Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gail Levin on Lee Krasner

“Krasner was rightfully frustrated with her unshakable identity as Mrs. Jackson Pollock, but she perpetuated it…”

After seeing how much I enjoyed reading a biography of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, my husband surprised me with a biography of Lee Krasner (HarperCollins, 2011) under the Christmas tree.

Art historian Gail Levin traces Krasner’s life from her Orthodox Jewish roots in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn to her death at age 75 (just before witnessing her dream of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art).

For a painter that lived in the shadow of her husband—the infamous Jackson Pollock, who set an auction record for painting five years ago—it’s interesting to note that only one-third of the book is devoted to Krasner’s life with Pollock. This ratio contrasts the movie Pollock (2000), which doesn’t even show Krasner as a widow. It also contrasts the self-indulgent memoir of Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress who survived the car crash that killed him (note that if you have the impulse to read Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock, it is as tiresome as a tabloid). Whereas the movie left me bewildered as to why Krasner would stay with an unfaithful, verbally abusive alcoholic, Levin’s biography reduces the size of that question mark. A close-up photo of the couple smiling at each other outside their Springs home on Long Island says it all, capturing their love and implicit artistic support. There’s also the telling revelation that Krasner moved between five post-secondary art schools for her studies, determined not to suffer through a bad fit. Change was not something she feared.

It could be said that Levin’s thesis is an excerpt from Pollock’s obituary: “Lee Krasner, [was] an established painter in her own right” (1). As Krasner herself noted, “I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock” (2). During Krasner’s lifetime, Levin curated a show in which she emphasized Krasner’s use of abstraction before she met Pollock. This strategy was necessary because individuals like Ellen Landau (then affiliated with the NCFA, which is now the Smithsonian) wrote about Krasner’s pre-Pollock work in relation to her eventual husband. Jed Perl notes in his New York Times book review that Levin doesn’t personally make a case for Krasner’s artistic importance in the biography, instead relying on interview excerpts, but it seems only fair to consider her entire professional contribution since she knew Krasner personally.

One thing everyone can surely agree on is that Krasner’s association with Pollock’s ‘male genius’ was a blessing and a curse. It caused Krasner to minimize the significance of a long-term, loving relationship with the artist Igor Pantuhoff that preceded Pollock, presumably to prevent her from looking like an artist groupie in the same camp as Kligman (who went on to have an affair with Pollock’s rival, Willem de Kooning). The constant comparison to Pollock’s style also made her defensive. For example, she differentiated the small-scale controlled dripping she used in her Little Images from Pollock’s action painting technique of moving with his whole body above a painting while drizzling and splashing paint. The book recounts a story of her sitting at the table, cataloguing the features that Pollock picked up from her. The suggestion that her work was derivative of any of the male abstract expressionists must have stung for someone who didn’t let a broken arm stop her from painting, for someone who described painting as an extension of life. Krasner was rightfully frustrated with her unshakable identity as Mrs. Jackson Pollock, but she perpetuated it by doing things like angling for a solo show as part of a package deal with a posthumous show for Pollock. The biography is a good read, in large part because—by virtue of her humanity—Krasner is a flawed character.

As is the case with artists like Artemisia Gentileschi and Frida Kahlo, Levin notes that there is a tendency to view Krasner’s life through a feminist lens even when it’s inappropriate. Krasner may have been suspended for sneaking into a space reserved for male students in a segregated art school, broken tradition by refusing to marry her newly widowed brother-in-law, and gotten angry with an acquaintance for giving up her maiden name in marriage, but a self-described feminist she was not. She eschewed all-women art shows, but at the same time, she expressed gratitude at the surge of interest in her work that accompanied the second wave of feminism. She considered feminism to be the one true revolution of her time, but she felt separate from it. Levin’s clearest example of mislabeled feminism is the attention paid to Krasner’s name changes: from her birth name of Lena to Lenore, and finally to the noticeably gender-neutral Lee. Levin points out that she was first called Lee when she was in an all-girls’ school, which weakens the argument that it was to mask her gender. Incidentally, she assumed the pseudonym Mary Cassatt (the Impressionist painter) when she and other artists were arrested for protesting lay-offs by the Works Progress Administration, for whom she collaborated on public art projects. She quipped, “I didn’t have a big selection you know, it was either Rosa Bonheur or Mary Cassatt” (3).

The shortage of prominent females in modern art made Krasner a natural role model, not just for her aptitude in the studio but also for her ability to work the commercial side of the art world. Her significance to the next generation is captured by an anecdote of Krasner being approached by artist Deborah Kass at Krasner’s exhibition, being called her hero, and continuing the conversation outside the gallery. The local colour of New York—the image of Kass initially seeing Krasner in a fur coat carrying Bergdorf Goodman bags in both hands along West Fifty-seventh Street—peppers Krasner’s life story, spinning a rags to riches tale that can’t help but romanticize the stereotype of the impoverished artist. However, what she wanted to be paid in was respect, not money. The importance of this monograph, the first of its scope about Krasner, is underscored by her lamenting, “…there’s never any mention of me in those history books, like I was never there” (4).


(1) p. 312
(2) p. 410
(3) p. 118
(4) p. 3

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Big Thumbs Up for Little Free Library

“I ended up going home with a hardcover biography of Christo and Jeanne-Claude by Burt Chernow…”

I learned about Bill Wrigley’s Little Free Library from the Toronto Star, which I still read in spite of Mayor Rob Ford’s vocal boycott (1). The library is the first of its kind in Toronto, and was even rumoured to be the first in Canada. On December 3rd, it opened to the public on Lee Avenue in The Beach with a ribbon cutting ceremony. When I visited seven days later, my husband and I were the only ones there. Even so, I could picture it becoming the neighbourhood equivalent of a workplace water cooler for generating conversations in warmer weather. The idea is simple: take a book, return a book.

Wrigley’s library sits at the edge of his front yard, within reach of the sidewalk. A quick scan reveals a large birdhouse on the side of his house, making the new addition complementary. These structures, which have been popping up across North America since 2009 in association with the US-based Little Free Library, are modeled on birdhouses. Comparable in size to a medicine cabinet, the Little Free Library in the Beach has a glass door to reveal the contents while protecting the collection from the elements. It sits on a post, meaning little kids would need to be hoisted up, which is probably for the best. You wouldn’t want someone in primary school to grab the copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that was in the upper of two shelves when I was there. I decided to donate a paperback that would appeal to all ages, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

There are a number of things I like about the Little Free Library concept. As security in libraries becomes more sophisticated with RFID technology, starting a Little Free Library is a gracious gesture that assumes the honour system will work. It also makes us rethink the definition of a library, bringing to mind initiatives like the living library, which allows users to ‘check out’ a person and spend time with them. The Little Free Library is similar to the living library in appealing to the emotional side of sharing and community building. Or maybe I was just charmed by its darned cuteness. After all, with its architectural setting, it feels more celebratory than your run-of-the-mill laundromat pile of books that operates on the same principle.

I opened the gold closure gingerly, made my selection, and rearranged the books to prevent pressure on their spines. (Old habits die hard.) Since I like to put a feminist spin on my blog posts, I had hoped to read the chapter on girls in The Dangerous Book for Boys, which was mentioned in the Star article. Alas, it was gone, demonstrating the circulation potential of libraries with 24/7 access. (To give an indication of how much use a Little Free Library might get, one outside a shop in Madison had over 1,000 transactions in ten months).

I ended up going home with a hardcover biography of Christo and Jeanne-Claude by Burt Chernow (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). In keeping with the spirit of circulation, it had clearly made the rounds before landing in the Little Free Library, as the penciled-in price—a second hand trademark—revealed inside. Christo and Jeanne-Claude (d. 2009) were an artist couple who, like Wrigley, made delightful public interventions, although theirs were anything but little. The introductory chapter was a fitting segue, underscoring the power of books with tales of Christo’s Bulgarian family burning volumes of Russian literature illustrated by avant-garde artists to avoid the wrath of the Nazis, followed by his discovery of modern art through unauthorized books shared discreetly at the Sofia Academy of Fine Arts. As the story of his political asylum unfolded in tandem with Jeanne-Claude’s glamorous upbringing in Casablanca and Paris, leading up to his commissioned portraits of her family, a brief dalliance with her half-sister, and finally, a first kiss between Christo and a then-engaged Jeanne-Claude so powerful it broke a tooth, I was totally engrossed. Great week-end reading…all thanks to the Little Free Library!

(1) For background on this ongoing controversy, see

Scrivener, L. Book lovers alert! This teeny library will be open 24/7. Dec. 2, 2011.
Scrivener, L. The Little Library That Could. Sept. 17, 2011.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as a Mother

“While Long has portrayed women who really desired pregnancy, Page set out to make art about ‘everyone supposedly wanting a baby’.”

In 2005, Toronto artist Jennifer Linton made the trek to the blustery city of North Bay for a solo show I coordinated at White Water Gallery. On top of exhibiting, she gave an artist talk where her newborn baby was indisputably the youngest audience member, demonstrating that the roles of artist and mother are hardly mutually exclusive…though as artist Lindsay page notes, they do tend to be “in direct competition”.

Fast forward six and a half years to Women’s College Hospital, where I caught up on Linton’s work the other night, while also taking in artist talks by Page and Jennifer Long. Their panel, Portrait of the Artist as a Mother: Visualizing the Unspoken, was part of the monthly Mother Outlaws’ Speakers Series organized by the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.

The merging of art and motherhood has arguably never been more pronounced than last month when Marni Kotak gave birth in Brooklyn's Microscope Gallery, surrounded by a midwife, a doula, and a handful of gallery visitors. Bringing the focus back to the northern side of the border, what does it mean to be an artist-mother hybrid and what forms might it take beyond having one’s water break on a gallery floor?

The works discussed by the three artists cover the timeline of pregnancy, the postpartum state, and well into motherhood. Panel moderator Judith Mintz noted that they “challenge the myth of motherhood as celebration.” After finding that their peers mostly dismissed their concerns about mothering, they turned to art as a “safe place to have those conversations” (Linton). In stripping away the veneer, they are, in fact, outlaws of a sort.

Long’s MFA thesis revived the precursor to photographic portraits: black silhouettes in oval frames. In Swallowing Ice, she explored personal anxieties about being “on the…fence” about becoming pregnant. For example, a woman pulls a strand of hair insecurely beside repetitive text like, “What if I’m a disappointment?’”that spills out of its oval frame. She also photographed forlorn looking friends with fertility aids such as saliva tests. As an artist focused on the pink-blue divide, I appreciated her disdain for the gendered “colour coding” of prenatal vitamins and ovulation sticks that appear in her work. She actually found a pink paint chip called ‘doll’s dress’ that was the exact same colour.

While Long has portrayed women who really desired pregnancy, Page set out to make art about “everyone supposedly wanting a baby”. Werewolf (see image 1 under 'Spawn' in the photography section) shows the artist standing naked in a forest with a swollen belly, with an unnerving background of scraggly branches. With this piece, she wanted to convey the severing of body and mind where bodily control is lost. Linton similarly portrayed the unnatural, with multiple self-portraits in a single ominous image.She represents herself pregnant with an animal and inanimate objects, inspired by common dreams of expectant women.

Each of the artists have addressed the bodily realities of postpartum life. Linton made a largescale drawing, Breastfeeding Ridley, with “heroic proportions” to convey the exhaustion of the process and the transition to “flabby stretchy leakiness”. Page portrayed herself hunched over and naked, with her daughter strapped to her back (see image 9 under 'Spawn' in the photography section), bringing to mind a snapshot of Linton at her drafting table with her son strapped to her front. Page describes her self-portraits as a defense against the erasure she felt in becoming a mother, as her daughter’s quickly developing physicality seemed to eclipse her own presence. Seeing Linton and Page present first on the panel made one of Long’s opening comments instantly clear: “As you step into motherhood, there’s a mourning that occurs.”

Long’s newer photos, the Fold series, don’t necessarily read as mournful, although there is a sense of loneliness because the human interaction I associate with her earlier work is gone. For example, we see a woman’s arm with milk dribbling down it, without the supportive partner or the baby who make it all worthwhile. There’s a bittersweetness to these images. A photo of half-eaten grapes bathed in sunlight reads not so much as domestic chaos as serenity. (While editing this post, I realized that the grapes may actually be halved to prevent choking. Long notes that it’s difficult for people to interpret these works as anything but images from a mother’s life, and the kind of childless naivety I just revealed undoubtedly factors into that complication). She explains that like author Alice Munro, she draws attention to the overlooked but precious in-between-moments. Her own in-between-moments are shrinking, she finds. By the time she would set up her beloved 4 x 5 camera, naptime would be over, causing her to turn to digital photography, which also eliminated the need to leave the house to buy and drop off film.

Linton also adjusted her process after becoming a mother. For example, she chose drawing over printmaking for an alphabet book because of concerns about toxicity, and also because a single hour became “weighted with meaning” and drawing required less set-up. It’s no ordinary alphabet book. To cite a few examples, C is for consumerism, Q is for queer, and T is for tattoo.

Page changed how she worked too. For one thing, her daughter became a ready “prop”. She asked her to recreate a pose in which she was hidden under a chenille blanket and upended couch cushions, with one leg dangling from the couch. A second photo taken by Page shows the scene rearranged by her daughter, with her standing in front of the couch and holding a camera herself, with a man’s legs poking out from the blanket. So, in answer to the question ‘What does it mean to be an artist-mother?’, maybe, in part, it means raising children who find self-expression and creativity to be second nature.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Girl’s Guide to The Guy’s Guide to Feminism

“Problems are discussed with just the right amount of hard facts backing up the authors’ progressive viewpoints.”

The sole wedding party I’ve been in was for a male friend from art school. He is the only man I’ve known personally to describe himself as a feminist, which makes me love him even more. It makes me wonder, why haven’t more men in my life embraced the so-called f-word? Enter the book that just launched in Toronto, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism (Seal Press, 2011) by Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel, who are both educators, activists, and seasoned writers.

Billed as a humorous book by three-quarters of the advanced praise, it does have LOL moments. For example, the Michael Ks suggest that the reason men get out of the lion’s share of housework is fear of having ‘it’ caught in the oven door or sucked up the hose of a vacuum, while the cause for women’s historical absence from academia was the massive size of their dresses, which could not be accommodated by school desks. Also humorous is the authors’ occasional macho posturing, but it didn’t make me laugh out loud because it was clear as satire—thankfully, and in marked contrast to the horrifying Facebook groups that have been getting press lately, like ‘You know shes [sic] playing hard to get when your [sic] chasing her down an alleyway’. Clearly, there is a need for The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. For me, the biggest laugh came from their website promoting the book: they write, "If you read (or write) a review...let your local Tea Party chapter know about it, which will quickly land the review on Fox News, and with all their announcers ranting and raving against it, we'll hear about it that way."

The book takes the form of an encyclopedia—albeit a hip one complete with cartoons—with short entries arranged alphabetically. I found myself fantasizing about having a son and answering prickly questions like, “Mom, why is feminazi a bad word?” with the simple turn of a page. The tone is casual, thanks to slang like ‘pussy-whipped’, and concepts like heteronormativity simplified as ‘the male-female thing’. Reluctant readers will surely be comforted by the absence of academic jargon (at one point, the authors even include a poem as an alternative to the "boring lecture version" and refer to the impenetrability of scholarly texts). Of course, this is all a non-confrontational lead-in to deconstruct serious problems, in the same way that my chipper dentist makes me feel at ease before drilling into my enamel; the gentle intro to hard work isn’t fooling anyone. Problems are discussed with just the right amount of hard facts backing up the authors’ progressive viewpoints. Data, like the sobering difference between female representation in parliament in countries that have affirmative action quotas versus those that do not, is kept to a minimum, so it doesn’t feel too encyclopedic. Equally modest in degree are the historical tidbits, like job ads from the 1950s that specified the gender required of applicants. The authors give us a break from their own voices with the interspersion of fictional dialogues between, for example, a sergeant and a defiant recruit hell-bent on defending women’s right to serve in the military, or an exchange between a porn producer, a director, and a feminist executive assistant. Shifting to characters doesn’t so much reduce the effect of the two Michaels up on a soapbox as break up the format for the sake of variety.

There’s plenty of practical advice for the young man, like how to deal tactfully with the bill at the end of a date, and critical advice like how exactly to identify consent between the sheets. The discussion often comes back to the question, “What’s in it for me?” (in the former example, a guy avoids offending his date; in the latter example, a guy avoids being a date rapist) but it’s never without asking, ‘Dude, can you believe this is the situation? Do we really want this for our moms, our sisters, our girlfriends, etc.?’

As an adult reader, I found myself distracted while reading entries on topics such as homophobia and honour killings by making connections to news stories like Brett Ratner stepping down from the Oscars last week after using a pejorative term for gay men, or the current Ontario Superior Court trial for the drowning of several family members in Kingston. Like the Facebook group mentioned above, these news stories underscore the relevance of the book. Another distraction was my impulse to connect unjust experiences of mine or of my friends to the topics. That made me think that this could also be a great gift for a young woman, to encourage her to reflect on how she should be treated.

The holiday season is approaching, and what’s a better gift than feminism?

Kaufman and Kimmel’s next launch date is November 22 at the always fabulous Bluestockings in New York.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jennifer Dalton at Winkleman Gallery

“The Colbert Report…had the poorest representation of female guests, at only 17.5%.”

While making travel arrangements for New York Archives Week, I was pleased to discover that Winkleman Gallery was only four avenues over on the same street in Chelsea as the Artists Records in the Archives Symposium where I presented yesterday on social media.

The title of Jennifer Dalton’s exhibition at Winkleman caught my attention. Cool Guys Like You is a nod to the 1988 movie, Heathers. It was one of my favourites in high school, not so much because my name is Heather but because it critiqued the popular girl clique (to which I was diametrically opposed). Living in a rural area during the pre-Internet era, I even managed to find the Heathers soundtrack, which I held onto until Toronto musician David Lush had a goth garage sale in Parkdale. Anyway, back to the movie: Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a jaded student who purges her high school of the queen ‘megabitch’ (one of two named Heather) along with a few sexist jocks, after being lured to the dark side by her psychotic boyfriend, Jason, played by Christian Slater. When she battles him to try to dismantle a bomb and finally washes her hands of him, she says, “You know what I need? Cool guys like you out of my life.”

Among several text-based works in the show, there is one in which Dalton addresses the movie explicitly by commenting on gratuitous shower scenes and wardrobe changes. Although the show continues in a feminist vein, the title Cool Guys Like You does not refer only to men. In fact, in the press release, it is used as a gender-neutral colloquialism aimed at talk show personalities. Dalton commends Brian Lehrer, Terry Gross, Leonard Lopate, Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose, Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart for featuring “impressive, fascinating, intelligent guests” (1), but she is nonplussed about the number of women and ethnic minorities they interview. From the first piece in the show, To Whose Opinion Am I Listening? I learned that The Colbert Report, which I logged a lot of hours watching while living in the US, had the poorest representation of female guests, at only 17.5%. (2) In response to this disparity, the press release asks, “WTF?” Fortunately, Dalton’s exploration in visual terms is more nuanced. For one thing, she displays the data “lovingly by hand” (3). Pie charts with pencil contours and painted pastel interiors (shown here) reveal that Colbert is not the only culprit: the lion’s share of guest spots (65%+) for all these American shows go to men. Thus, the artist questions whether she would be better off not watching them.

Another way Dalton represents this problem is with horizontal rows of celebrity photos, categorized not by the talk show on which they appeared but by their vocation. In What Does An Important Person Look Like?, male guests have gold frames and female guests have—you guessed it—silver frames. (There is a surprise in one photo of a mixed-gender band with a part-silver, part-gold frame). While this might seem redundant in light of the pie charts, it is novel in introducing race as a second factor to consider in this winnowing of guests. For example, in the realm of politics, Condaleezza Rice was the sole female interviewed on any of these programs last year. Using screen captures of their interviews rather than graphs highlights that Rice was in the company of surprisingly few politicians of colour.

Politics takes centre stage in a graphite piece that could easily be called Uncool Guys, but is instead called Libido-based Idiocy and Assholery in Modern Political Scandals. Republicans and Democrats are represented along the border by the usual star-adorned elephants and donkeys, with the addition of prominent phalluses. Bill Clinton is smack dab in the middle of the timeline of impropriety. Each politician has a letter or letters following his name, which is explained by a legend. Arnold Schwarzenegger acdm, for instance, refers to “betrayed and humiliated wife,” “lied to and/or about his own children,” “creepily pursued much younger people and/or subordinates,” and lastly, “when push came to shove, lied like hell!” Here, Dalton moves from observation to unabashed judgment. Personally, I tend to extend back to politicians the spirit of Pierre Trudeau’s statement, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” (4). Maybe it’s because certain lotharios like JFK seem to slip under the radar, preserving their reputation as—what were those qualities Dalton identified?—impressive, fascinating, and intelligent. Also, I’m sympathetic to the confusing crossroads life presents, represented by a piece called Only in America (or, I Can’t Trust Myself). It is a set of two machines—the type you find in shopping malls with five-cent candy—that contain temporary tattoos. One machine has a sign that says, “When you are afraid of something that usually means you should do it” and its counterpart says, “When you are afraid of something that usually means you shouldn’t do it.” While it’s hard not to chuckle at the piece picking apart Democrats and Republicans, I do wonder if pulling such big punches detracts from the seriousness of the rest of the show. Then again, the tone may be spot on, if you consider the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street protests and related dissatisfaction with the government.

Dalton details the idiocy and assholery, to borrow her phrasing, to which she is subject as an artist. Another text-based graphite work lists common questions she hears. Ones like, “What have you got against men?” and “What does your husband do that you can afford to do this?” raise the proverbial red flag. Others are more ambiguous, like queries about what it’s like to work with certain men such as gallerist Edward Winkleman. On the one hand, asking this defines a woman in relation to a man in a position of power, which is uncool. On the other hand, it seems like a reasonable question that a sincerely interested partly might ask. Its inclusion among more obviously irksome questions suggests annoyance on the artist’s part. Here’s my question: would the possibility of provoking a knee-jerk response discourage talk show hosts from inviting feminist artists, or feminists in general, to be guests? I ask that as an artist who is similarly driven by having a “bee in my bonnet”. (5)

On my way out, I slipped my hand into an opening in a grey box and lowered a lever as instructed. Had I been a man with larger hands, I would have walked away with ‘cool’ stamped in a lovely black script. However, it only printed ‘ol’ on my hand, which seemed dangerously close to ‘old’ and a cruel reminder that even now, coolness eludes me. And yet, had I been successful, I would have found that coolness is both messy and temporary.

Cool Guys Like You closes October 15.

(1) Press release, Winkleman Gallery
(2) Since I spent the past two days watching presentations about artists using archival material, I wanted to point out that this is yet another example (in case any of my symposium colleagues are reading). Dalton was able to access online archives for all of the talk shows except The Colbert Report, for which she relied on Wikipedia data.
(3) Text taken from To Whose Opinion Am I Listening?, 2011
(4) December 21, 1967, House of Commons, Canada
(5) Press release, Winkleman Gallery

Sunday, October 2, 2011

John Shipman at Nuit Blanche

“…the intention was to select an imaginary lover’s sex and gender…”

Never before have I arrived at a subway station, turned around, and left because the lineup not only filled the staircase but exceeded single file. Until last night. Hordes of people squeezed into Kipling station, presumably to head to Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, the all-night art festival in Toronto. I don’t want to sound like an old fogey, but I have fond memories of walking through the drizzling rain with my sister in the first year of Nuit Blanche. Bumping into mutual acquaintances before all the hype, it felt, dare I say, magical? I would compare the next visit to my first experience at a music festival wherein I got caught in a Ministry mosh pit—I remember grasping for hands in the crowd of art lovers at the University of Toronto and feeling empathy for those afflicted by claustrophobia. That experience caused me to avoid attending last year, even though I was in a show at Red Head Gallery. This year, I decided to wise up and brave the crowds once again.

After failed attempt #1, my husband and I returned home and set out again at midnight with the requisite Laura Secord bar tucked in my purse. Arriving at a heritage church at about 12:45 am, I thought to myself wryly, “Well, I’ve never been to church this early on a Sunday.” I was too tired to laugh at my own joke, let alone share it with my husband. However, I was determined to catch this particular show. In St. Matthew’s United Church in Zone A, Toronto-based John Shipman exhibited Listening to Love: Next Time Can We Choose Our Gender? Incidentally, Shipman was part of a three-person installation last year in the same location. It it, the artists invited visitors to explore their own mortality through condolence books and CoffinPhones containing audio tracks of expressions of grief.

This year, the entrance contained artifacts from the so-called Museum of Gender Archeology. Mounted on a hut-like structure were vestiges of our gender binarism, like figurines with arms amputated by pink and blue razors (pink for girls and blue for boys, of course). In addition to these grim assemblages were signs of hope, like a tongue-in-cheek gadget called the ‘gender changer’ and an unaltered sign for a unisex bathroom, which are becoming mandated at more and more schools.

In the church proper, last year’s CoffinPhones were replaced by GendeRphones. I got myself situated and looked at the dials containing the bathroom pictograms for male/female and the letters XX and XY. I had to remind myself which gender is XX and which is XY. “Oh right,” I thought, “Henry VIII had no right to be upset with his wives for not giving him a son because it’s the man who contributes the determining chromosome.” (My father and high school biology teacher must have been rolling in his grave). Looking at the press release in retrospect, I realize that the intention was to select an imaginary lover’s sex and gender, which underscores society’s tendency to lump them together. Mistakenly, I saw it as an opportunity to select my own gender and my prospective lover’s gender. No matter. I think it engaged the same principles of fantasy and open-mindedness.

The digitized voice made endless loving statements in the same static voices library phone systems use, which turn my name into ‘Heether’. It was a quirky contrast to the sentiment of the expressions, especially “I hear your voice on my skin”. Some were clichés, some were so poetic you can’t imagine anyone actually saying them, some were riddled with everyday references (I love kissing you when you’ve been drinking diet Coke) and others had contemporary references (I love how Facebook tells me we are in a relationship). Most were outpourings of love but some were invitations to love. In terms of the latter, I imagine I was not alone in having a hard time feeling an affinity with the disembodied digital voices. Thus, it was appropriate that business cards were inserted throughout the installation that quoted Marshall McLuhan: “When you are on the have no body.”

It was a challenge to hear the voices because of the music playing in the church. When there was a pause between songs, you could hear a trace of the female audio track overlapping the male audio track on the phone, and vice versa, offering a wonderful (if possibly unintentional) metaphor for the complexity of gender and love. I found myself wishing the music were off so I could enjoy this element. That impulse went away when Leonard Cohen’s incredible song, Hallejlujah, belted out over the speakers. For the duration of the song, I was overcome by hope for freedom in the realm of gender identity and knew it was worth it that I’d be crawling into bed at 2 am with my XY.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

This woman's work...

“…craft and art have become rather comfortable bedfellows.”

The apparent absence of external signage for Project Space worked out alright last night because my husband and I took in many of the sights and sounds of Supercrawl before attending the opening that brought us to Hamilton. A child transfixed by a harp, a chorus belting out a song with lyrics consisting of but one word (meow), street planters adorned with cozy wraps containing messages like ‘fail better’, and general market merriment are just a few that come to mind.

This woman’s work… is on show at Project Space until October 1. Curated by Sally Frater, it features textile-based work by seven female artists from southern Ontario. Amongst the emerging artists is Shelley Niro, who acts as a keystone. Maybe the spectrum of emerging to established artists would feel more palatable in a larger exhibition, with the inclusion of other artists of her ilk to create balance. As is, the closest thing is a reference to Joyce Wieland, in Erika De Freitas’ Oh Canada, In Conversation, an embroidery which is a nod to Wieland’s print of lip marks while singing the national anthem. The date of Niro’s works, the oldest being 1993, makes her something of a double anomaly in relation to the rest of the show, which features mostly new work. It was back in 1993, incidentally, that Estella Lauter wrote of the legitimization of craft in art as being “still partial” (1). Today, though, the Project Space show is promoted by Toronto Craft Alert, and craft and art have become rather comfortable bedfellows.

De Freitas is a logical choice to highlight on the invitation for the exhibition, given that she has addressed gender directly in past work (such as the intriguing colouring book, Self-Portrait as a Coloured Woman). Curiously, though, the invitation image, A Teleplasmic Study With Doilies (A Selection), is from a photographic series of crocheted doilies draping a woman’s face and spilling out of her mouth that is actually about grief and the absence of breath, according to her website. On the other extreme, some of the works are almost too easy of a fit for the theme, such as Hitoko Okada’s intricately constructed beehive dress. Emphasis on construction of the work is apparent in most works, like the needles hanging from red threads that in turn descend from the pubic area of Insoon Ha’s all-white nightgown; the half-covered hanger amidst traditional Hungarian (I believe) stitching by Ingrid Mayrhofer; areas of concentrated pins puncturing the whitish-pink surfaces of Simone Aziga’s sculptural dress-like forms that hang overhead; and Colina Maxwell’s machine-stitched cityscape made from a sweater, accompanied by a video of its production. The latter is another example of work that, on the surface, makes sense in the mix, but ultimately seems to be less about the convergence of feminism and craft and more about other issues (in this case, recycling and, by virtue of its floral motif shifting vertically in the collage process, the downsides of urban sprawl).

(1) Estella Lauter, “Re-enfranchising Art: Feminist Interventions in The Theory of Art,” pp. 21-34, quotation p. 28, in Hilde Hein and Carolyn Korsmeyer, eds., Aesthetics In Feminist Perspective. (Hypatia, Inc.).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

!Women Art Revolution

"Altogether, 12,428 minutes of footage were 'patched together like a quilt'."

Amidst graffiti that spelled ‘vomit,’ neighbourhoods of dilapidated homes, and scenes like this one my husband shot, we found ourselves in a stunningly beautiful place in downtown Detroit last week-end. We attended the final night of the summer film series at the Detroit Institute of Arts in this stellar auditorium: (click here). I was as excited about the venue as I was about the film: !Women Art Revolution, directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson (a featured artist in the exhibition whose catalogue I worked on at the Neuberger Museum of Art earlier this year, The Deconstructive Impulse).

Leeson recounts in !W.A.R. how she wrote reviews of her work pseudonymously when she was an emerging artist, resulting in her first exhibition. Her next big accomplishment was a major sale of her work, but the collector backed out upon learning her gender because he said it would be a poor investment to buy the work of a female artist. (It’s no wonder Eleanor Antin said of her nude self-portraits, “I’m so…obviously a woman. They’re not going to take me seriously.”) Today, that body of work by Leeson is valued at 9,000 times its original price. Look who’s laughing now. Impressively, Leeson financed the film with sales from her own work, which makes me want to promote it even more.

!W. A. R. is not unlike The Heretics, which I blogged about last year. That’s not a criticism, and it may be inevitable given that both documentaries cover similar time periods, with Leeson’s being about the development of feminist art in America and Joan Braderman’s The Heretics being about the development of a magazine in New York City about feminist art. !W.A.R. is a great counterpart to The Heretics, in part because much of the footage was filmed on the opposite coast, from her living room in Berkeley, California. Some interviews were filmed elsewhere, like the one with Judy Chicago in a bathroom noted for its decent acoustics. Many of the same artists and critics, such as Harmony Hammond and Lucy Lippard, are interviewed in both films. And both films have a quirky sensibility, complete with sound effects and playful cartoons/animations. For example, !Women Art Revolution shows a cartoon of Nancy Spero being forced to show her portfolio to a gallerist on the floor instead of on a nearby sculpture stand. That is the least of the unconscionable behaviour discussed in the interviews. As in The Heretics, many of the women interviewed by Leeson root the feminist art movement in social justice and general consciousness raising. For me, there are two unforgettable clips in !W. A. R.. One is Arlene Raven’s deadpan description of her effectively going on strike as a domestic servant, followed almost immediately by the collapse of her marriage; right when you might laugh at the absurdity of cause and effect, she reveals that she was raped three days later. The other clip is of African American artist, Howardena Pindell, remembering how as a child, she was tied to her cot during nap time to prevent her from using the same bathroom as the white children. The film balances these sobering tales by including interviews with the likes of Marcia Tucker, who notes that humour is the greatest tool in fighting adversity. And it is interesting to hear from artists like Faith Wilding, who didn’t feel feminist rage as a newly married woman but found herself in the movement nonetheless.

Altogether, 12,428 minutes of footage were “patched together like a quilt”. A highlight of the film is its inclusion of archival footage other than interviews. It was a real treat to see the opening of the Womanhouse installation in which CAL ARTS students each took over a room in an old house; Congress debating whether Judy Chicago’s installation, The Dinner Party, was pornographic; and protests at the Guggenheim when a survey exhibition excluded female artists and included Carl Andre, who was acquitted controversially shortly beforehand in the murder of his artist-wife, Ana Mendieta, who fell to her death from their New York apartment.

The focus of !W. A. R. is definitely on the 1970s, but it does extend to later developments, such as the creation of the Guerilla Girls (the mask-wearing educators who continue to ask pointed questions of institutions through posters, protests, and lectures to remedy the double standard facing women artists). Also included is a discussion of the major feminist exhibition, WACK!, and interviews with several contemporary feminist artists. The one that stood out for me as a librarian was Jane Antoni saying that she couldn’t find library books on any of the feminist artists her professors suggested she look up.

Towards the end, film critic B. Ruby Ritch expresses concern that the survivors of the feminist artist movement are like old KGB agents, relegated to a scrapbook that no one’s interested in now. With its poignant interviews and its plethora of images by women artists, !Women Art Revolution will hopefully prove otherwise.

p.s. As a Canadian, I thought it was great to see images by Suzy Lake and a quotation by Blake Gopnik included in the mix!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Ardours of Youth

“The titillation factor of the show is striking…”

The other day, I was surprised to read that Nirvana’s Nevermind album was released twenty years ago. Has that much time really gone by since my high school friends and I donned plaid shirts and made moon-eyes at boys playing Nirvana covers in local bands? Gulp. It seemed timely that the latest exhibition at The Art Bar at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel featured a collective named for a Nirvana song. And that the theme of the collective’s recent photo shoot in Vice magazine, many of whose images are in the show, was crushes.

The international collective Ardorous is spearheaded by eighteen-year-old Petra Collins, an incoming OCADU student. I was eager to catch the show before it closed today, to support young female artists and to see what all the buzz was about. The collective’s first exhibition is called In Bloom. Given my fixation on signifiers of femininity in my own work, I was keen to see a show emphasizing “girly imagery of flowers, hearts and the colour pink” (1). The curatorial statement noted that the show was a “response to what has been ingrained in our hearts as ‘feminine’ which we have chosen to embrace and celebrate.” (2) Not knowing if ‘we’ meant society or the collective, I felt some trepidation. The word ‘celebrate’ had come up recently in another curatorial text, in relation to Alex Prager’s CONTACT installation, and that didn’t jibe so well with me. It was unclear whether In Bloom would be a critique of society’s celebration of femininity and be heavy on irony, or if it would simply be a celebration.

The show struck me not as ironic but as—to use 2.0 parlance—WYSIWYG. The soft focus and 1960s-style colour of the photographs make them easy on the eyes, but what defines them as eye candy is the subject matter. The statement for the collective explains the origin of its name beyond its namesake by including the definition of ardour (sexual excitement and a temporary feeling of warmth). The titillation factor of the show is striking: young women in the shower, a young woman’s buttocks poking out of denim shorts, long blond hair brushing against the waistband of a pair of tighty whities, etc. It made me wonder, does placing images of sexy young women in a bar complicate the art viewing experience? There was one gratuitous online comment about the collective that turned my stomach, causing me to doubt whether the combination of alchohol and these images is advisable. Also, in light of the recent controversy surrounding ten-year-old model, Thylane Loubry Blondeau in Paris Vogue, how young is too young for sexy photos? In spite of a risqué reading, there is an earnest quality throughout In Bloom that is a welcome change to the plethora of garish images exploiting sexuality and going viral these days. Perhaps fresh-faced sexuality verges on “girl power” (3) after all, because the young women are controlling their presentation as in classic boudoir photos. ‘Boy of my dreams’ hand-written over the pubic area on floral cotton briefs is far less disturbing than the phrases silkscreened onto store bought underwear; obsessive though it may be, the writer is thinking with her own mind. Or heart. Or libido.

Mostly, however, I’m stumped by how the show portrays girl power, since the artists don’t seem to be fighting any of the restrictions placed on them. The one exception might be a photo by Swedish artist, Emma Arvida Bystorm of a young woman lying on the grass with her hands behind her head, with bright red lips, carefully coiffed hair, and unshaven armpits that buck Western convention. It’s the counterpart to the promotional image by the same artist used for the show: a close-up of a tangerine coloured bikini bottom, with sprawling pubic hairs that must have done wonders for attendance. Its title, Lolita, reveals cultural awareness. A risk of exhibiting at a young age is lacking sufficient artistic/cultural awareness: the image that comes to mind is from a heart-shaped montage of 4 x 6-inch prints without individual artists identified, in which two girls have their hair braided together in a fashion that is disturbingly derivative of Relation in Time (1977) by artist Marina Abramovic.

The show was so heavily focused on photography that it would have been stronger with one medium. Ardorous' website takes this approach and feels substantially more cohesive. Besides photographs, In Bloom included a few paintings and multiple floral headbands (the latter begs the question(s), "Is it art?" "Is it craft?" without like-minded works to build the case either way). Equally distracting was the Metro article on Collins, which was torn at the edges and attached to the wall in the middle of the show. Most distracting were the permanent botanicals strewn throughout the room, taking the interpretation of the ‘in bloom’ theme too far. The most curious installation of them was in a corner beside the montage of photos: on a pedestal surrounded by devotional candles, it functioned as a makeshift reliquary. On the one hand, you could regard it as a commentary on the veneration of youth and beauty (which is a bit strange considering the irreverent quality of the show). On the other hand, with business cards on top, it could easily be seen as self-aggrandizement.

(1) (2) (3) Curatorial text by Madelyne Beckles.

For images, see

Friday, July 29, 2011

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (Don’t let the bastards grind you down)*

“’s difficult to bottom line a library.”

I can’t call myself a Torontonian without reservation: I was raised in a rural village two hours away and I only spend five days a week downtown for work. Cumulatively, however, I have had a Toronto address for exactly half of my adult life. Thus, I can relate to the swell of Toronto pride this week, apparent in others’ conversations and social media comments about “my [their] city”. It’s a direct response to the new era defined by the mayorship of Rob Ford.

Threats to close Toronto Public Library branches alarmed the masses not just because of what was at stake but because of the cavalier attitude that accompanied the push towards privatization. Rob Ford’s elder brother, Coun. Doug Ford, noted that his Scarborough neighbourhood has more libraries than Tim Hortons—as if the two are mutually exclusive? My hometown, incidentally, went for years without a Tim Hortons but I think if the library were missing, it would leave a gaping hole.

Celebrated author Margaret Atwood became the unofficial spokesperson for the fight to save TPL. Her alliances with the library world have been apparent for years, notably in her presentation at an American Library Association conference. At any rate, she appealed to fans through her Twitter feed on several occasions to sign an online petition. The surge of John Hancocks actually crashed the TPL Workers Union server, and at last count, I heard there were 39,000 signatures. On Tuesday, Coun. Doug Ford retorted that he didn’t know Atwood and wouldn’t even recognize her. Yet, this is a woman whose portrait has been painted by Charles Pachter. I can picture the low-brow response: Q-Who’s Charles Pachter? If he walked right past me, I wouldn’t recognize him. A-Oh bother! He painted the Queen. There you have it, Atwood is in line with the Queen…not in line to be Queen, but she is Canadian literary royalty, with a stunning 21 honourary degrees and myriad awards including the Giller Prize, the Booker Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. Even Indigo Chapters have acknowledged her heavyweight status by knocking 30 per cent off all Atwood titles until the end of July when customers present a Canadian library card.

It was at my hometown library that I first made my way through the entire Atwood collection. Some of her sentences are such zingers that I would read them repeatedly before moving on, taking forever to finish a book. I wasn’t always a prolific reader. With great embarrassment, I remember being at the same library for preschool story hour and trying to convince a friend I knew how to read by mimicking silent reading. I knew reading was cool, and beyond that, it was empowering. How did I know that? Because I watched my mother do literacy tutoring with an adult at the library, something I did myself years later with not-for-profit organizations. (If it doesn’t break your heart to learn that illiterate adults get by in Toronto by doing things like memorizing the colours and murals at TTC subway stops, then society is doomed and we can congratulate Atwood on her dystopian visionary powers, revealed in such classics as The Handmaid’s Tale). I actually watched an adaptation of this book by the Canadian Opera Company, which you might argue is an economic benefit to Toronto of me having used a public library in Ontario years earlier. Do you think City Council would buy that as an argument for the butterfly effect?

I’m being melodramatic on purpose, for two reasons: one, to point out that there is no need for melodrama. This situation, which caused concerned citizens to camp out for the 24 hour City Council meeting, is frightening enough, and two, it’s difficult to bottom line a library. The fact that my hometown library gave me my first art show and gave me an alternative to working in the tobacco industry for five years? Priceless. The impact of helping a user with a dictionary to decipher a letter from an employer? Priceless. Of helping a senior use a computer? Priceless. Of helping an adult read? Actually, you probably can put a price on that if you consider the increased employability of the individual.

Every story I’ve read about last night’s meeting quotes the same 67-year-old woman. Mary Trapani Hynes proposed that Toronto obliterate the public library system altogether, since the burdens of a politically aware and literate community are too great. Now that’s satire, Atwood style.

*From The Handmaid’s Tale, McClelland & Stewart, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

For background on the proposed cuts, which will be followed up in September, click here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Artists in transit: Riding the rails with Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario

“Art in Motion…involved 30 artists travelling from Sudbury to Chapleau…”

Back in May 2009, I chose the title and concept of my blog on a whim and started the next day without a plan. As an artist-commuter, I wanted to write about my artistic experiences and influences in the context of transit. Over time, it became taxing to tie art and transit together creatively, but I still cherish the moments when they converge and present a potential hook for a new post. For instance, two days ago on the Go train out of Toronto, I was reading the Shout Outs in the t.o.night newspaper when I saw this compliment paid from one Go train passenger to another: “When Botticelli painted, he was dreaming of you.” Ha!

Images: Making a flip book (top), Arriving in Chapleau, ON (bottom)

By far, the best pairing of art and transit since I began blogging has been the residency and exhibition I participated in today with members of Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario. The theme was Art in Motion and involved 30 artists traveling from Sudbury (almost 5 hours northwest of where I live) to Chapleau (an additional five hours in the same direction). It's hard to believe it takes 10 hours to get from Mississauga to Mississagi River. I knew we were going into the great beyond when my cell phone lost service, and it sure felt off the grid when we reached our final destination and there was no Tim Hortons in sight. We travelled by Via Rail, making art en route from a Budd car. The scenery was spectacular and the ride was smooth—a relaxing combination conducive to art making, though my concept was actually rooted in tension.

I deviated from my usual practice of feminist fibre art and made a flip book called Les Mots Que Je Comprend (The Words I Understand), based on snippets of French conversations surrounding me. I’ve been interested in the social element of language learning ever since I taught ESL after art school. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the isolating nature of language—in preparation for a presentation at the International Conference on Image and Imagery at Brock University with the theme, Silence and the Silenced, I’ve been making sculptures with baby clothing containing perplexing statements like ‘Dangerously Cute’, ‘I Heart Shoes’, and 'Gentil gamin, je suis très chic' that speak for pre-literate girls. Back to the piece at hand, I was interested in the social experience of an Anglophone artist (me) amongst Francophone artists (including my husband), since I’m interested in the concept of the Other in general in my work. I wanted to capture the experience of being in transit and taking in conversations in a foreign language, where my impulse is to fixate on a familiar term until leapfrogging to the next one. The end result is a bit like poetry. I chose the flip book format because of its dependence on motion and its easy fit with the theme. Rather than creating an animated image, I opted for a nonsensical blur with overlapping words in keeping with the anxiety of FSL. I keep thinking if it were an instructional piece by Yoko Ono, it would go something like this: Ride a train in a foreign culture. Write a word you hear on each page of a small book. Watch the words fly. Serendipitously, the word I recorded on the final page of my notebook was ‘encore’; it was the perfect segue to volume 2, which I plan to make on the return trip tomorrow and display at the second Art in Motion exhibition at the train station in Sudbury.

Artists came from as far as Ottawa, Cochrane, and Thunder Bay and explored an impressive range of media: sculpture, works on paper, photography, film, relational performance, storytelling, poetry, and music. At the debut of the works tonight at Aux Trois Moulin Motel where we stayed, I lost at Bingo, got fingerprinted, and was implicated in a murder mystery (the last two were unrelated), but it was still a great day. À demain!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Lynda Benglis at the New Museum

"All my art is erotic, suggestive..." — Lynda Benglis

After working for 15 days straight, I was thrilled to get away on the week-end before starting a new job this week. What does one do with exactly 12 hours in New York, besides feel badly about not having more time for social engagements? Between breakfast in Bryant Park, subway transit toward Coney Island surrounded by 14 matching mermaids, a Trivial Pursuit game at Brooklyn’s Pizza Plus (where, incidentally, I answered the question, “What noted women’s rights activist got married in 2000 in the home of Wilma Mankiller? (1)” correctly, thank-you very much), dinner in Hell’s Kitchen with an artist friend in her last week in the city, and a late night stroll through Greenwich Village, I managed to squeeze in a pit stop to the New Museum with my husband.

It was the closing week-end of Lynda Benglis’ first retrospective exhibition in 20 years, organized by the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin) in collaboration with Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven). I was familiar with Benglis primarily as a counterpoint to my favourite artist, Hannah Wilke: besides both being Second Wave feminists who poured latex to create sculptures in the spirit of abstract expressionism, referenced Marcel Duchamp in performative work, and appropriated Greek costuming in self-portraiture, they upped the ante of nude self-advertising in lockstep. The culmination was Benglis unwittingly providing Wilke with a venue to undress in protest to Benglis’ infamous Artforum ad; not only was it at her exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, but it was at her opening reception (2). When I read this in Nancy Princenthal’s monograph, Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), I sat on my little Ikea couch feeling stunned and somehow betrayed by my ‘idol’. Her audacity struck me as the antithesis of how my former colleague, Julian Kreimer, described Benglis’ approach to art making: “respectful irreverence.” (3)

The fact that I have used Kreimer’s quotation out of context to home in on feminism substantiates Emily Nathan’s observation that the importance of concept and form in Benglis’ art are equally weighted (4). It is tempting to have a singular focus, and had I not traipsed through New York in the heat beforehand, I would probably have indulged in finding evidence of Benglis’ insistence that “All my art is erotic, suggestive” (5). I was too fatigued to process innuendo-laden titles like ‘Come’ (1969-74) for an amorphous floor sculpture until writing this post. So, form it was. The highlight of the amorphous sculptures was Phantom (1971), which has not been exhibited for the past 40 years; I actually exclaimed aloud when I entered a darkened room to find five large glow-in-the-dark sculptures reminiscent of the overlapping blobs and shards of ice that accumulate in Niagara Falls during the winter. As the air conditioning took hold and I moved through the other rooms, I was delighted to discover her wall-hung cocoon sculptures, not the least because of my longstanding interest in the convergence of this medium and subject matter. These oblong panels were like cocoons cruelly bisected to reveal interlocking slick shapes in colours evocative of—strangely enough—gummy worms. In my state of probable dehydration, I fixated on these interlocking forms with each new piece, especially in the huge monocrhomatic abstract forms that deviated from the cocoon shape entirely. With no obvious focal point, they become an invitation to let your eyes dance around the surface, which was a trance I welcomed. Although I was not in a position to make the most of this show, I was reminded that seeing work in person is always worthwhile, to appreciate some element that eludes reproductions. For me, this eureka moment was spawned by the cast lead version of the same double-headed dildo that fractured the Artforum editors in 1974 when Benglis straddled it naked, save for a pair of sunglasses. Seeing nails positioned ever so precariously around the semicircular shaft to keep it in place, I couldn’t help but smile, which is fitting since that is the name of the piece.

For images, see the New Museum.

(1) Answer: Gloria Steinem.
(2) This intervention in New York in 1975 was entitled Invasion Performance.
(3) Kreimer, Julian. “Shape Shifter: Lynda Benglis”. Art in America. 12/1/09, pp. 95-101.Quotation ¶5.
(4) Nathan, Emily. "Lynda Benglis: Top Form". Artnet. February 11, 2011.
(5) Seiberling, Dorothy. “The New Sexual Frankness: Good-by to Hearts and Flowers”. New York Magazine, 8 (7), pp. 37-44. Quotation p. 42.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Alex Prager in CONTACT

"Her allure, in my opinion, lay not in the femme fatale reference..."

Well, Judgment Day has not yet ensued as predicted and the dire hour of 6 pm has passed. Even if it happens tonight, I can regale the world with at least one more blog post in this final hour.

My husband and I headed to Toronto the other night to catch Alex Prager’s installation, curated by Bonnie Rubenstein, in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. The Week-End series features panels and billboards of women evocative of a by-gone era of cinema. These staged photographs of starlets and femme fatales reportedly celebrate the “trappings of femininity” (1), which—big surprise—caught my attention. Without actually referencing Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum, the artist's statement mentions the victory of female-generated illusions over reality. Irony is a tricky business, as the image Four Girls (2007, not included in this particular installation) demonstrates: the central figure is shot from below with her back to viewers, tantalizing them in a string bikini top and bottoms wedged to emphasize the contours of her buttocks. Rubenstein isn’t kidding when she writes that it’s difficult to see beyond these facades. It’s no wonder Prager’s voyeuristic style has occasionally been misinterpreted as that of a male artist, undoubtedly reinforced by her gender-neutral name.

The previous CONTACT exhibition I saw was Suzy Lake: Political Poetics, a retrospective curated by Matthew Brower and Carla Garnet at the University of Toronto Art Centre. After seeing her seminal works, notably On Stage, in which she plays dress-up and vamps for the camera, I paused at the entrance of Prager’s installation to consider the novelty of her female figures. The curatorial text notes Prager’s examination of cinematic tropes; after seeing Lake’s performative photos made before Prager was even born, I had a hard time not seeing them as tropes within tropes. Or, as more simply put by one commenter on the MoMA blog in response to Prager's inclusion in the group show, New Photography, 2010: “How is this new photography?” (2) What overcame my misgivings was the simple act of walking through the site and appreciating the photographs in an urban landscape.

When I read that Prager’s installation was at the site of a former drive-in theatre (3), although this was not confirmed by the curatorial text, I grasped the role of nostalgia in appreciating the work. I have maybe one memory of attending a drive-in, so that’s not a source of nostalgia I can tap into personally. In fact, I think my generation takes movies for granted. (This past week, I started watching one movie a day while embroidering and found myself feeling shortchanged because there were no outtakes on the DVD of Gray Matters I rented and that I couldn’t get the extended version of Forgetting Sarah Marshall to play on a rental the day before. Also, I once teased my frightened mother when we watched The Birds--one of the films to which Prager has paid homage--because I was reared on superior special effects...though my reaction might differ now after a recent Hitchcock-style attack from a red-winged blackbird I experienced at the Port Credit harbour). Today, I was reminded of the power of movies while I was waiting for film to be developed at Photo Metro in North Bay. I started reading George Tremblay’s book, Break at Nine! (4), about the author’s career as a projectionist. The opening chapter recounted his receipt of a red ticket at elementary school in 1935 for the first film he ever saw, how his classmate missed out on the perfect seats because he ran down the aisle and slipped, how he got so excited he stood up on his chair and bonked his head. It wasn’t just the film itself, but the entire experience, that rocked his world. The same is true of installations and it would be unfair to assess Prager’s work as stand-alone photographs when they are part of a curious setting.

The film I had developed contained images of Prager’s work in situ to jog my memory while writing this post. As I pulled out my camera to snap a two-dimensional, glamorous redhead behind a three-dimensional dumpster a neighbour scowled at me and later, a man on a rooftop patio yelled, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” (I imagine I have misremembered his proper use of the subjunctive). I wasn’t operating outside Ontario law, so I was perplexed about what was so infuriating. The patio man got his wish because my film ran out before the final image I encountered of a woman in profile called Barbara (2009). Her blond locks, heavily lined lids and fur coat channeled Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick. Her allure, in my opinion, lay not in the femme fatale reference, but rather in the combination of high and low contrast, and I'm not referring to darkroom technique. Like the redhead behind the dumpster, her image competed with an urban setting, namely graffiti in the lower right corner. At the same time, its beige-grey colour morphed seamlessly into the fur of her coat, tarnishing her glamour. (These and other images can be seen here).My favourites were the works that functioned like chameleons in the environment, like Lois (2009), the buxom blond amidst broken down cars above vehicles at an actual dealership/autobody shop; and a woman descending a red brick building via a rope, installed, fittingly, on a red brick building (below).
I found myself—to borrow wording from Dermot Wilson’s exhibition that I was glad to catch today at Art on Main in North Bay (5)—embracing the faux. Something he wrote about his own nostalgic works resonated with me when I thought back on Prager’s installation: “We’re immersed in the ersatz. So why not incorporate it into our visions of the landscape?” I suppressed my feminist impulses and decided to give Prager a break in spite of her scant artist statement and her rather pedestrian description of her artistic concept in live interviews, which could otherwise do wonders to defend her visually appealing work. Today, it turns out, is not Judgment Day.

(1) Curatorial text.
(2) Tim (last name unknown).
(3) George Tremblay, Break at Nine: Presenting Those Wonderful Movies!, 2001, Ontario Film Laboratories.
(4) Dermot Wilson, Embracing the Foe, May 2-25, 2011, Art on Main, North Bay, ON.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

J. Crew ad signals apparent end of civilization as we know it

…the fate of the human race hangs in the balance if enough little boys opt for pink nail polish…

The blogosphere has been rife with outrage about Dr. Keith Ablow’s scathing assessment on Monday of a J. Crew ad released last week (1). In his Fox News column (2), he lambastes their president and creative director, Jenna Lyons, for painting her son, Beckett’s toenails hot pink (the five year old’s favourite colour, according to the ad). He laments that “almost nothing is now honored as real and true” (¶4), meaning prescriptive gender behaviour, but what is real and true is that the boy loves pink. Ablow has his fair share of supporters, with some calling it gross and others declaring with homophobic certainty, “He will be gay”. With so many arguments already articulated against this perspective, I don’t want to be redundant. At the same time, I feel the need to weigh in since my art is about gender as a social construct, with a focus on youth and the connection between pink and femininity/sexuality.

At face value, the issue is the painting of his toenails, and that is Ablow’s point of departure. To be fair, last year, I expressed dismay at Shiloh Jolie-Pitt being baited to have her nails painted (3). Where our opinions diverge radically, though, is in my championing of her right to agency, and by extension, of Beckett’s right to agency. Based on his smile, we can tell he adores bonding with his mom in this way and is not being forced into it.

Ablow associates nail painting with costuming, and expresses concern about the slippery slope of dress-up. He writes about girls being sexualized at a frighteningly young age through clothing. I agree with that perspective. However, Beckett’s navy pants and striped sailor shirt, reminiscent of Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock’s attire, don’t belie femininity (not that I would find that problematic, personally). What seems to be the real issue is marking his body with pink, which amounts to a form of social labeling, or to be more academic, social semiotics/semantics. (I am fascinated by the extent of this labeling: I picked up a shirt in Chicago recently for my art that says repeatedly—like a mantra—“I love pink”. It’s for a one year old).

Are polished nails really a signifier of sexuality? I’ve been watching My So-Called Life lately, in which Rickie Vasquez, a groundbreaking gay television character, first experiments with makeup and later comes out. Positive correlation? Arbitrary connection? Who is to say? Even the prospect of the former is enough to make Ablow take a number of staggering leaps. He implies that the fate of the human race hangs in the balance if enough little boys opt for pink nail polish and don’t grow up to fulfill their biological duty. Then again, if, as he says, girls are being less cautious sexually these days, the situation would balance, wouldn’t it? He also questions whether the next step will be manipulating race by changing skin colour. OK, then.

Why is pink such a contentious colour, anyway? Veronika Koller’s study, “Not Just a Color: Pink as a Gender and Sexuality Marker in Visual Communication” showed that women associate pink with femininity and positive attributes, but men mostly regard it as neutral. For instance, 45.3 percent of women thought pink was alluring, compared to 23.9 percent of men (4). Extrapolating from this study, one could assume that Beckett is unaffected in any substantial way. Still, Ablow insists money should be put aside for the child’s inevitable therapy. That seems about as likely as someone needing therapy because their parents posted naked photos of them as a baby on Facebook (as one of the followers of my blog did just yesterday).

Ablow wants to “hold dear anything with which we were born” (¶8). His birth date, from what I can tell from online sources, is 1961, a mere two decades after the approximated reversal of the pink/blue trend. That is to say, pink used to be the colour of men and boys, as it was associated with the colour of blood and war. So, when Ablow imagines a future where “neither gender is motivated to protect the nation by marching into combat against other men and risking their lives” (¶10), I am inclined to disagree. At any rate, blue used to be the colour of women and girls. It was linked to the Virgin Mary, and it became a colour of morality during the Protestant Reformation (5). Bottom line? Society is fickle. If we’re talking about time-honoured tradition, I’d argue that little Beckett has a classic sense of fashion.

We would do well to update Simone de Beauvoir’s statement, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” to “One is not born, but rather becomes, intolerant.”


(1) Copy and paste this link, as it does not seem to link to this blog:

(2) Ablow, K. J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity.

(3) Copy and paste this link, as it does not seem to link to this blog:

(4) Pastroureau, M. Blue: The History of a Color. 2001. Princeton University Press.

(5) Koller, V. Not just a color: pink as a gender and sexuality marker in visual communication. 2008, November. Vol. 7, No. 4. Visual Communication. Doi: 10.1177/1470357208096209.

Monday, April 4, 2011

SlutWalk: A protest outside police headquarters

“…don’t confuse a dress for ‘yes’

Today Dan Savage posted a video on Slog called What Guys Think of Modesty. (1) The pious maker, identity313, implores females to—I kid you not—“have your dad screen your wardrobe,” lest they “lead men down to death” by revealing “skin that should not be on display” and acting as “bait”. I’m at a bit of a loss, since my dad is dead. I guess I should defer to my husband?

Well, Mr. identity313, this post is for you:

Over 3,000 people gathered at Queen’s Park yesterday for SlutWalk. To the casual (or cynical) observer of women donning corsets, thongs, and fishnet stockings, it might seem like an in-your-face flaunting of the right to sexual pleasure without judgment. Although there were cheers for “hot, consensual sex” (2) and a reclaiming of the pejorative term ‘slut’, that assessment would overlook the all-important irony of the march, which ended outside the Metro Toronto Police headquarters. Artist in Transit blogger in a dress from Forever 21 outside Metro Toronto Police headquarters

Organized by five women, SlutWalk was a reaction against a Toronto Police Constable advising York University students in January that women “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” (3) Although the comment was retracted, and reportedly addressed by Metro Toronto Police (4), the incident indicated a need to redress outdated, offensive, and—frankly—dangerous viewpoints. In the first of 70+ SlutWalks, protestors turned this advice on its head by wearing whatever they liked, ‘slutty’ or not. The idea was to put the onus for corrective behaviour on perpetrators and to stress women’s right to agency without being subjected to sexual profiling. As the marchers walked through blocked-off streets, they chanted, “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” Or, as one sign summed it up: “Don’t get raped!” edited as ‘Don’t rape!’

I remember the first time I was called a slut because of my clothing. It was on an elementary school trip to Canada’s Wonderland. The stranger’s comment was probably provoked by my bicycle shorts, which I actually thought were extremely practical for a day of getting soaked on rides. I couldn’t have been older than twelve, back when the extent of my involvement with boys was dancing arms’ length apart inside a supervised and well-lit classroom. Slut indeed! I have to admit, there is part of me that feels I won the lottery: I grew up in a country where I was not prevented from going to school because of my gender, nor do I run the risk of being shot at during a peaceful demonstration, as happened recently to Ivory Coast women. Is it really so untenable that every time I am sexually harassed, I evaluate my clothing and whether it played a role? (I know the answer is affirmative, but still…). Another reason I felt uncertain about my place at the protest is because of my position as a feminist artist: I believe that gendered stereotypes matter and that clothing matters, and that the two intersect. I am just as concerned about a baby sleeper that says, “Your crib or mine?” as I am about the padded, push-up triangle bikinis introduced last month by Abercrombie and Fitch for their kids’ line. If I feel clothing is loaded, do I belong at a protest that argues the opposite? (Obviously, there is a difference between how we dress and socialize our children and how we dress ourselves once we’ve already been socialized. I suppose the common ground between my artistic concerns and the protestors’ concerns is in pointing a finger at society and wanting the best for females).

Personal conflict aside, there was every reason for me to attend SlutWalk. For one thing, it’s a high profile event, and I feel that is a better approach than Denim Day, which I blogged about last year. (5) It’s easy not to notice an apparently activist pair of jeans, but it’s impossible to ignore sobering signs like “Dykes don’t need correcting” and “I was wearing a sweater + pants. Was it my fault too?” Others, which quoted Mahatma Ghandi or appropriated the look of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous poster with ‘RAPE CULTURE IS OVER! if you want it’, underscored SlutWalk’s pacifist mandate while rooting it in a trajectory of historically important protest. The signs were easier to take in than the speeches, because random chanting competed for attention, not to mention the men standing on the rooftops of cars holding questionable signs like, “We love sluts”. Organizer Sonya Barnett rallied the crowd by saying, “We need and expect better.” Jane Doe, a survivor who sued Toronto Police in 1986 for negligence, called on Mayor Rob Ford and the MTP to restructure police training and to be accountable to high-risk groups like transgendered people, women with disabilities, Aboriginal women, and sex trade workers. And, I can’t remember who made this comment, but as a librarian, I don’t want to leave it out: a female student shouldn’t have to think twice about staying late at the campus library. Agreed.

Scanning the crowd, I was mesmerized by the women whose clothing bordered on art, like the strapless dress made entirely of caution tape. In the realm of performance art, there were a lot of outfits, such as a wedding dress, a retro housewife dress, and parasols toted by goths, which put the final ‘e’ in ‘demure’; that is, they balked at the adjectival meaning of ‘sedate’ in favour of the verb meaning ‘to object’. Impressively, the crowd didn’t have the Lilith-Fair-like ratio of women to men that I was expecting. I felt a compulsion to hug each of the many men in the crowd (save for the ones on top of the cars) who came out in support of friends, lovers, sisters, and mothers, or just to give a face to the men who don’t confuse a dress for ‘yes’. Alas, I held back, because I wouldn’t want to be called a, you know, slut.

POST SCRIPTUM: Thanks to Statcounter, Ive learned a lot about my blog. For instance, this is my most popular post to date, which is interesting because its less art-focussed than my usual posts. Another thing Ive discovered is that somewhere out there in cyberspace, people (i.e., not singular) conduct image searches for sluts at Canadas Wonderland. I feel vindicated, thinking of them arriving here accidentally and getting a dose of feminism.

(1) What Guys Think of Modesty
(2) Jane Doe
(4) For the perspective of the police, click here
(5) To view that post, please copy this link (for some reason the URL can't be linked):

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Erin Finley at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center

" Andy Warhol told the Velvet Underground..."

I shuffled off to Buffalo on Friday to hear an artist talk by Erin Finley that coincided with the opening of her exhibition at Hallwalls. The show consists of “knockout drawings” featuring “coyly transgressive subjects,” to borrow curator John Massier’s wording. He described the act of seeing her work in person during a studio visit as startling, because reproductions couldn’t do them justice. One could imagine that he was referring to the teeny narratives surrounding the main action, which are rendered intricately with a cartographer’s pen. Or maybe he was thinking of the glint of light hitting a sparkly baby Jesus atop Marlon Brando’s head or on a glittering Louis Vuitton sandal in a self-portrait of the artist with maxi wings exposed.

What I recall most vividly from visiting her Calgary studio and later, her present Toronto studio, was the denseness of imagery cluttering the walls. Early 80s Madonna hung alongside an oversized colouring book picture of Alice in Wonderland and across from a leaflet for the theatre production of Legally Blonde that Finley picked up while exhibiting at CBGBs. It was as if she had gorged on popular culture and hurled onto the wall, where her entire visual schemata was seeping into the works created below. Thus, it was fitting that she began her artist talk with an overview of images that inform her current work, which ranged from Miley Cyrus with her pants around her ankles to documentation of torture in Guantánamo Bay.

The content of her irreverent drawings makes them au courant, yet they possess a timeless quality by virtue of their style. There are several artists that come to mind whose purposeful disregard for drawing conventions makes them easily confused for one another; this aesthetic, however suited to quirky subject matter, runs the risk of a pressing expiration date. Finley’s deftly drawn and equally imaginative works stand in contrast. It doesn’t hurt that she inserts references to art history, like Borromini’s architecture, Mannerist proportions, and Greco-Roman stories, situating her work firmly in the realm of art and preventing it from being confused with children’s book illustrations like the work of some of her artist contemporaries.

In the context of this blog, I would be remiss to discuss Finley’s work without tackling the prickly issue of feminism, for she is a self-described feminist. At best, feminism is a contentious issue, but it is even more so with her work. A case in point: Rape fantasy (2010) features a scraggly haired girl lying on the ground while reading a short story of the same name by Margaret Atwood. Though her back is arched and her naked bottom is thrust in the air like a cat, she appears absolutely in control. The toe of her running shoe digs into the ground, giving her the ability to sprint away if need be. Her male-like torso, devoid of cleavage, is suggestive of superheroism, conjuring images of Buffy the Vampire Slayer slamming a classmate’s head into the steering wheel when he makes a pass at her after locking the door against her will. There are numerous representations of androgyny in the exhibition, notably in self-portraits, which address the malleability of gender head-on. At first glance, works like Portrait of the artist as a suicide bomber (2010) may seem aggressive and not just because of connotations of terrorism. However, she credits children’s literature as a source for this so-called magical imagery. This perspective casts them in a tender light and reminds us of the endless possibilities that exist in children’s minds before they place limitations on themselves because of gender. And, just as androgyny avoids prescriptive behaviour, so does a portrait of two men kissing, Simon + Jimmy (2007), which she showed in her presentation. Finley noted that the viewer does not watch them perversely. If anyone is the voyeur, it is the birds and the bees in the background, which underscores the naturalness of this encounter. Her inclusiveness of queer sexuality and her prevention of voyeurism are ultimately feminist.At the end of her talk, I asked what her barometer was for gauging whether her subjects were too lukewarm or too far-gone, expecting a self-conscious answer (like wanting to provoke a reaction from family members but not wanting to hide the work from them). Instead, she had the perfect quotation on the tip of her tongue that fused art history with pop culture: as Andy Warhol told the Velvet Underground, “Always leave them wanting less.”

Click images to enlarge; courtesy of the artist:

Portrait of the artist in Louis Vuitton and maxi pad with wings / black and metallic ink on paper / 2011

Portrait of the artist as a suicide bomber / ink on paper / 2010

Simon + Jimmy / Chalk, pencil, cosmetic blush, oil paint on paper / 2007

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mona Hatoum at the Power Plant

“I’m interested in trauma,” she said, but not in “point[ing] a finger at the source of the trauma.”

Having gone a year and a half without making a cocoon sculpture until recently, I had to dig out some old artist statements and remind myself what they used to mean to me. The crux of the engagement has always been in establishing a contrast between seducing and repelling the viewer, a tendency I hadn’t heard another artist talk about at great length until Tuesday night. When feminist artist Mona Hatoum spoke at the Power Plant, this was a strategy she referenced repeatedly. It would be overly simplistic to call it a strategy, though, because that doesn’t convey the thrill of manipulating the viewer while simultaneously manipulating oneself.

Hatoum explained that she stumbled upon the combination of fear and fascination with her installation work, much of which recontextualizes familiar objects. One method of recontextualizing is playing with scale in sculpture, making for highly accessible works to even the most novice viewers. For example, La Grande Broyeuse depicts a food grinder, and looks enchantingly quirky (somewhat like a creature designed by Tim Burton, towering over the viewer). Similarly, a massive cheese grater (Grater Divide) has an appealing smooth, shiny surface. It would be easy to pass these works off as derivative of Claes Oldenburg’s oversized familiar objects rendered in soft sculpture if it weren’t for their menacing connotations. The grater’s protrusions and the grinder’s capacity to fit more than a morsel of food are disturbing indeed. Collectively, they create the sensation of a domestic environment that is no safer than the turbulent world outside, but is that reaction stemming from the fact that she is a woman representing objects from the kitchen, and from her personal history as a transnational artist born in Beirut to a Palestinian family? The question period at the end of her talk made it clear that she defies essentialist readings.

After taking a semester in Sheridan’s Crafts + Design program this past fall, I was particularly taken by Hatoum’s forays into the realm of craft: a historical map of Palsetine embroidered in hair on a pillowcase is as haunting as her grenades made of coloured glass. Sometimes it’s not the object itself that creates the push and pull of repulsion and seduction, but its positioning, whether it’s a series of barbed wires dangling above the ground precariously, or a world map made on the floor with marbles that threaten to dislocate. The latter work she described as possessing a “double aspect of fragility and danger”.

Although the “internal contradictions” she mentioned could be seen as referring to works that contain this duality, Hatoum actually used the term in relation to viewers. This concept is apparent in her description of the work, Incommunicado, a cradle with a base of only cheese wires stretched across; she noted that you could view it from the perspective of the victim or the abuser. I feel an affinity with this work in particular, as I spend a lot of time scouring second hand stores for baby clothing for my art. The kind of objectivity Hatoum demonstrates eludes me personally, as I seem fixated on the victim’s stance when making art. “I’m interested in trauma,” she said, but not in “point[ing] a finger at the source of the trauma.” Again, I felt a little stuck in my ways when I heard that, as I am an unabashed finger pointer. It will be interesting to see if this open-mindedness will come with time. Perhaps the lesson I should leave with is that balance is key. A visual reminder of that lesson is Plus and Minus. She described this kinetic work which creates and destroys lines as it rotates, as opposites co-existing side by side. It also seems like a fabulous metaphor for art history (and Hatoum did concede that she likes to make art historical references in her work). Art history is not a neat and tidy additive process. Maybe it doesn’t matter if one artist’s approach is different from another artist’s approach, whether it’s Oldenburg in relation to Hatoum or Hatoum in relation to this blogger. Their legacy is in the traces.

Please see for images.