Friday, December 24, 2010

An Object of Beauty


“If Yeager has a true love, it is art, not men.”

Everyone must know a Lacey Yeager. The main character in Steve Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty (Grand Central Publishing, 2010), is a self-involved, brazen, sexy young woman who uses her wiles for professional gain. She’s the kind of woman who leaves her female competitors in the dust and leaves her male onlookers dumbfounded. Good things befall her, from real estate to art investments. When a friend questions her financial success that accompanies her upward mobility from the bowels of an auction house to international travel as an art consultant, she attributes it to magic. A cynic looking closely might notice her batting her lashes, but would fail to detect her cutting corners professionally—such is the combination of cute and cunning.

Several pages in, I concluded that I needn’t continue reading for a fuller understanding of Yeager’s character because there simply couldn’t be one. Understanding Yeager is impossible except by constructing a composite of her relationships and seeing her impact on those around her. Take, for instance, the narrator Daniel Franks. A reserved art critic, he is her former classmate and one-time lover. Tired of his boring relationships, he lets Yeager use him to provoke jealousy with extra-long hugs in front of her suitors. The reader can empathize with Franks, but not with Yeager, which is the case with at least one other male character in the book. An example is when Yeager, in a drug-induced state, fondles Franks and he describes his awkwardness, to which she is utterly oblivious in the moment and thereafter. Interestingly, Franks only surfaces intermittently, making him part omniscient narrator, part character who is directly involved in the protagonist’s life. His intermittent appearance also emphasizes Yeager’s inability to get close to anyone. If Yeager has a true love, it is art, not men.

The starring role that art plays in the novel is the main reason I read on, though I persevered for other reasons too: because of confidence in Martin’s creativity; because of a promising plot that delivered; and because of a disturbing impulse akin to staring at victims of an automobile accident (I was curious to see what kind of havoc Yeager would wreak). Aside from the usual reasons to indulge in fiction, there are incentives for art lovers. The book is peppered with colour reproductions of works of art integral to the story. For those less familiar with art, Martin’s Art History 101 is stellar. He also encapsulates the quirkiness of the contemporary art world with gem-like descriptions such as ‘high-craft OCD’. The expository sections aren’t overly long, nor are they obvious in performing this function. Two notable examples are Martin’s inclusion of 9/11 and the 2008 recession. Both of these driving forces in the art market coincide with Yeager’s major career moves, one being the opening of a gallery and the other being a major investment in foreign art. This strategy allows Martin to explain their substantial effect by tracing the fallout for Yeager. Yeager is such a spitfire that these factors can’t suppress her for long. Ultimately, she falls from grace not because of these external forces, but by her own doing, which turns the book into a morality tale.

With the New Year approaching, and with it requisite self-assessment, I tried shifting the question from whether I know a Lacey Yeager (I do) to whether there is some Lacey Yeager in me. Here’s my admission: we share an appreciation for contrivance. Every move she makes is calculated and loaded, even down to her wardrobe choices. My approach to my blog is similarly controlled. If I know I’m going to attend a certain exhibition, I tailor my reading materials so I can write a post that is enhanced instead of disjointed. Thus, you can imagine my disappointment when I only made it two-thirds of the way through An Object of Beauty on my last road trip two weeks ago. It was my first time returning to New York since I moved in September, and it would have been the perfect complement since the book is set in Midtown, Uptown, and Chelsea. Ironically, I was unable to get back to the book right away because I was immersed in papermaking and book binding at Sheridan. I had to face the disappointing reality that I would be reading the New York-based book on a flight to Hawaii, which was totally mismatched. As the flight was about to descend, I stowed the book because turbulence was expected and I felt it would make me an irresponsible librarian to cling to a hardcover that was a potential projectile. I picked up United Airlines’ publication, Hemisphere begrudgingly. And there it was: synchronicity. An interview with comedian Judd Apatow described how he met Steve Martin as a teenager and ended with the line, “Steve Martin is the funniest man in the world”. Mahalo, Steve Martin. (That’s ‘thank-you’ in Hawaiian).

Mele Kalikimaka! (Merry Christmas!)

Source: David Carr, “The Hemi Q & A: Judd Apatow”, Hemisphere, December 2010, pp. 64-67. Print.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In defense of the lethargic bride

“…chances are she’s going to be bitter”

It’s a toss-up as to which commuting incident was more alarming today: (1) making my way through a crowd of squealing Justin Bieber fans on a narrow platform, ready to fend off potential trampling with my safety whistle…if only it weren’t somewhere deep within my purse OR (2) reading this in a Metro article: “…a girl should start working out as soon as she thinks the guy is about to propose.” I cannot in good conscience deconstruct the group behaviour of the Bieberettes, for I am a former NKOTB fan. (That is to say, as a pre-teen, I walked five kilometers on a regular basis to the general store for New Kids collectable cards and had my first and only foray into ‘fan fic’). Thus, I will turn my attention to the Metro.

I’m not sure what possessed me to read an article on bridal fitness. It’s probably because after a ten-year hiatus, I’ve started jogging regularly. (I’ve joked that the reason I gave up jogging was that it raised my metabolism so much that I was eating dinner twice a night, which was impractical. The part about two dinners is true but there were other reasons I stopped jogging). Pragmatism cannot be overrated, and I appreciate that brides may want to maintain a specific size because of gown alterations. However, the article didn’t seem to appeal to women’s pragmatic side. Rather it capitalized on their insecurities. A case in point: “…every fat bulge, is meticulously captured on high-def camera.”

Why should a prospective bride feel pressured to become more fit (read: slender) anyway? After all, if her beau—or belle—loves her enough to propose, subsequent changes in physical appearance would be irrelevant. If it’s for others’ impressions, like Facebook friends or wedding guests, may I suggest that the bride reassess her values and how much she loves herself? External validation is not the best kind, as intoxicating as it seems. Also, can we please move beyond the assumption that it is the man who must propose? I know several women who have waited for years to be asked that magical question. If a woman pushes herself because she expects something in return and the man—not being a mind reader—doesn’t deliver, chances are she’s going to be bitter. (Indeed, several months after I made this post, Ana Perez from Chicago threatened her boyfriend that if he didn't propose, she would call 911...which she did, prompting criminal charges. Actually, in this case, working out would probably take the edge off, though therapy would be a useful complement).

I thought society had started to move away from idealizing the female figure, based on buxom models like Doutzen Kroes and Portia De Rossi’s autobiography on anorexia, Unbearable Lightness. However, I changed my stance after purchasing my first bridal magazine for art research. I was stunned that every bride featured, without exception, was waif-like. If this is the type of visual input facing today’s bride, it’s no wonder she feels pressured to shed a few pounds.

The piece I made wasn’t about body image. It was an investigation of positive and negative space; a juxtaposition of contemporary bridal imagery and ancient religious garb; and a commentary on a verse from the Apocrypha (“A silent wife is a gift from the Lord. Sirach 25:14) used in a reading at our convalidation ceremony. [Click image to enlarge sample for larger piece, aprx. 1 m x 1 m]. The brides just happen to be slim, and I wonder if viewers will even notice that in multitude, they feel like paper chain dolls disconnected and redressed.

To sum up, I was not an aerobic bride, nor am I am a silent wife. I hope that the Bieberettes—those children with ringlets and eye makeup you may have spotted on tonight’s train—grow up to realize that self-assertion and self-acceptance trump vanity.

*Source: Romina McGuiness, “Wow at Your Wedding”, Metro News, November 23, 2010, p. 27. Print.

Friday, October 8, 2010

You like it WHERE?


“...it makes gender specific sex fodder for humour, which is where I get my knickers in a knot."

A new viral campaign on Facebook has been gaining momentum, resulting in updates from women to the tune of “I like it on the kitchen counter” and “I like it on the floor beside the bed.” Personally, I used to be indifferent but now I prefer the latter. For any gentlemen still in the dark, these comments refer to handbags, not hand…er, you can probably guess what I was going to write. One can’t help but imagine female friends in the act as a result of these naughty sounding status updates, reminding us of the power of visualization (which interests me as an artist because it reinforces the power of the visual).

As a feminist artist, I’m obviously interested in female power but I dare say this campaign wields none of any consequence. Although its predecessor (January’s bra colour updates) expressed some semblance of girl power by rationalizing itself with an apparent goal of bringing attention to breast cancer, this campaign makes no such claim. In fact, the Facebook message chiding women to participate uses as its incentive the fact that the previous viral campaign made it into the news. May I point out that not all content in the news is newsworthy? A cow on the loose made it into my hometown paper recently. Enough said.

On the surface, the updates seem like an empowering and fun form of sharing female sexuality à la Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha in Sex and the City. Ultimately, though, there’s no meaningful disclosure (except of details that might interest burglars on a tight schedule). It actually underscores society’s lack of openness about sexuality. Plus, it makes gender specific sex fodder for humour, which is where I get my knickers in a knot. Like the bra colour updates, this campaign titillates men by being coy. It seems to aim to even the score with locker-room-style commentary. It makes me wonder, what would be the reaction if men started a similarly covert campaign to state where they like their wallet at the end of the day? Surely they'd be chastised. Or maybe they’d seem prudish in comparison (“I like to keep it in my pants”).

Perhaps what really bothers me is the interchangeability of a purse for female sexuality, adding an element of commoditization. It’s just another way that women’s bodies and sexuality are consumed and it doesn’t make it palatable to this writer just because the woman is the seller.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Writing off women


“...it’s possible that the viewer might take in the book first and move upward to her décolletage.”

It’s been almost two months since I’ve made a post. My life has taken on a greater degree of chaos while I’ve balanced two overlapping roles: outgoing art librarian at Purchase College and incoming textiles student at Sheridan College. The colleges are eleven hours apart if traffic is good. Apartment hunting, writing an entrance exam, battling mold on items in storage…it has all been a whirlwind. My new commute involves Ontario’s Go Train instead of New York’s Metro North Train. The main difference is access to stray copies of the free Metro newspaper, which I decided to skim yesterday.

My attention was caught by the headline, “Writing off women?” The brief article is about the relegation of female-authored fiction to ‘chick lit’. My intention is not to comment on that issue, but to comment on the presentation of it. Unfortunately, the online version of the article does not include the image I discuss below.

An accompanying photo takes up more room than the text of the article. It shows a young, blond, Caucasian woman lying stomach down on the grass while reading a book. It made me yearn for summer, which—at least in Canada—seems to have disappeared amazingly fast. Then I looked closer. The caption mentions Pulitzer Prize winning author, Elizabeth Strout, but does not clarify if the woman is her. The real Elizabeth Strout is about 30 years older, though similarly blond and Caucasian. This image, presumably a stock photo, is a curious choice.

Our fresh-faced reader could do wonders for libraries as a poster child for literacy. Clad in all white (tank top, pants/shorts, and even her bra, whose strap is visible), she exudes innocence. Her mascara-laden lids and lips saturated with colour guide the viewer’s eye towards her ample cleavage and finally, to the book. That, after all, is the real object in the image, right? Or, because she consumes only the top right corner of the image and the rest is grass, it’s possible that the viewer might take in the book first and move upward to her décolletage. Either way, she rivals the book as the focus.

Interestingly, the book’s pages appear virtually empty. One page is entirely white while its opposing page has a blur of text. I am reminded of Reese Witherspoon’s vapid character in Pleasantville discovering words in the previously blank classics that filled her high school library. I’m also reminded of Medieval Books of Hours, those ornate volumes that women—often illiterate women—toted as accessories of sorts. If I think that far back into art history, I may as well reflect on her demure expression, a commonplace strategy to make female subjects seem capable of being overcome. Her gaze is fixated on the book, and not on the onlooker. She is up for grabs.

As a librarian and as a feminist, I am perplexed by the sexualization of reading in visual culture. I don’t mean to imply that beautiful and sexy women don’t read. However, if the editors are attempting to empathize with, or at least, represent the viewpoints of female authors bothered by male dominance in the industry, they would do well to use an image that doesn’t fall into gender traps, or perhaps they could feature one of the three women mentioned in the article/caption.

Source: ----, “Writing women off?”, Metro News, September 8, 2010, p. 31. Print.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Feminist's advisory


“…if you are considering becoming a feminist or are trying to convert someone, the most effective book is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf…”

Yesterday at orientation, the father of an incoming student asked me, “Does anyone still read books?” After finishing Click: When we knew we were feminists (Eds. Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan, Seal Press, 2010) last night, I have a belated answer: Third Wave feminists. Maybe it’s because I’m a librarian, but one of the salient features I noticed in this collection of intriguing essays by women from my generation was the emphasis on books.

The book reveals a pivotal moment or experience that converted each of these women to feminism. The majority of the contributors mention at least a few authors or specific works, and almost all of those works are monographs. Most are recommendations, but equally interesting are the contributors’ ‘anti-recommendations’, if you will (i.e., sources they find troubling). For example, Jillian Mackenzie laments that her female friends and acquaintances bought He’s just not that into you: The no-excuses truth to understanding guys (Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2004), hook, line and sinker. These Third Wave feminists persuade and dissuade the reader in the realm of TV, film, and music too, but that’s far less frequent than the references to monographs. Thus, I chose to call this post ‘Feminist’s advisory’; it’s a play on the library term ‘reader’s advisory’, the process of recommending sources to library users.

Below is a bibliography I’ve compiled. Why? Click does not include full citations, so if you’d like to do some summer reading, this list should expedite things. Also, I was curious what a quantitative analysis would reveal. The bottom line is that if you are considering becoming a feminist or are trying to convert someone, the most effective book is The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, and the author not to be missed is bell hooks. Actually if you cross-reference the list of recommended books with the list of recommended authors, Gloria Steinem is equally popular as Wolf and hooks.

A few notes on my process: Some of the references are to books in the contributors’ parents’ personal library, but I’ve included them if they are mentioned with a hint of admiration. I’ve left out any works that are presented in a neutral or negative way, which has necessitated personal judgment, but for the most part, the endorsements are pretty clear-cut. A few of them, like the book on ADHD, only make sense in the context of the essays, so consider any confusion to be an enticement to read Click.

A Feminist bibliography gleaned from Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists


Online Sources:

Eds. Valenti, Jessica; Valenti, Vanessa; Mukhopadhyay, Samhita; Friedman, Ann; Martin, Courtney E.; Pérez, Miriam Zoila; and Merritt, Pamela. Feministing. 2004 to present, http://www.feministing.com (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click, who is also an author-editor of Feministing).

Articles:

Banks, Sandy. “A Younger View of Feminism”, Los Angeles Times April 10, 2009. Print. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

O’Reilly, Jane. “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth.” Ms./New York Magazine, December 20, 1971. Print. (mentioned in introduction as inspiration for the book title; also endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Quindlen, Anna. “Public and Private” (column), New York Times, 1990-1992. Print. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Rich, Adrienne. “Reflections on “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” Journal of Women's History 16.1 2004, 9-11. Print. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Magazines:

Ed. (founding) Pogrebin, Letty Cottin. Ms. , New York Magazine, Ms. Foundation for Education and Communication, Liberty Media, 1971-present. Print.(Endorsed by 3 contributors to Click)

Ed. (founding) Pratt, Jane. Sassy, Matilda Publications, Lang Communications, and Petersen Publishing, 1988-1996. Print.(Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Books:

*juvenile:

Lindgren, Astrid. Pippi Longstocking. New York: Viking Press, 1950.(Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Thomas, Marlo. Free to be…You and Me. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.(Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

*adult:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Baumgardner, Jennifer, and Richards, Amy. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Boston Women's Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. Plainfield, Vt.: Daughters, Inc., 1973. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Collins, Jackie. Lucky. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Estrich, Susan. Sex and Power. New York: Riverhead Books, 2000. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Publication: New York: Crown, 1991. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1925. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton, 1963. (Endorsed by 2 contributors to Click)

Gordon, Mary. The Company of Women. New York: Random House, 1980. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Kelly, Kate and Ramundo, Peggy. You Mean I’m not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!: A Self-Help Book for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Moraga, Cherríe, and Anzaldúa, Gloria. This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume Book, 1994. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Pipher, Mary Bray. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Putnam, 1994. (Endorsed by 3 contributors to Click)

Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Susann, Jacqueline. Valley of the Dolls: A Novel. New York: Grove Press, 1966. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Wallace, Michele. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. New York: Dial Press, 1979.(Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Walker, Rebecca. To be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Walker, Alice. In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. (Endorsed by 2 contributors to Click)

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. New York: W. Morrow, 1991. (Endorsed by 4 contributors to Click)

Book Chapters:

Higginbotham, Anastasia. “Chicks Goin’ At It.” In Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. Seal Press, 1995: 11-18. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Chernik, Abra Fortune. “The Body Politic.” In Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation . Seal Press, 1995: 103-111. (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

Authors/poets mentioned (but not specific works by them):


Bella Abzug (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Simone de Beauvoir (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
James Boswell (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Patricia Hill Collins (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Andrea Dworkin (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
T. S. Eliot (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Susan Faludi (Endorsed by 2 contributors to Click)
Betty Friedan (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Nancy Friday (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Nikki Giovanni (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Nathaniel Hawthorne (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
bell hooks (Endorsed by 4contributors to Click)
Zora Neale Hurston (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Kumari Jayawardena (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Audrey Lorde (Endorsed by 3 contributors to Click)
Catherine MacKinnon (Endorsed by 2 contributors to Click)
Chandra Mohanty (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Uma Narayan (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Pat Parker (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Katha Pollitt (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Adrienne Rich (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Margaret Sanger (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Gloria Steinem (Endorsed by 3 contributors to Click)
Henry David Thoreau (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Mark Twain (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Alice Walker (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Cornel West (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Virginia Woolf (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)
Elizabeth Wurtzel (Endorsed by 1 contributor to Click)

The contributors aren’t arrogantly name-dropping these authors. They seem to genuinely appreciate the role of the written word in shaping their feminism. For example, Marni Grossman remembers reading prolifically during her recovery from anorexia and Jillian MacKenzie describes reading as revelatory.

That made me reconsider my own conflicted relationship with theory. Here’s my theory about theory: I feel that many people, myself included, misunderstand theory but they feel pressured to include it in academic essays. As a result, obscure theorists are touted more than they might be otherwise. Through a kind of skewed citation analysis, the theorist joins the canon. Although I don’t shirk my responsibilities to add theory to our library collection, personally, I’m more inclined to turn to Gilmore Girls than Guattari to contextualize my art. I feel there’s a more direct connection and that it’s more democratic (read: accessible). Before you say anything, GG fans, I acknowledge that popular culture and scholarly theory aren’t mutually exclusive, and that the show’s writers worked Betty Friedan’s death into the script immediately and impressively.

As to how all of this relates to my artwork, last week I updated my artist statement to incorporate theory so it would be better suited to an exhibition I’m applying to. I was researching the Other in a feminist context, which naturally led me to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I found a few token passages, and reluctantly added it to my pile of summer reading, figuring it’s a classic I should be more familiar with. Only a few days later, I was watching The Truth About Cats and Dogs, in which the male love interest gives the unwitting female love interest a copy of de Beauvoir’s Letters to Sartre. I searched online to learn more, and I became captivated by the couple’s relationship, which is not unlike my own marriage, at least in terms of an unconventional living situation (I have a long distance marriage) and in terms of mutual support of creative endeavors (we’re both artists). Suddenly I was adding this tome of love letters to my summer reading, along with de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Once de Beauvoir went from being a theorist to a person in my mind, I felt more open to reading her theory. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the stories in Click so much.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The California Gurl & the Canadian Girl


“Am I envious that Perry’s video is all the rage and that the cupcake bra has been called genius…?”

Friends have been writing from as far away as Korea to give me the head’s up about Katy Perry’s California Gurls video, which was released mid-June. The reason? Among the many sweet treat brassieres worn by the singer and her entourage is a cupcake bra that bears a striking similarity to my wearable art piece, Sugar & Spice (to see Perry’s in action, see 2:10+ here and for still photos click here).

(PHOTO: Heather Saunders in Sugar & Spice, 2009; click to enlarge)

Without friends, I would be oblivious to the video’s existence. I’ll admit to once thinking Snoop Dogg—who is featured in California Gurls—was called Snoopy Doopy Dog until a more culturally informed friend clued me in; I wish I were kidding. I may not know music, but I do know art: after seeing only a few frames of the video set in a candyland, I thought with admiration, “It looks like an animated Will Cotton painting.” Sure enough, he is the artistic director.

I’m relatively up-to-date on the ins and outs of copyright, having co-presented a workshop on the topic two weeks ago. Thus, I am aware that an artist cannot copyright an idea, including something as specific as a ‘cupcake bra’. Even if Will Cotton knew my work (a notion I’m only indulging for the sake of argument) or if Katy Perry herself had seen Sugar & Spice, I doubt I could make a reasonable case for copyright infringement. Sure, I could say with a childish tone that I made mine first, and that I have three public presentations to prove it, dating back as far as April 2009. However, I can picture the counterargument unfolding like an absurdist play.

Ironically, Perry’s representatives could actually argue for transformative use, which is one of the conditions allowing the reuse of content in US copyright law. Whereas my piece has an explicitly feminist intent (see my artist statement alongside the detail photo here), Perry seems to be objectifying women. At least this is the conclusion I come to based on context—in light of her shooting two cans of whipped cream from another bra, and in light of her lounging naked on a cotton candy cloud. We may be polar opposites in this regard, but we’re more alike than it may seem on the surface. In a behind-the-scenes clip of the filming of California Gurls, Perry refers to her breasts as her assets. When I stepped out of the Green Room in a wearable art show last month in Boston, provoking bold and instantaneous responses with my own cupcake bra, I was well aware of the implications of selling sex.

(PHOTO: Heather Saunders at Artrages Surrealestate Wearable Art Runway Show, hosted by Mobius in Boston, May 2010, photo by Anthony Tremblay; click to enlarge)

Am I envious that Perry’s video is all the rage and that the cupcake bra has been called genius (Trendhunter Magazine) while my piece, which took a week of non-stop sewing to make, lies on the fringes of art world obscurity? Not really. If anything, it gives me the illusion of having my finger on the pulse of popular culture (which, for my Snoop Dogg confusing self, is admittedly flattering). No, if there are any sour grapes (or cherries?) it’s harmless envy about Perry’s personal association with Russell Brand and her professional affiliation with Will Cotton. In my opinion, much of the bad feelings related to copyright lie in people’s insecurities about one work being confused for another, which seems to be bound up in identity and ego. Frankly, I don’t think there’s any risk of me being confused with a singer who straddled a microphone onstage the other day. I’m happy to let the focus stay on similarities between Perry’s ejaculating bra and Lady Gaga’s gun holster bra from the Alejandro video.

Besides, at the end of the day, can I really harbour bad feelings for someone who says she ‘lurve[s]’ my homeland?

SOURCES:

*----. “Naughty Cupcake Bras: Katy Perry ‘California Gurls’ Video Teaser is Sinfully Tasty,” Trendhunter Magazine, July 2010. Online. http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/katy-perry-california-gurls-video.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Heretics


“[We] fell in love with each others minds”Marty Pottenger

New York is a funny place. It feels so big that it could swallow you whole, but sometimes it seems as small as the rural village where I was raised in Canada. For instance, I had no idea that the friendly woman I was chatting with in the bathroom Thursday night at 92YTribeca was Joan Braderman, director of The Heretics, whose screening I was about to see. What would I have done differently had I known it was her—offered her my lipstick? Opted against using lipstick in front a more seasoned feminist than myself? I’ll say this: it was a fitting way to start an evening celebrating the camaraderie between women, and a reminder that the gap between Second Wave feminists and Third Wave feminists—insurmountable though it sometimes seems—can close in an instant.

The documentary, made by a three-person crew in multiple locations, traces the development of Heresies, a significant feminist art publication that ran from 1977 to 1992 out of New York. A goldmine for feminist art historians, it is replete with archival footage and contemporary interviews with 28 of Heresies’ key figures. Any reservations about the value of this film fall quickly by the wayside: we are reminded of the importance of institutional memory by a montage of contributors’ conflicting or nonexistent answers about where the first meeting was held. The film is effectively a piecing together of history, a kind of collaborative storytelling that establishes credence through repetition.

Watching The Heretics, we are captivated by the inception of the publication—by the list of some 300 titles considered, by the ability to mobilize without the power of the Internet, by the founders’ earnest attempts at organizational equity. We are stunned by Heresies’ perseverance in spite of resistance to a business plan, to male advertisers, and to so many conventions that keep publications afloat. And, I can’t speak for everyone, but for those of us who have lost countless nights of sleep to the publishing world (I even bumped the date of my wedding to accommodate a production schedule), we are inexplicably nostalgic for the smell of wax. Mostly, though, we are enraptured by the stories of the talented women who came together to change the world, who—as Marty Pottenger phrased it—“fell in love with each others’ minds” and capitalized on synergy.

Inspiring though the documentary may be, the content is gravely serious. A case in point is Lucy Lippard’s retelling of men and women bringing the same slides to galleries and the women being turned away while their male counterparts generated great interest. Stories like these give insight into the impetus for creating and sustaining Heresies. The serious subject matter carries over into the history of the publication itself. For example, Harmony Hammond recalls the tension of restricting the editorial team to lesbians for the lesbian issue, and Su Friedrich tells the story of how she got fired preparing the sex issue late at night in her workplace. Interestingly, despite the sobering content, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. A saxophone plays in the background when the aforementioned sex issue is discussed and the dramatic sound of thunder accompanies the first mention of the so-called Heretics; there are many such examples. A cut-and-paste aesthetic lends a quirky sensibility to the film, which might come across as amateur if it didn’t reflect the general look of the publication.

On the surface, The Heretics is about the project that tied these women together but it functions as biography in equal measure. The interviews conducted three decades later emphasize that creating the publication was not an isolated act, but rather part of a trajectory in each woman’s life. The Heretics reveals Heresies to be natural outgrowth of the contributors’ existing commitment to feminism, but also as a catalyst for personal change.

For more on The Heretics, see http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c780.shtml

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The female fixation on marriage


“That’s good [said the teenager to her friend]. You have something to look forward to.”

Last night the train out of Grand Central was packed, so I was crammed in beside two young women, who had the following conversation:

“When do you want to get married?”

“Well, I always thought 27 because my birthday is on the 27th and I like the number 27. Are you thinking of marriage?”

“Definitely.”

“Really? With your current boyfriend?”

“Yeah, I know it seems crazy, but I’ve known him for sooo long.”

“That’s good. You have something to look forward to.”

“Some people think teenagers are irrational, but I realize that marriage is, like, a commitment, you know? Don’t go telling everyone in my high school.”

At first, I was fighting the urge to laugh, but then I remembered something pertinent that happened earlier in the day. It was not the conversation I had with a friend about the complexites of marriage, nor was it going to the MoMA and watching the gut-wrenching performance of Marina Abramovic and her collaborator/lover Ulay as they met in the middle of the Great Wall of China after each walking one half of the distance, to say goodbye permanently. What I remembered was a short-lived and embarrassing idea that I had in my studio. When I say studio, I refer to the portion of my bedroom that is overtaken by multiple boxes of fabric, a work table, and a sewing machine in need of repair.

I hadn’t picked up a needle for two months, because I wanted to give my body a rest from the intense sewing I did in February. However, there is no time to waste, as I have to sew a pink crinoline underskirt (by hand, no less) in the next week for the ArtRages Surrealestate Wearable Art Runway Show hosted by the Boston artist-run centre, Mobius. I ended up pleating too much netting and was trying to decide what to do with the excess material. Since it’s gathered at one end and about two feet long, it resembles a wedding veil, aside from its pink colour. When I realized this, I felt a surge of excitement. Why not wear it as part of my costume? I had just booked an appointment with a salon called Shag, and surely they could incorporate the makeshift veil into my up-do. Then I stopped myself, admitting that the concept of my outfit had nothing to do with weddings, so I couldn’t justify adding a veil. I was merely reacting to a hard-wired impulse to enact (or in my case, reenact) the role of the bride.

I touched on this female tendency in a recent post (http://artistintransit.blogspot.com/2010/03/social-media-and-sexes.html) where I wrote about a brochure featuring a little girl trying on a wedding dress. A year and a half ago, I made a cocoon sculpture using a pink wedding gown in combination with underwear that said ‘sexy little bride’, whose wording struck me as eerily reminiscent of the messages written on girls’ clothing. And in 2007, I made a cocoon sculpture with a veil that was based on a t-shirt with hearts on it and embroidered text that said, “Falling for You”. I was reminded of this piece last week-end after visiting a friend who was with me when I bought it in a post-Valentine’s Day sale in Kansas City. I couldn’t believe the shirt when I saw it. My initial reaction, since it was for a two-year-old, was ‘what is society doing, promoting romance to someone so young’? Interestingly, I showed an image of this work to a new media studies class last semester, and one of the students took a different stance entirely. She felt that the original garment was exposing young girls to a positive view of romantic relationships. My lingering question is, why the double standard? Why don’t we see little boys’ clothing teeming with hearts? Do I believe that the association of romance with females but not males, as established through clothing, contributes to the likelihood that I will never, ever overhear a conversation between two high school boys daydreaming about what age they will marry? On some level, I do.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Redress through dress


“I question the effectiveness of the collective gesture of wearing denim in ‘protest against erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual assault’.”

Today is Denim Day in the US. For some reason, I was thinking it was tomorrow, probably because our campus is acknowledging the campaign over a two-day period. At any rate, I am coincidentally wearing denim because I am helping install a show of student work at the library, which is bound to make for a messier than usual day.

Organized by Peace Over Violence, the 11-year-old campaign was sparked by outrage about an Italian Supreme Court decision to overturn a rape conviction, based on the reasoning that the victim was wearing “too tight jeans and she must have helped her attacker remove them.”

Let me publicly admit that on occasion I find myself falling prey to the messages women are told by society, including self-blame for harassment. About a week ago, I was riding the train to the Bronx in the evening. A young man asked if he could sit across from me. I said yes, and when he slid into the seat, he brushed his leg against mine and said, “Oh, sorry, I touched your leg” as if to emphasize what might have otherwise seemed like an honest mistake. His friend hopped into the seat beside me, told me I was cool, and held out his fist. I reciprocated with a tap, thinking this was the best strategy in an odd situation, and then he grabbed my hand and kissed it. When I got my hand back, I busied myself with making notes on a printout of a call for submissions. It was for a show about female sexuality, which made me feel self-conscious. Then he told me that if anyone tried anything with me, he’d stand up for me. I got up earlier than necessary for my stop and he said, “Ooh, she scared.” I hate to say it, but I immediately wondered if I had brought on the incident by wearing a dress. This is the kind of skewed thinking that Denim Day attempts to redress, and that is commendable.

Much of my art is about female sexuality and the perception of females based on clothing, so this issue is close to my heart. However, I question the effectiveness of the collective gesture of wearing denim in “protest against erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual assault”. I am all for consciousness-raising and solidarity, but a number of questions come to mind. With the widespread popularity of denim, will participants blend in with denim-wearing people who aren’t even aware of the campaign, making Denim Day appear more supported than it really is? Does the campaign run the ironic risk of implying that clothing is a factor in assault by using clothing as the solution? Does the campaign fall into the same category as the recent viral campaign on Facebook wherein women posted the colour of their bras to supposedly promote awareness of breast cancer? That is, by taking a small action, will participants sleep better at night believing they have made a difference?

SOURCES:

Peace Over Violence Summer Newsletter, 2008. Online. http://peaceoverviolence.org/media/downloadables/POV_newsletter_summer.pdf

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Let them make cake


“So many cakes. So many girls.”Dustin Wayne Harris

Cupcake magnate Magnolia Bakery recently opened up shop in Grand Central Station, the news of which excited me so much I actually clapped my hands and squealed. My roommate and I enjoyed a piece of cake there today, setting the tone for the exhibition I headed to afterwards in the Lower East Side. Cake Mixx by Dustin Wayne Harris at Heist Gallery, which closes this week, features nine close-up colour photographs of cakes and one sculpture.

I take issue with work that depends on expository text. I appreciate the supplemental role that text can play, but I feel that if a viewer cannot ‘get it’ without text in the form of a press release or artist statement, the work might be better presented in the form of a book so that the two are integrated. Cake Mixx is an example.

The cakes were made upon request and without direction by women Harris has dated. They run the gamut, with no two looking alike. According to him, they are reflections of their makers, a notion that makes me nostalgic for the television show Just Like Mom in which parents had to guess which culinary creation their child made after a disgusting taste test. Although Harris sees the photographs as psychological portraits, without the back-story of his approach, they simply read as cakes. The artist says, “Cakes tell it all” but I would argue that it is the press release that tells it all. Furthermore, the viewer is not privy to the details of the makers’ personalities or the nuances of each relationship (as in, say, Sophie Calle’s work) so it becomes an inside joke for the artist and the female participants. Even with the ‘portraits’ being named for the women who made them, it doesn’t function in a biographical way or more broadly in an anthropological way, nor does it function as mere entertainment. The press release says, “The viewer’s head is whizzing” but without the inside story, viewer engagement seems impeded. Unlike the artist—who had the opportunity for continued romantic involvement with the bakers and a vested interest in the symbolism of cake decoration as an indicator of relationship potential—the viewer has nothing at stake, no motivation to probe deeply.

The press release encourages extrapolated meaning: “Is Saran Wrap code for safe sex or daddy issues? Because the frosting is messy, she’s probably wild in bed”. Really? Let me say that again. Really?! I can relate to the impulse to cast baked goods in a sexy light, having recently finished fabric cupcake sculptures with lingerie ‘icing’ (see image below) but ultimately, I fail to see these photographs as sexy...and I’ve read Erin Bolger’s The Happy Baker, which is geared to single women wanting to send messages to their lovers or would-be lovers. At most, I can see the heart-shaped cakes as gendered because they seem like too sappy of a choice for men.


The press release verges on melodramatic by stating, “The cakes cease to be merely relics invested with all the intense beauty and suffering of memory and longing, and instead become infused with a heightened sense of uniqueness, of introspection and of self”. This contrasts the artist’s flippant attitude: “So many cakes. So many girls.” His comment strikes me as the equivalent of making notches on a bedpost. What introspection might occur is interrupted by the perplexing sculpture, Glitter Butt. I actually asked, “Is this by the same artist?” What to make of the disco-ball-like buttocks of a man with a very prominent anus? Is the message that all the concoctions come out the other end looking pretty much the same?

p.s. After writing this post, I found Perry Sanatanachote’s “Baked With(out) Love” (DNAInfo, April 2,2010), which states, “Harris admits he liked the idea of forcing domesticity and femininity on these women who weren't any good at traditional female roles.” As you can well imagine, this comment made me want to toss my cookies—er, cake.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Explaining, not complaining


“Yesterday, I overheard the train conductor say something wonderful…”

Further to reading Mira Schor’s A Decade of Negative Thinking (Duke University Press, 2009), I’ve been ruminating on the fine line between critical thinking and critical thinking—that is, critical thinking in the scholarly sense versus negative thinking. It seems that there is a perception of feminists being bitter and focusing on the negative. Chloe Angyal’s article in yesterday’s Guardian, “You’re not a feminist, but…” talks about young women avoiding calling themselves feminists as a way of “play[ing] nice”. Nice and bitter definitely do not go together.

At the risk of sounding obnoxiously self-referential, some of my own insecurities about sounding like a bitter feminist include a summary of a Laurie Simmons talk, in which I wrote, “…after writing blog post after blog post to contextualize my work in feminist art historical scholarship, will I be seen as an overbearing feminist?” And, after attending a book launch for Susan Anderson, I wrote, “Slinking down in my seat, I felt like the feminist curmudgeon, a stereotype that I detest.” Reviewing Erin Bolger's The Happy Baker, I wrote, "Make no mistake: I am not passing negative judgment" and after reading Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (Vintage International, 1997), I wondered, "Does advocating for change (say, of gender stereotypes) smack of effrontery?"

Yesterday, I overheard the train conductor say something wonderful that eased my insecurities. He was telling a passenger about his grandmother who was whining about having run out of milk. When he made a gentle comment about her complaining, she said, “Honey, Grandma’s not complaining. She’s just explaining.” Everyone howled. Here’s hoping that is what this blog is accomplishing.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wanting more of Schor


“For any cynic who has survived art school or served on a gallery programming committee, 'Trite Tropes' is a ‘must read’.”

Even though it would mean being exhausted on my birthday, I booked the overnight bus last week so I could attend an artist talk by the notorious Lynda Benglis before heading home to Canada. I’m embarrassed to admit that when I learned her talk at the New York Studio School had been cancelled, I did not act my age: I sulked for the better part of the day. And what does a librarian do to cheer herself up? She goes book shopping, naturally. I chose Mira Schor’s A Decade of Negative Thinking (2009, Duke University Press) because I felt the dark title would be a good match for my mood.

My own negative thinking was quickly abated. The only criticism I can make is that Schor’s writing is so luscious that I wanted to relish and reread each sentence before moving on, which slowed the entire experience. Her series of essays on contemporary art is so compelling that I forgot all about the overwhelming stench of urine as I began reading in the bus lineup outside Penn Station. Since Schor is a native New Yorker, I trust that she’ll perceive that as the highest form of compliment should she ever read this post.

It’s much easier to write a post about a book that makes me want to bang my head against the wall than a book that makes me want to nod my head, and Schor’s falls into the latter category. Unfortunately, head nodding contributes little to academic discourse, unless it’s to emphasize the continued relevance of a classic. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning that Schor’s observations and opinions rang true for me repeatedly. The book begins with 'She Said, She Said: Feminist Debates, 1971-2009'. When reading the first essay from this section, ‘The ism that dare not speak its name’ in which Schor identifies a troubling trend of women artists not associating themselves overtly with feminism, I found myself thinking, “Yes! Elizabeth Sackler spoke about that very problem at Invisibility to Visibility: Are the Major Museums Opening Up to Women Artists?” (Brooklyn Museum, March 27, 2010). In the same essay, she writes about the importance of the feminist perspective to media literacy and includes excerpts from disturbing news stories as proof. The following morning, I read the free Metro newspaper on the Go Train to stay awake after losing a night’s sleep. Rather than falling mercy to fatigued head bobbing, I engaged in deliberate head nodding with Schor in mind as I read two shocking stories: one about a seven-year-old New Jersey girl whose step-sister allegedly facilitated sexual abuse by multiple men in exchange for cash (no author, Associated Press); and the other about a convicted 27-year-old rapist from Ontario who said one of his victims should now “know to keep her doors locked” (Mattos). These are just two examples that I found myself heartily agreeing with Schor about.

The middle section is on painting. As a non-painter, I’m going to take the liberty of skipping over it in my discussion even though I did enjoy reading it. The final section, 'Trite Tropes', prompted me to vacillate between head nodding and defensive head shaking. For any cynic who has survived art school or served on a gallery programming committee, 'Trite Tropes' is a ‘must read’. Schor considers what makes predictable art just that—predictable. I was laughing along as she rhymed off clichéd elements to which contemporary art is prone: “On one jury in which I participated, we decided that a moratorium should be declared on family photos, cartoons, waifs…” (221). Then, as if a slide of my work had been inserted into the carousel, “underwear, childhood, dresses…” Hmm, it would seem that using dresses and underwear (or ‘intimate apparel’ as I delicately referred to it in a recent grant report) to critique childhood socialization puts me in dangerous territory. I’m too invested to change now, though.

In this same section, in a priceless essay called ‘Recipe art’, Schor facetiously establishes a formula for art world success, which basically involves combining tropes to create one-liners. Although my artistic preferences lean toward the cerebral (but not at the expense of accessibility), I was reminded of the value in one-liners from a current call for submissions for a wearable art competition taking place next month. The instructions underscore the importance of being able to ‘read’ the work from at least six feet away. If accepted, I’ll probably have between 30 seconds and a minute on the runway, so modeling a one-liner is arguably the only viable option. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for ‘Sugar & Spice’, my cupcake bra, or a variation of it. That brings me to another element of Schor's book that provoked me.

Schor subscribes to the tenet that women are still seen primarily as sexual commodities in spite of major advances. Reading this, I nodded my head once again, acknowledging its regrettable relevance even to a seven year old. Reflecting on my own work, I immediately thought of the cupcake bra and the title of my recent show, Titillate. I’m not confident that complicity and self-righteousness (i.e., my belief that I’m creating titillating work for a higher feminist purpose) can co-exist. Someday, someone may call me on it, so in the meantime, I’m trying to sort it out.

Truthfully, I didn’t buy Schor’s book because of the dark title, but rather because of its coverage of feminist art blogs, as I’m preparing a presentation on my blog for the Arlis conference later this month. As much as her coverage of the 2.0 world is exciting, it’s intimidating for me to respond to it from a 2.0 platform. The reason is that Schor critiques the inconsistencies and confusion about feminism that characterize many art blogs. I fear that mine is shaping up to be a combination of head nodding and head shaking, with a fair bit of knee jerking thrown into the mix. If Schor has focused on a decade of negative thinking in her book, in my blog I have chronicled a year of conflicted thinking. For those of you who know me well, you know I’m not referring exclusively to my art, and I appreciate your support. Thankfully, art offers much needed respite.

SOURCES:

---- (Associated Press), “Teen, 15, charged for selling 7-year-old stepsister for sex”, Metro News, April 1-14, 2010. Print.

Melinda Mattos, “Rewriting cultural norms is the answer,” Metro News, April 1-14, 2010. Print.

Mira Schor, A Decade of Negative Thinking. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Doing away with penis envy


The Visible Vagina...reminds us of offensive tropes throughout art history...but it also reminds us of the victories...”

It may have been a poor choice to view the closing of The Visible Vagina, a joint exhibition at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art and David Nolan Gallery, on the same day that I saw the new MoMA retrospective for Marina Abramovic, entitled The Artist is Present. Provocative though the works in the 75-artist show may be, it was difficult to see representations of genitalia as riveting in comparison with actual genital contact at the MoMA.

When I say ‘actual genital contact’, what I mean to say is ‘accidental genital contact’. Google ‘Imponderabilia MoMA’ and you can read a variety of tales like the following. I decided to brave the narrow walkway between two nude actors facing one another in Imponderabilia, originally performed in 1977 by Abramovic and her then lover and artistic collaborator, Ulay (for image and background, please see http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/artist/abramovic+ulay/biography/). While I worked myself up to the challenge, I watched a number of gallery visitors go first, most of them employing strategies like averting their eyes or putting a handbag through first as if to confirm that it was safe. The most common strategy was to turn sideways, which made it easier to go through unimpeded. I felt it was important to avoid this last strategy. My reason was that I didn’t want one performer to be free of voyeurism at the expense of the other, especially because both sexes were represented. As a feminist, should I not aim for equal treatment? (That may seem ridiculous, but it is what was going through my mind at the time). I wonder what stance I would have taken had the actors both been female, which is another combination Abramovic has used. Like most people who have written about the experience, I found the process of making it through to the other side thrilling and panic-inducing. I believe my exact words, whispered in a hushed tone, were, “My hip made contact [with the male actor’s penis]. There was definite bumpage”.

If we can’t get past this discomfort and shrill fascination with the human body in its raw state, do we have any hope of appreciating artwork that is one step removed from corporeality? Or is representing the body rather than using the body proper the way to go? In a general sense, it may not be a question worth asking because both already exist in the art world, and both have been well received. It’s apples and oranges, really. For me personally, though, it is more an issue of deciding to stick with a singular fruit regimen or broaden my diet. I still haven’t done the performance I blogged about planning last summer. At the time, I blamed the uncooperative weather, but the truth is, I’ve been stalling because I don’t relish the idea of putting my body on display for my art.

I decided to wait until the end of The Visible Vagina to write about it, in part because I wanted to see what the fall-out would be like. Reading online comments about the show early on, I was amazed by the fixation on the title. It seemed that every commentator was quick to point out that the vagina can’t technically be seen sans speculum and therefore The Visible Vulva would be a more logical choice. Did this virtual equivalent of wrist slapping occur because the organizers were male, or was it an unconscious means to gloss over the actual content of the show because of a collective discomfort with the human body?

It’s not just me imagining widespread discomfort with the human body, and specifically the female body. As television network resistance to the ad campaign released this past week for U by Kotex (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRf35wCmzWw) revealed, ‘vagina’ is unwelcome in our public lexicon. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the equivalent 98,000 inferences to a woman’s private parts in The Visible Vagina are powerful indeed.

My overall impression is that by all accounts, The Visible Vagina is comprehensive. It emphasizes the range of work featuring female genitalia in multiple media throughout art history (encompassing modern artists, Second Wave feminist artists, contemporary artists, and both male and female artists). It can’t be reduced to a peep show because the subjects are shown in states of indifference in addition to pleasure. It reminds us of offensive tropes throughout art history, like the truncated female nude, but it also reminds us of the victories, like Judy Chicago’s Red Flag (1971), a close-up photolithograph of a woman removing a used tampon (television networks, take note: the art world already paved the way for public acceptance of the vagina some forty years ago). It includes works that are diminutive/life-size and ones that compelled me to conclude that size does matter. A personal highlight was fibre artist Allyson Mitchell’s installation, Hungry Purse: The Vagina Dentata in Late Capitalism (2006-07). Evocative of a tented harem decorated in grandma’s crocheted blankets and other cozy throw-backs from the 70s, this mammoth rendition of the vagina was exquisite and walking into its mouth felt more delightful than unsettling. (For images, please see http://www.allysonmitchell.com/visualart/hungry_purse/index.cfm).

For the faint of heart, the exhibition can be experienced through the catalogue, which includes Anna C. Chave’s valuable essay, “Is this good for Vulva? Female Genitalia in Contemporary Art”.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Social media and the sexes


“I definitely don’t relate to the aggressive, impulsive, chest-thumping male blogger that Wente bemoans.”

After making a studio visit north of Toronto on Monday, I only got half way back to New York before exhaustion set in. That suited me just fine, as I was happy to enjoy the historic architecture and waterfront of Kingston before heading out the next day. On my way out, I ran a few errands, such as banking in my homeland.

Of the many brochures at the bank, the one for mutual funds/ comfort portfolios caught my attention. The image (cropped version: http://www.tdcanadatrust.com/mutualfunds/tdcomfort/index.jsp) shows a little girl playing dress-up in a wedding gown while her mother looks on, smiling. The veil grazes the floor and the neckline practically comes to her navel, revealing her actual clothing underneath. Her pink top shows two frolicking animals (bears, I believe). They are surrounded by hearts (the classic symbol of love and romance) and flowers (often overlooked signifiers of sexuality). It makes me think of Michael Wolff’s recent assertion that women are popular Tweeters because of their fixation on relationships and fashion. If women can be reduced to these interests (and I’m not saying they are), am I wrong in suggesting a connection with the messages society sends to children through clothing? Back to the brochure, the dominant text—presumably in the mother’s voice—reads, “I’ve got a lot of reasons to invest for the future.” How much would I love that brochure to feature the same girl in a judge’s robes or a surgeon’s scrubs instead of a wedding gown?

Before writing a blog, I’m certain that I would have overlooked this brochure. I would have found artistic inspiration in a pink shirt with bears and hearts and flowers, but it would be in the context of looking for clothing in a store to use in soft sculpture. It would not happen incidentally. Now, though, I feel more attuned to my environment. I’m constantly looking and listening for content that relates to my work. It is one of many benefits I’ve discovered in blogging.

Michael Wolff’s article, “Maybe Twitter is for girls” appeared on Newser (http://www.newser.com/off-the-grid/post/420/maybe-twitter-is-for-girls.html) this past Tuesday, followed by Margaret Wente’s article, “Why are bloggers male?”
(http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/why-are-bloggers-male/article1503780/) in The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. Both have provoked controversy. I don’t use Twitter, so I am reluctant to comment on Wolff’s article. As to Wente’s article, I want to resist the urge to point out female blogging accomplishments, such as the sold-out BlogHer conference. The reason for my post is to consider whether social media is a gendered practice in my personal experience (and yes, I realize that this kind of self-involvement is exactly what dissuades a number of people from reading blogs).

Aside from the obvious fact that the majority of my blog content is feminist, does gender affect my experience of blogging? I think it does. I definitely don’t relate to the aggressive, impulsive, chest-thumping male blogger that Wente bemoans. Far from aggressive and impulsive, I am an occasional and careful blogger. This post, for example, is only my second this month, and it has gone through three drafts. The length of my posts (averaging 600+ words) reflects the conversational tone that Wolff attributes to women, although I believe bloggers can be conversational and scholarly in the same breath. This makes me think of Wente, who compares the act of blogging to ‘mental jousting’ with the public. I agree with the jousting metaphor, but for me, the competition is entirely internal. The challenge is to determine if I can still construct an argument like I could when I was in graduate school (important for working in academia) and if I can continually relate my art to popular culture (important for not losing myself in academia).

Wente connects the shortage of female bloggers to gendered behaviour (namely shyness), but I actually see this trait as a reason for women to be drawn to the medium. Like the younger version of herself that Wente describes, I am a better listener than a speaker. It could be a combination of my Canadian heritage, my gender, and my editorial experience (i.e., learn to ask the right questions and then write like mad when the interviewee responds). Without people interrupting, I find I can really work through ideas in a blog in a way that I cannot in an academic seminar, for example. Similarly, when I attended a session on blogging at the Teaching and Technology Conference at Baruch College last spring, I learned that ESL students tend to be stronger participants in course blogs than face-to-face because the pressures of responding quickly are removed. Wolff writes about the hermetic nature of men and the gregarious nature of women playing into Twitter/ female associations. I think there’s a hermetic quality involved in blogging as well—especially if, like me, you’re more focused on the post being made than on the comments it may generate.

In the ten months that I’ve been blogging at Artist in Transit, the payoff has been wonderful and unexpected. Besides establishing a dialogue outside of my own headspace and becoming more engaged in my subject matter, I have experienced professional perks. Next month, I’ll be presenting ‘Blogging as an Artist/ Librarian Hybrid’ at the Art Libraries Society of North America conference. I will also be exhibiting an excerpt from my blog along with related artwork in Twitter/Art + Social Media at Diane Farris Gallery in Vancouver.

If the blogosphere is the old boys’ club, that's all the more reason for this feminist to retain her membership.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shiloh: Parsing out celebrity fashion


“…Shiloh reportedly selects boys’ clothing from stores and insists on being called ‘John’.”

I decided to buy a magazine at Union Station on Tuesday to help pass time during the 13 hour train ride from Toronto to New York. The Economist caught my eye with an image of pink formal girls’ shoes (http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15606229) containing all the cues of femininity I critique in my art. The cover said ‘GENDERCIDE: What happened to 100 million baby girls?’ Economics prevailed, as I realized I could get a hot chocolate and a less intellectually demanding publication for the same price. I settled on ‘Life & Style Weekly’ but as I waded through my whipped cream, I thought back to the term ‘gendercide’. Parsed linguistically, I knew it literally meant ‘to murder gender’ (as opposed to infanticide, which is what the article is actually about). I later looked up the root ‘cide’ and learned that it can also mean ‘to cut down’. Being a concept, gender cannot be annihilated per se, and if you want to get technical, culturally driven infanticide may reduce the numbers of the female gender, but it actually reinforces the gender dichotomy. And, if the cover of Life & Style is any indication, gender is alive and well–more on that in a moment.

Truthfully, I don’t buy celebrity magazines. They aren’t a guilty pleasure, but I will read them in desperation at a hair salon or over a passenger’s shoulder on a flight if I’ve exhausted my own reading material. I couldn’t resist this issue of Life & Style though, because the cover practically screamed, “Why is Angelina turning Shiloh into A BOY?” As a blogger and artist concerned about gender socialization, I was anxious to read the contents.

Let’s not forget that Shiloh has two parents, so fixating on Angelina Jolie alone is ridiculous. If Shiloh were playing into social norms, would Brad Pitt be singled out as the hero? Let’s also not disregard the existence of agency. Androgyny could be Shiloh’s preference. If the article is to be believed, that seems to be the case, as Shiloh reportedly selects boys’ clothing from stores and insists on being called ‘John’.

The juxtaposition of images on the magazine cover contrasts Shiloh’s apparent comfort with the transition to a tomboy version of herself. We see a happy looking Shiloh with sparkling eyes and clothing deemed “trendy but still feminine” (according to a caption alongside a second printing of the photo in the article, p. 26). Beside it on the cover, we also see a boyish portrait. Poorer in quality, the presumably digital photo has a yellow cast (read: sallow skin) and Shiloh has downcast eyes. Her cropped ‘do confirms a statement from an ‘eyewitness’ that her hair was formerly longer and blonder. Is the implication of this comment that the free-spirited celebrity couple has dyed their three-year-old daughter’s hair? Might we not assume instead that her hair is changing colour naturally in sync with toddlers all over the world?

What disturbs me is not the notion of gender bending, but the prospect of gender norms being imposed on Shiloh against her will. A case in point is a promise allegedly made by her nanny: “If you get your nails done, then I’ll give you a prize later” (p. 28). This anecdote strikes me as representative of the pressures of femininity in general: abide by the code, and you’ll get a prize. And what is the prize? Prince Charming? Have I jinxed myself by not painting my fingernails, even for my own wedding?

The first image of Shiloh in the story shows her wearing a pale pink dress. Although it is a casual dress, the caption says, “Girlie in a Gown” (italics mine, p. 27). The caption goes on to compare her to a princess. In closing, I ask, why is it worse for Shiloh to be dressed as a boy (which she is not) than as a princess (which she also is not)? Fantasy and fashion go hand-in-hand and who is to say if her alignment with boys is more or less appropriate than little girls pretending to be royalty?

The heart of the issue is hinted at in an expression appearing in the subsequent article about Shiloh’s parents. In it, a quotation from Jenny Paul’s book released yesterday, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie: The True Story, reads, “Angelina wore the pants at first, but now Brad’s wearing them” (p. 32). Watch out: Shiloh could be a going concern like her mother. She’s wearing pants, and not just in the literal sense.

SOURCES:

-----, "Shiloh's Shocking Transformation", Life & Style, March 15, 2010, pp. 26-29. Print.

-----, "Bombshell Tell-all!", Life & Style, March 15, 2010, pp. 30-33. Print.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lick it


“You don’t have to be very visually literate or media savvy to get that Kirstie Alley’s finger in the ad is only marginally bigger than the average erect penis.”


I started sewing at 6 am yesterday, and then it was a mad dash to pack and return to Canada for an artist talk at my alma mater, Sheridan College. On the Metro North train en route to Penn Station, I wondered if I was hallucinating the poster of Kirstie Alley, her head about five times the size of my own. I had been sewing images of cupcakes ad nauseam for the past two weeks; was I just imagining the daub of icing on her nose and lips for the poster advertising her show, Big Life? (To view the image, see http://www.aetv.com/news/images/news_generic_kirstie-alleys-big-life.jpg)

The dominant text on the poster reads, “Life. Lick it.” She isn’t licking her lips, and we don’t see the dessert that is the source of the icing, so the implication is that she is licking her finger (instead of or in addition to ‘life’, apparently). You don’t have to be very visually literate or media savvy to get that Kirstie Alley’s finger in the ad is only marginally bigger than the average erect penis. The finger is surrounded by lips that are about as glossy as could be, making them look like female genitalia primed for intercourse. All the poster is missing is male hands pushing down on her head or shoulders in bad form to cast ‘lick it’ as the linguistic imperative.

Persistence of sexualized images of women eating dessert? Check. Oh, good—not in the sense that I want women to be portrayed like this, but it makes me glad that the series I’ve been toiling away at (Girls I Went to High School With--double click image on left to enlarge) is in fact relevant. I’ve been having a grand time making these embroideries of women eating cupcakes. I start with images found online and alter them, in part for copyright reasons, but also because there’s something satisfying about making them resemble girls I went to high school with. Had the Internet been the social force that it is today, I’m sure many of my classmates would have happily posed with cupcakes in a similarly outrageous manner.

Conceptually, they are enjoyable, but formally, they are as well. I work with printouts of the images pinned to a felt base. I try not to feel sadistic inserting pins into their faces in voodoo fashion and cutting away their features one by one so I can replicate the contours exactly. In true postmodern fashion, I dare say that I am literally deconstructing them. I assumed I would be fixated on the sculptural elements—i.e., the areas of upraised thread wound around each other, mostly in the girls’ hair and cupcake icing. It turns out that I’m also enchanted by the contours. I wanted to them to be virtually unreadable, so that all of the attention is on the girls’ features covered in cosmetics, so I chose a pearly pink that is the same colour as the felt and unreadable from a short distance. I find myself taken by the negative space that is created once I cut out the arm, hand, and cupcake, as the arm reads like the shaft of a penis and the icing like its head. After noticing this effect, I jokingly referred to the embroideries as ‘craft porn’ and said I was cautious about aligning myself with that. My husband asked, ‘Which? Craft or porn?’ It’s a good point—one that I’ll save for another post because I do have to get back to sewing.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Teacher or student, or both?


"Can I have my (cup)cake and eat it too? Is it realistic to make work for both the general public and the gallery-going public?"

In January, I began co-teaching a class at Purchase College called Art and the Environment. An outgrowth of the campus theme from the previous year (Environment is Everything), it is a collaboration with Environmental Studies professor, Ryan Taylor. The majority of the students are from Environmental Studies, which makes me feel especially cautious about which version of art history is presented. There are so many versions; where does one begin telling the story of art?

We're covering a lot of ground, so it's impossible to highlight everything. Cherry-picking artists and theorists is daunting because I don't want to misrepresent the discipline. At the same time, though, it's liberating. For example, the students were assigned a reading from Anthony Julius' Transgressions: The Offences of Art (2002, Chicago: University of Chicago Press) to contextualize environmental artist-activists. Why is it, I wonder, that none of my former art history studio professors devoted a chunk of time to discussing artists as troublemakers (that I can recall, at least)? I know that I am not alone in my impulse to cross the line. I know that I fit into a tradition of artists who test, break and rewrite the rules. It would be easy to just imply the transgressive nature of art, but pausing to acknowledge it is different. It is part of making the choice about the story being told.

Because the class is for academic credit, writing is a key component, with students writing critical analyses of works of art. Contextualizing this process is Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art (2008, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson). Having worked in arts publishing and having written my fair share of art history essays (the last one was worth a whopping 100 per cent of my grade), I didn't expect any big surprises from the book. However, I did run across something that shocked me: in describing the process of 'reception theory', Barnet explains that the uniqueness of the viewer's response to a work of art has really only been valued for a few years more than I've been alive. When I think of all the insights contributed by our students, it's hard to believe that individual responses were not always of interest.

I've been thinking about viewer response lately, because I'm considering applying to a summer arts festival at the end of the month. The reason is that I'm craving conversations with the general public. Will my new work shock them? Bore them? Offend them? Make them laugh? I want my work to affect the general public and make them more aware of the implications of gender socialization, but I also want my work to have a place in the contemporary art world. Can I have my (cup)cake and eat it too? Is it realistic to make work for both the general public and the gallery-going public? That brings me to another reading I want to discuss.

The students read a fascinating article about how people view artwork (C. F. Nodine, P. J. Locher, E. A. Krupinski. "The Role of Formal Art Training on Perception and Aesthetic Judgment of Art Compositions." LEONARDO vol. 26, no. 3, 1993: 219-227). It describes a study that revealed significant differences in visual perception and aesthetic appreciation of paintings, depending on the viewer's knowledge about art. Learning that viewers untrained in art history "spent significantly more time looking at central and foreground figures" (p. 226) made me think about how effective works could be that catered to that tendency. Coincidentally, the work that Professor Taylor selected for the class to examine in person showed a hummingbird--front AND center--in the palm of a hand with a neutral, non-distracting background, made by Purchase alumna, Sara Breznen. If artists were informed about the science of art viewing, would they (or should they) tailor their work accordingly? Which group would/should they choose--the group trained in art or the group not trained in art? Who would I choose?

Another article made me aware of the presumptions I make about the way viewers view. About a year and a half ago, I began making a series of sculptures in which an abstracted cocoon is represented at three points in time. I positioned the earliest/youngest cocoon on the left and the latest/oldest on the right, assuming that people would read them as they would Western language, from left to right. I was forced to rethink this assumption because of another class reading (Roger Cushing Aikin. "Paintings of Manifest Destiny: Mapping the Nation" American Art Fall 2000, 78-89). I know, it seems like a stretch to draw connections between an article on 19th Century landscapes and my own contemporary feminist sculpture, but as my undergraduate studies in a combined studio/art history program (Sheridan College and University of Toronto) taught me, the unlikeliest links can be forged between the disciplines. I digress... Aikin suggests that right-to-left movement in landscapes symbolized the nationalist concept of Manifest Destiny by literally moving towards the West. He raises the issue of whether viewers read paintings in the same way that they read maps or language, which I sincerely hadn't questioned (at least in relation to language; being severely directionally challenged, I don't give a lot of thought to maps).

I want to skip back to Nodine et al. Their scientific study of tracing patterns of eye movement served as a reminder of the interconnectivity of art and science. We could have named the course 'Environmental Art' but instead we called it 'Art and the Environment'. They inform one another, not unlike artist and viewer or teacher and student.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

This week on the train


“IT’S NOT PINK!”

I left the Metro North station today and looked down to discover a long brown thread clinging to my pale blue scarf. Drat. I knew I’d misplaced it while embroidering on the train. With less than six weeks to go until my show (details to follow), there is no time to do anything but sew in my spare time. When my arm gets sore, I am forced to take a break, but I feel bitter all the same.

Something amazing happened the other day on the train. A woman from my neighbourhood whom I have seen countless times sat down beside me, said hello, and asked me how I was. My theory is that embroidering makes me seem like a sweet young woman (and thus, approachable).

Here's my other train anecdote:

I’ve been toying with interspersing a series of images of woman eating cupcakes with stand-alone images of cupcakes. Then I was having doubts about using the same pink background. What does pink have to do with cupcakes, anyway? Today, though, I was reminded of the pervasiveness of the female preference for pink, even when it comes to sweets. To quote a young girl seated across the aisle from me: “I want a pink um, I want a pink um, I want a pink um, I want a pink um, I want a pink um, I want a pink um, I want a pink um, I want a pink um, I want a pink um, I want a pink um, pink lollipop.” After she repeated this a second time, her father relented and she defiantly insisted, “IT’S NOT PINK!” I realize that this doesn’t really substantiate my use of pink backgrounds in the cupcake embroideries which I may or may not make (though I had better decide soon), but it made me smile nonetheless.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What colour bra are you wearing?


"Is this campaign really increasing cancer awareness or is it just baiting male fantasy?"

If you use Facebook, you’ve probably noticed a rainbow of colours appearing under your friends’ status updates. The colours, as it turns out, correspond with the bras that the friends are wearing at the time they updated their status. Since my art is largely about gender, sexuality, fashion and colour (in fact, tonight I plan to take advantage of a sale at Victoria's Secret to buy lacy underwear in as many pastel shades as possible for a new series), I cannot resist blogging on the combination of undergarments and colour.

Facebook has been used for a lot of things, many of which make me cringe. One of its functions is reminiscent of chain letters. My least favourite posts are the ones that try to guilt recipients into reposting faith-based proclamations. Sorry, but I cannot picture God monitoring Facebook and keeping score. Anyway, back to the issue at hand, the recent colour status trend was made possible by a viral campaign exchanged between women which read, “Some fun is going on.... just write the colour of your bra in your status. Just the color, nothing else. And send this on to ONLY women, no men .... It will be neat to see if this will spread the wings of cancer awareness. It will be fun to see how long it takes before the men will wonder why all the girls have a color in their status...” The ladies are then supposed to write only a colour as their status.

Personally, I doubt the success of this venture. For one thing, I didn’t receive the expository email until late in the game, so I initially assumed that it was about racial empowerment when an African American friend’s status read ‘black’. Then a Caucasian high school acquaintance updated her status as white, and I found myself hoping it had nothing to do with race. Frankly, I’m not willing to disclose the colour of my undergarments, in part because I use Facebook in professional contexts, but also because it is not anyone’s business.

Is this campaign really increasing cancer awareness or is it just baiting male fantasy? Based on the reactions of male Facebook users that I’ve seen, the result is bewilderment (responses range from “?????????????” to “Hey Girls. What the heck's going on??”) and a lack of seriousness (one male friend updated his status to ‘orange’). I’m not a complete curmudgeon. I laughed out loud when I saw his ‘orange’ status.

I’m not saying there is no power in word-of-mouth advertising (in fact, in the past 24 hours, 16 of my friends have updated their status). That’s why I’m envisioning a campaign that goes something like this: “Re. the recent colour status campaign, ask yourself, does exposing the colour of our bras really help ‘spread the wings of cancer awareness’? Consider writing a number (just a number) as your next status indicating how many months it’s been since your last professional breast exam. And send this on to your lady friends.”

By the way, my answer is two. And that information I’m proud to share. Why? Because cancer runs rampant in my family, and breast cancer has affected the lives of too many people I love.