Saturday, January 15, 2011

An unforgettable project


“…it makes Masik look like she is audaciously aligning herself with the victims, or that she is regrettably obtuse.”

Yesterday was the first I had heard about Vancouver-based Pamela Masik’s large-scale painted portraits of 69 missing and murdered women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (six of whose gruesome fates are attributed to convicted killer, Robert Pickton). Tomas Jonsson alerted me to the fact that the MOA, formerly the Museum of Anthropology, announced on January 12 that it would not be exhibiting Masik’s series on the University of British Columbia campus next month as planned. As I climbed into bed shuddering, my mind went to three divergent places: (1) to the public library I worked at as a teenager, where the head librarian decided against buying a book by a murderer because she wanted to deny royalties, though my mother counters that it was a biography of, not by, a murderer; (2) to my third year of art school, when a classmate with no apparent personal association to cancer made a piece about breast cancer, undoubtedly requiring incredible composure from our teacher—a breast cancer survivor—to not react personally; and (3) to the movie, Art School Confidential, in which the main character passes off portraits of murder victims as his own, ultimately implicating himself in their deaths because the actual artist created them as trophies, complete with DNA evidence. What’s the point of my scattered reaction? Tackling this subject matter is likely to get an artist in hot water, and highly sensitive subject matter of any kind may be impossible for a public institution to contend with and for anyone personally involved to accept. My interest is in the artist’s approach to her work, not in that of the MOA (for my thoughts on censorship at art museums, click here).

In short, Masik has been criticized for being the spokesperson for marginalized communities she has limited experience with and exploiting their memories for personal gain without adequate consultation with the victims’ families. Her side of the story is that someone needs to speak up about women going missing; that she is in a position to speak for them—as a woman’s shelter volunteer, as their neighbour, and as a woman; and that she has respected the wishes of family members, many of whom were touched by the memorial.*

I didn’t want to lash out against a fellow female artist unduly, so I read her website thoroughly along with each of her 80-plus blog posts, determined to understand her point of view. My objectivity was shaken almost instantly when I read her description of herself as a prolific national treasure in the making. This self-aggrandizing continued with her characterization of The Forgotten Project (the series in question) as ‘hauntingly beautiful’ and other paintings as ‘stunning’. With this degree of confidence, it seems almost inevitable that she would have great expectations for a series that took nearly five years to create. Indeed, she wrote in August 2009 that there would be no denying The Forgotten Project. The MOA cancellation would have come as quite the shock, then, especially after the series garnered attention during the Olympics. At the same time, it’s not like there is no precedence in this arena: take, for instance, Marlene McCarthy’s Murder Girls series (also massive portraits, but in this case, of matricidal adolescents) which her former gallery would not show in 1995, causing a three-year lag before they were exhibited elsewhere.

Masik has been taken to task by writers like Meghan Murphy (The F Word) and Francisco-Fernando Granados (FUSE) for posing in front of these portraits, creating a gut-wrenching contrast to the battered women. Indeed, she is featured in exactly one-third of the 39 images in the photo gallery on the website, www.theforgotten.ca. Thirty years ago, it might just be her beauty that would offend (think Hannah Wilke), but today’s pluralistic feminism accounts for race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, etc.—factors other than strictly gender. According to her critics, Masik is cut from a different cloth than the victimized women. Thus, the juxtaposition of her against their faces stings.

Whether the posing is out of arrogant pride, sincere attachment, or a combination of the two, cannot be known. Reading her blog posts, I did notice a deep attachment to the portraits. Not only does she personify her paintbrush (Mar. 14, 2010) but she seems unable to separate the paintings from herself (“I was the brushstroke”, Jan. 10, 2009; “The paintings become me”, Nov. 11, 2008). She also has a history of including herself in her work, both in performance art, and in her paintings. When she unveiled a portion of The Forgotten Project in her studio, the promotional material mentioned a painting from another series that shows her naked body with pornographic (her phrasing) undertones. Given that sex trade workers are among the victims in The Forgotten Project, imagine the chilling reaction of loved ones. Also imagine the reaction to Masik detailing the physical wear and tear of making the series—her bleeding fingers, torn rotator cuff, and ‘broken’ body. Surely what she is implying is that she has poured herself into the series, but stating it makes Masik look like she is audaciously aligning herself with the victims, or that she is regrettably obtuse. When she laments the lost opportunity to say good-bye to the first painting from the series to be exhibited as it was crated and sent off to an art fair, it strikes me the same way. A more direct and abrasive attempt at empathy is her insistence that she “know(s) the pain and suffering” (June 27, 2009) of the victims’ loved ones. But someone who is grieving or empathetic wouldn’t compare herself to a child awaiting Christmas morning (Sept. 11, 2009). When she calls Pickton an opportunist (Feb. 15, 2010)**, it’s hard not to balk at the irony of her wording.



*For background reading on the controversy, see The Province, FUSE,
dpi, and The F Word.

**From the video, The Forgotten Project (Chris Morrow). All other dates in parentheses refer to Masik’s blog posts.