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!