Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sewing as performance

"As a female artist who sews, it is strange to watch another woman in the act. Calderón is unbelievably graceful..."

Last night, Metro North was behind schedule so I accidentally boarded the wrong train. As a result, on my way to a joint opening at Longwood Art Gallery in the Bronx, I had to walk an unlucky thirteen streets from Fordham train station to the Fordham subway station…in the rain, without an umbrella. My ride home was much more pleasant because I took the Bronx Culture Trolley, with cheerful passengers (literally, they were cheering with excitement at riding the replica of an early 20th century trolley).

Both exhibitions are curated by BRIO (Bronx Recognizes Its Own) award winner, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz: Bangin’ highlights the work of nine emerging women artists (Emma Amos, Clarissa Cummings, Heather Hart, Swati Khurana, Wonder Koch, Tamara Kostianovsky, Emily North, Traci Tullius, and Alison Ward), and Linger is a performance by Melissa A. Calderón.

Bangin’ really sets the tone for Linger. Viewing the array of unique pieces in this group show of drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, and video caused a series of words to flash through my mind, namely, 'sewing', ‘women’, and ‘nature’ (I am aware of my own bias and realize that I may be projecting my own artistic interests). There is stitching, both by hand and machine, both utilitarian and expressive. And there are bodies, mostly female—bodies of all ages, races, and sizes, including miniature and larger-than-life; disfigured bodies; idealized bodies; androgynous bodies; bodies in drag; bodies superimposed with animals, interacting with animals, and wearing animal masks. There are dragons, butterflies, birds, elephants, cows, bamboo, flowers, and other signifiers of nature I have likely overlooked.

The project room at the back of the gallery provides an intimate setting for Linger, a performance by Melissa A. Calderón in which she takes on the persona of a bird while meditatively stitching. The Bronx-based artist sits in the centre of a nest about six feet wide in diameter. Its size might accommodate additional inhabitants, but the nest is nonetheless uninviting: criss-crossed branches and brambles form a barrier reminiscent of barbed wire, discouraging the viewer from approaching the delicate egg-like shells that rest within.

The ‘egg shells’ are made of tissue, which is material the artist has been working with for several years, and the same material from which her garment is constructed. Whereas her garment, which could be described as angelic, has a look of softness and freshness to it, the eggs are hardened and wrinkled. My eyes fixate on a small, scarred patch of skin on her arm that resembles the texture of the large egg shells, oddly making the imagined former inhabitants of the eggs seem more weathered than their mother figure.

Although the artist has assumed the persona of the bird, the viewer is reminded of her humanity by snippets of braided hair, the same colour as Calderón’s, strewn subtly throughout the nest. This detail lends an eerie dimension to her work, for as young children, we are taught—often after making this tragic mistake—never to touch birds’ eggs.

When Calderón completes the loose stitching to fuse the curve of two halves of each egg, she stands up and exits her nest. Apparently bereft, she exposes a few crumpled tissues that lay beneath her and gingerly places the newly sewn egg in a pile with the others in a corner. After watching her carefully rearrange the pile, in what feels like an obsessive attempt to control uncontrollable loss, I notice a video playing nearby on a tiny screen. By showing the artist performing a similar act, though in a forest (possibly constructing the nest), the video underscores the continuous nature of her loss.

Calderón’s avoidance of eye contact with the audience keeps her on task, so she may have missed a touching complement to her performance as caretaker: a young girl runs up to watch the artist stitching and seconds later, retreats to the safety of her mother’s legs with trepidation.

As a female artist who sews, it is strange to watch another woman in the act. Calderón is unbelievably graceful: when threading the needle, she looks like she is preening, and then she smoothes out the strand of thread in an almost affectionate manner, as if petting an animal. Through her sewing in particular, she appears simultaneously maternal and animalistic, and altogether enchanting.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

How infants know minds

"...I hope that I have captured a sense of feisty neophytes having the last laugh."

Still recovering from losing a night of sleep last week, I haven’t had much energy to read lately during my commute. However, I did leaf through How Infants Know Minds (Harvard University Press, 2008) in which author Vasudevi Reddy argues that at a very early age, babies not only perceive human intentions directed at them, but that they often react to them. That’s not exactly saying that precocious babies are aware of gender construction, but in my creative headspace—where scientific logic isn’t necessarily required—I like to imagine that such a leap can be made. Since my work isn’t a literal representation in any sense, it’s alright by me if the degree of babies’ awareness is inconclusive. Besides, my work is just as much about parental and societal intentionality as it is about the female experience. While I was disturbed to read the chapter on self-consciousness, I was later relieved (and fascinated) to read that babies are hardly passive recipients of directed behaviour. They can even be indifferent or coy, especially when a parent pushes them to perform. By making cocoon sculptures in which disrepair suggests the potential for escape, I hope that I have captured a sense of feisty neophytes having the last laugh.

Reading numerous second-person accounts of babies’ behaviour reminded me of an incident where I was blindsided by a comment from someone I had just met. About two weeks before I got married, a male viewer asked me if on some level, my work was affected by the fact that I was not a parent but that many of my peers were; honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me, in part because I started making the work when I was single and when none of my peers were having babies. He may have been thinking, “Who is she to talk about the experience of socializing baby girls?” On the one hand, he’s right: I think of my friend who just last week had a baby girl. It’s one thing to theorize about the process of socialization and another entirely to live it and to devote every waking moment to caring for a baby. On the other hand, I reminded myself that I have lived it: I was born female, raised female and continue to identify as female.

(Double click to enlarge image). In fact, when I first began incorporating baby clothing into artwork, it was largely inspired by the fact that my mother kept my baby clothes, something which I hadn’t personally known anyone else to do. As cynical as my work is, it’s also rooted in love (and I know my mother is reading this because I send her weekly printouts of my blog). I'm not sure I would have admitted to that before I saw Nancy Jurs'50/50 exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse this past spring; in her statement, she spoke about her frustration with contemporary art being extremely cynical, unlike her work, which is motivated by positive emotions. By the way, the work above includes an outfit that both my sister and I wore as babies.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Chick lit in the kitchen

"Her apron has the seemingly innocuous moniker, 'The Happy Baker' embroidered on it--innocuous unless you've heard of a little book called The Happy Hooker..."

I arrived at the airport shortly before 5 am today, and I suspect I would have fallen asleep standing up had I not brought along some supremely sweet caramels. Yesterday was chilly in Toronto, so it was nice to stir caramel over the stovetop. The tasty combination of chocolate, caramel and sea salt made me a little less sad that Starbucks' signature salted caramel hot chocolate is no longer available.

The recipe was printed in The Toronto Star on Friday to promote the book, The Happy Baker: A Dater's Guide to Emotional Baking (Happy Baker Publishing, 2009). Toronto-based Erin Bolger invites the lovelorn to find solace in baked goods. The format of her chick-lit cookbook, as she calls it, is a mixture of recipes and laughable tales of dating that are bringing her acclaim. The concept alone makes me nostalgic for the book, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquievel in which recipes punctuate the story and function as romantic narratives unto themselves. Meanwhile, Bolger's recipe names--such as 'Internet Dating Fondue' and the aforementioned caramels (full name: 'It's Not Me It's You Sea-Salted Caramels')--make me want to watch the 2007 movie Waitress again. Its female lead, Keri Russell, plays Jenna, a woman seeking escape from an abusive marriage. She makes pies for a restaurant in the American South with such memorable names as 'I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie' and 'I Can't Have no Affair Because it's Wrong and I Don't Want Earl to Kill Me Pie'.

The Star review by Susan Sampson presents Bolger as a kitchen-savvy Carrie Bradshaw, an image that Bolger evidently encourages. Her Twitter page, for example, shows a photograph of a woman's glossy pink lips about to envelop a cupcake held by manicured fingers (painted pink, the same colour as Bolger's hammer and apron in a photo on her MySpace page). Her apron has the seemingly innocuous moniker, 'The Happy Baker' embroidered on it--innocuous unless you've heard of a little book called The Happy Hooker by Xaviera Hollander.

Make no mistake: I am not passing negative judgment. In fact, I would argue that Bolger endorses female empowerment (through sharing women's recipes; wielding a hammer in the kitchen; and choosing names like 'Who Needs a Man on Valentine's Day Biscotti'). The endorsement is suitably packaged for a generation of readers raised on BUST magazine, although the Ms. generation may feel bewildered and the in-between Sassy generation divided.

(Double click to enlarge image.) Admittedly, I am intrigued by the line Bolger is treading. The reason is that I have been making sketches over the past few days for a skirt and apron to accompany my 'cupcake bra' that is on exhibit until June 28 at the Port Moody Art Centre in British Columbia. Sugar & Spice, shown above, is a feminist response to the early and persistent association of the cupcake with females, which is visually represented by icing that consists of juxtaposed fragments of lingerie and baby dresses. The displacement of breasts presents cupcakes as fetish objects. Further invoking male fantasy and conjuring images of women jumping out of cakes at bachelor parties are the red pasties. Not only do they stand in for cherries, which are cupcakes’ characteristic topping, but they play on the sexualized slang term ‘cherry'. Oversized and oversexed, these cupcakes allude to women’s body issues like augmentation and gluttony. Also referenced is the (sometimes conflicting) dual role of breasts, as providing sustenance and sexual pleasure.

On the topic of bodily issues, the release of The Happy Baker may be perfectly timed--as Barbara Amiel wrote in last week's issue of Macleans, First Lady Michelle Obama has promoted such a healthy body image that women might end up worrying that they are too thin. Erin Bolger comes to the rescue, noting on her blog, "If any of my recipes are low fat, I'm sorry, it wasn't intentional." Three cheers for ushering in a new era of how women view their bodies.

I made sure to finish off every last morsel of caramel that I had brought to the airport. After all, I could just picture the confusion/displeasure that might otherwise arise when clearing customs:
Q: Do you have anything to declare?
A: Yes. It's not me, it's you.