this work, the umbilical cord functions symbolically as a link to the previous generation and its conceptions of gender, but that it also refers to a biological lifeline. I felt relieved because Toronto artist Margaux Williamson had recently suggested I read Stephen Pinker to account for the possibility that maybe nature does trump nurture, which could nullify the basis for my work. The umbilical cord may be a very abstract way of accounting for both sides of the nature/nurture debate, but in the world of sexualized fabric cocoons, who is going to argue that abstraction is out of place?

Welcome


I actually already have a blog for my artwork featuring exhibition announcements, my cv, etc. at http://artbyheathersaunders.blogspot.com (formerly http://cocoonsculptures.blogspot.com). I plan to maintain that blog, but to update this one on a much more regular basis with general reflections rather than shameless self-promotion.

The meaning of my blog name is both literal and symbolic: While I hope that I am in transit from being an emerging artist to taking on one of those other labels I dare not contemplate so early in my career, I also chose the name to celebrate the banal setting in which I ironically do the bulk of my creative reflection--it happens on public transit.

Between an hour-long commute on the bus and train to my job as an art librarian, and monthly plane rides or 12-hour bus rides to Canada, I log a lot of hours traveling with perfect strangers. While in transit-- when I’m not resting--I make notes about art ideas or I read about art.

I consider myself a part-time artist, if only because I can only make work in fits and spurts when time allows, but I actually think about art most of the time. It helps to be married to an artist and to have an art-related job.