Friday, July 3, 2009

Putting the femme in femmage

“Although I wondered about the ironic risk of essentializing feminist artists by singling them out in an exhibition, I tried to let my mind relax and think about what these artists could teach me.”

I should probably take the subway more often instead of being frugal. Walking from Grand Central Station to Chelsea last night proved to be doubly frustrating. First of all, I was stopped multiple times by a Democrat wanting to know if I was a registered voter, meaning that I had to endure the quizzical-bordering-on-annoyed expression I receive when I say, “I’m not American.” It gave me a strong urge to read Edward Said. Second of all, I got stuck in a downpour, so I had to squeeze out the bottom six inches of my trousers before entering Pavel Zoubok Gallery, which made me feel anything but glamorous. The effect of gravity on wet fabric in combination with flats made for a tripping hazard, and I found myself wondering if the Manhattanites in high heels were onto something good. (Note to self: stop being smug about sensible footwear).

The exhibition that opened last night, Daughters of the Revolution: Women & Collage, showcases the works of over 30 fantastic modern and contemporary artists. I decided to go because I had written a paper on Hannah Wilke’s collages, which are severely underrepresented in scholarship. The paper was for a course on collage taught by David Moos, the curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was the most intense class I had in my art history masters. A small group of us sat in a windowless room one afternoon a week to debate the importance of ‘the cut’ and other collage-specific phenomena, and confided in each other about feeling invigorated but mentally drained afterwards.

I was curious to see Wilke’s work in relation to collages by other feminists because it represents the opposite approach to what I argued. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get a sense of the context because of the crowds at Pavel Zoubok. However, I can say that the first image to confront me was a checkerboard pattern of breasts, so seeing Wilke’s work a few seconds later naturally made her collaged forms seem vulvic even though she herself resisted a singular interpretation. Allow me to explain how my approach was opposite: in my essay, I suggested that the best way to insert Wilke posthumously into the lineage of collage—read the old boy’s club—was to put her on equal footing with her male counterparts. Specifically, I called for a formal analysis over a feminist analysis (the latter is typically applied to her work). This was a difficult decision for me because there is nothing I would have loved more than to focus on the feminist nature of her work.

A formal analysis reveals Wilke’s contributions to the medium of collage, namely: her conceptually significant introduction of gum and erasers to the roster of collage artists’ media (her work in Daughters of the RevolutionK√∂benhavn [1975]—features multiple eraser forms, a fascinating choice of material for an additive process); her blending of collage and assemblage through the addition of tiny sculptural forms on two-dimensional backgrounds; her playful enhancement of perspective through subtle changes in the scale of collaged forms; and her provocative merging of collage with performance. These developments warrant the attention of art historians, and not exclusively feminist art historians, for they represent a unique departure from collage while remaining firmly committed to its principles.

Although I wondered about the ironic risk of essentializing feminist artists by singling them out in an exhibition, I tried to let my mind relax and think about what these artists could teach me. Here’s what I learned: ever since Toronto artist Vladimir Spicanovic asked the participants in our seminar if any of us worked in collage, I have felt like a fool for piping up about the assemblage of 30 dresses I was in the middle of making (see image above and below; double click to enlarge). I questioned the validity of the labels ‘collage’ and ‘assemblage’ because the dress was neat and tidy, devoid of the violence that is associated with ‘the cut’.
However, last night, seeing Donna Sharrett’s symmetrical and carefully rendered work made me feel less foolish and as I write this, I realize that Wilke’s placement of forms in her postcard collages was equally deliberate and also considered collage. Additionally, discovering Ann Shostrum’s wonderful piece, Strawberries (2009), with its jagged edge and hand stitching, made me feel justified referring to my cocoon sculptures as assemblages in my artist statement—even though a member of the art world has already done so. If only we could live in a world without labels.

After the downpour came to a halt, I made my way back to Grand Central Station and picked up some gelato. The cashier said with a warm smile, “Enjoy your 4th of July.” Thank-you, I will enjoy my 4th of July, even though I am not American, even though I am not a daughter of the revolution. I’m thrilled to be here, to be living in a city where I couldn’t catch all the gallery shows if I tried. Funny, I no longer feel the need to read Edward Said.

Click here to view images from the exhibition.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Socially engaged art

“When used to tell the truth,” she [Beverly Naidus] told the audience, “[beauty] can be really powerful.”

I missed my train at Grand Central Station by seven minutes last night, but it was worth it to stick around after a Bluestockings book reading. In that critical seven minutes, I got to meet the featured author, Beverly Naidus, and pick up her book, Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame (New Village Press, 2009). Although I went to get ideas for an eco-art course that I’m developing in collaboration with an environmental studies instructor at Purchase College, I found her talk to be very helpful for contextualizing my own artwork and for mitigating some of my insecurities as an artist.

Naidus made and defended feminist art in its early days, so I value her opinion. While listening to her presentation, I realized something about the creative process: inclinations can become convictions in the moment that someone you respect not only echoes your sentiments but manages to articulate them in a way that you cannot because you’re too close to the issue. It’s validating, and I don’t mean that in an egotistical way. For me, there were two things that Beverly said that resonated with me.

Early in her presentation, she defended the role of beauty in contemporary art. “When used to tell the truth,” she told the audience, “[beauty] can be really powerful.” Sometimes I wonder if I should make my work grotesque (picture Cindy Sherman’s use of vomit or Jana Sterbak’s raw meat), but it’s just not my style. Frankly, I like the idea of seducing the viewer with silky fabric in pretty shades of pink because it’s a reminder of the power inherent in feminine signifiers. I too am seduced by them in spite of myself, and that tension drives the work. Hopefully, by drawing viewers in with beauty, I can capture their attention long enough to get them to contemplate the underlying message, which is that girls are socialized through clothing that reinforces seemingly innocuous stereotypes that are potentially damaging from a feminist perspective.

The other thing that clicked with me was Naidus’ use of the term ‘socially engaged art’ rather than ‘activism’ because it is more inclusive. Her definition of “art that intends to provoke social change” made me really happy. (I feel that I should write something more profound and scholarly but that is the truth—it made me happy). I once knew someone who delighted in his ‘quiet rebellions’, bucking convention by doing things like wearing mismatched socks. I’ve always felt my work was more of a quiet rebellion than activism. It is not community based, nor does it feed into a cause that would provoke a formal protest, and it is unlikely to get me arrested like some of the actions my artist friends have undertaken. Naidus’ use of the term ‘socially engaged art’ made me feel like there is a legitimate niche for me in the art world.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


“[ART/WORK]... guides artists effectively in taming the beast that is the contemporary art world.”

For the past week or so on my commute, I have been reading ART/WORK by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber (Free Press, 2009), which I learned about through Facebook from Toronto artist Barbara Gilbert. Having taken an excellent workshop with her a year-and-a-half ago through CARFAC (Canadian Artists' Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens) Ontario, I was anxious to follow up on the tip.

Because the book is dense with quotations from members of the art world, I chose to pace myself and ended up retaining more when I took a break after reading each chapter. Even though ART/WORK is nice and compact, I suggest approaching it like a box of good truffles: don't consume it all at once.

Starting with the title, there is an absence of sugar coating. The message is clear: being an artist is work. It is a job, not a hobby, at least if you want to build a career as an artist. Bhandari and Melber’s tendency to be straight with the reader persists throughout the entire book, which guides artists effectively in taming the beast that is the contemporary art world.

As practical as the book is, addressing topics like writing an artist statement and tracking inventory, the authors have a sense of humour. Cartoons by Kammy Roulner are featured throughout; my favourite shows a young girl who asks, “Mommy…can you explain post-colonial identity politics to me?” Also enjoyable for its tongue-in-cheek approach to the arts is the chapter called The Gallery Courtship, which uses the analogy of dating to discuss commercial gallery representation.

The authors’ complement of skills is noteworthy. Bhandari is a gallery director and Melber is an arts lawyer. Bhandari is on the inside, so she can draw the reader’s attention to the way galleries actually operate. Melber, meanwhile, instills confidence in the reader about tackling legal issues like copyright and contract negotiation because of his background in representing artists.

ART/WORK is presented as a book that picks up where art school leaves off. From talking to artists, I gather that some instructors are more inclined than others to talk about life after the safety net of art school. Some schools even have courses in managing a career as an artist, like the Professional Practice course in the Art and Art History program at Sheridan College/University of Toronto at Mississauga. When I was a student there, they had not yet introduced that course. A few years after graduation, I remember sitting down with a former classmate to answer the kinds of questions that are addressed in artist career guides, because I was lucky enough to land a series of jobs that allowed me to pick up on some of the intricacies of the art world. Now, as a librarian instead of an arts administrator, I look back at that conversation and I see an information need—or is ‘information gap’ the current lingo?

If you are a studio instructor reading this post, I urge you to promote artist career guides to your students, or send them to this blog post or my other posts about artist career guides here or here.

I realize that with good reason, the emphasis in the classroom is on ‘finding the artist’s voice’ and making quality work, but eventually students will stop focusing solely on artwork and will need to turn their attention to the combination of art/work. Please, mind the gap between 'art' and 'work'.

Monday, June 29, 2009

What happens in the studio stays in the studio

"I was disappointed to see Emma escape the grasp of one male genius only to fall into bed with another."

After two long days spent packing and storing the contents of our Toronto apartment/my studio, I indulged in reading fiction on the road trip back to New York. With two sewing machines, a judy (body form), and boxes of fabric stowed safely, I was happy to lose myself in Samantha Peale’s The American Painter Emma Dial (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2009).

New York-based Emma Dial used to be an avid swimmer, but now she struggles to keep her head above water, so to speak, as the studio assistant for Michael Freiburg. He hasn’t touched a canvas in years because Emma’s work is such a good match for his own, which makes him incredibly dependent on her. Michael is Manhattan personified: thrilling and fast-paced, with no desire to slow down. Emma, meanwhile, would like nothing better than a reprieve in her Brooklyn studio. Alas, she is entangled in a complex relationship with Michael, compounded by their illicit sexual relations (he is married). Clearly, chain smoking isn’t the only addiction that Emma and Michael share.

The female protagonist finds herself living a clich√© that was once exhilarating but now feels suffocating. Emma is a talented artist in her own right who has been living in the shadow of Michael, but also of her scatterbrained and sensual filmmaker friend, Irene Duffy. Although she redefines her identity in relation to Michael and Irene, damaging her relationships with them along the way, it is her interactions with the peripheral characters that bring Emma the greatest clarity. For example, she confides in Michael’s collectors, the Breslauers, that she has a studio and subsequently daydreams about actually making work there. She inherited the studio lease from her former professor, Meredith Davies, whom she assumed to be a sell-out when she skipped town for love. However, she spots Meredith’s work in The Armory Show and realizing that she has maintained her artistic practice, is reminded of her own artistic goals. While walking through the lower east side, she encounters a former classmate, Chris Cagnasola, to whom she blatantly lies about her artistic pursuits, which reveals the heartbreaking discrepancy between the life she has and the life she craves. Overwhelmed with self-consciousness, Emma even avoids her mother over the holidays, because she can’t handle her judgment as an art historian about her daughter creating work for another artist instead of furthering her own career. Ultimately, Emma realizes that self-acceptance is more important than anyone else’s acceptance of her, prompting some major life changes that propel the book forward.

Here's my two cents' worth: I have a hard time buying the idea that Michael, being a landscape painter, is one of the three artists that changed the face of New York painting in the 1970s. I suppose they needed to be landscapes so that he could gender them and make annoying remarks (in front of his wife, no less) like suggesting that Emma hasn't made the water “sexy enough”. I can appreciate the fact that as landscapes, they remind the reader that Emma is trapped in a metropolis. Overall, I was disappointed to see Emma escape the grasp of one male genius only to fall into bed with another. Even though she has a moment of self-assertion with her new lover, it’s rather subdued. I wanted more for her, but the book leaves off just where there is a suggestion that she will begin to give herself more.