Saturday, December 29, 2012

When Women Were Birds

“…perhaps my mother is a conceptual artist…”—Terry Tempest Williams

The night I planned to attend a fundraiser for feminist bookstores in Canada and the US at the now defunct Toronto Women’s Bookstore, I gave up, which is a shame because I wanted to blog about the event. Once I heard the performer—already half an hour late—would be at least another half hour late, I walked to a different independent bookstore and in frustration, found myself drawn to a book whose theme is the absence of content.

Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (Sarah Crichton Books, 2012) is the author’s heartfelt attempt to extract meaning from three shelves’ worth of empty journals bequeathed to her by her mother. Even more curious is the fact that on her deathbed, Diane Dixon Tempest made her daughter promise not to read them while Diane was alive.

At first, I wondered if the empty journals were too simple a metaphor for the female experience. The day I started reading When Women Were Birds, I caught the holiday classic, The Sound of Music, on television. My ears perked up when Rolf—the dashing but dastardly suitor of sixteen-year-old Liesl—sang, “Your life, little girl, is an empty page that men will want to write on.” I stand corrected: the metaphor is indeed apropos.

The premise is introduced immediately, meaning Diane dies right away, so the reader doesn’t get a chance to become attached to Diane or to feel Terry’s loss. It works because on the surface, the book is a tribute to her mother, but ultimately it is an autobiography, not a biography. She portrays her mother not as a solitary character but as a partner. Their bond is touching but arguably idealized with memories like her mother drawing a rose petal bath for Terry at the onset of menstruation.

A feminist memoir, When Women Were Birds is about finding a voice—as a Morman woman, as a near victim of a male strangler, and as a former teacher who was almost fired for being an environmentalist.

Art provides a backdrop for her musings, from having a meaningful conversation while walking along Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty to contemplating the act of confession in an Italian church with Domenico Ghirlandaio paintings. Works like Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings and Kazimir Malevich’s White on White function as a more direct vehicle for interpretation too. She concludes, “…perhaps my mother is a conceptual artist…” (p. 60).

The central motif is not art, but birds. As much as the book is a tribute to Terry’s mother, it is a tribute to ornithology. The characters in ancient Nushu (translated from Chinese as ‘women’s writing’) she describes, in which a bird’s head and a woman’s head share the same symbol, make Terry’s contemporary symbolism seem somehow predestined. In the book, birds take on a mystical role: Terry meets her husband at a bookstore because of their shared love of field guides, and she sees a hummingbird—her African friend’s favourite bird—when she learns of her death. When she quotes Jenny Holzer’s truism, “Myths make reality more intelligible,” it’s fitting.

It is beautifully written: the prose morphs into poetry and stream of consciousness with confidence. Its design is also noteworthy. The front and back inside cover feature an image of overlaid feathers in greyscale, with a mock label at the front that invites the reader with, “THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO ____________________.” Additionally, 12 empty pages follow the author’s discovery of the enigmatic journals totaling 54, the age at which her mother died.

With the New Year upon us, I’d like to close by quoting a friend of the author. Stephen Trimble co-published Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness, a chapbook designed for Congress, with Terry. Not knowing Bill Clinton would single it out for its significance, a member of the press told Trimble that the book was a waste of time. He responded, “Writing is always an act of faith” (p. 143).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Office Girl

“…two hipster wannabe artists in pre-millennial Chicago falling in like/love…”

On Monday, I chickened out. For the first time this winter, I left my car downtown and took the bus to campus up the big, imposing (at least to those of us driving standard) hill because I was shaking after driving 20 kilometres below the speed limit on packed snow. When I got home, I made a cup of tea and told my husband, “I just want to read my book and forget about winter.” But what was the first sentence in Joe Meno’s Office Girl (2012, Akashic Books), which I got through interlibrary loan that morning? “Anyway it’s snowing.” Sigh.

‘Sigh’ sums up my reaction to Office Girl. This is not to say the tale about two hipster wannabe artists in pre-millennial Chicago falling in like/love (depending on each character’s perspective) is not enjoyable, but it is a downer. Their lives are unenviable (they live in crummy apartments and meet in a small Muzak call centre) and their emotional states are unstable, so you just know there is not going to be a happy ending.

The first chapter follows Odile’s life and then the second chapter follows Jack’s life. The urge for them to meet demonstrates how wired we are to want romance in books, films and real life, even when it is a bad idea. These two should not get together. Odile, who has been spurned by a married man, desperately avoids love because she’s a pessimist. Jack, meanwhile, should be a pessimist because he’s getting divorced at the young age of twenty-five, but he’s desperately seeking love. Time could be on their side if they had a chance to heal and mature, but Odile is hell-bent on moving to New York.

If I weren’t an artist, this book would make me feel seriously irritated about art, because I would probably confuse art with self-involved artists. Reading sentences like “Odile announces that what they’re really missing is a manifesto” (p. 193) make me clench my teeth. The brazen Odile invites Jack to be part of a two-person art movement that does outrageous things in public like wearing ghost costumes. They are intoxicated by their nonsensical collaborations, probably because on their own, they were blocked. Jack, an art school graduate, has done nothing with a stack of tapes made over four years with a handheld recorder of everything from the sound of a tiger roaring at the zoo to the non-sound of a glove lying in the snow. Odile admits that in art school, when she made things like a penis-shaped lamp, her work felt useless. After dropping out, she graduates to defacing posters with x-rated graffiti. 

Although clearly interested in sex, Odile resists intimacy with Jack. The majority of their relationship is spent skirting romance, which makes for a rather charming friendship where creativity attempts to mask sexual tension. When they consummate their relationship, it’s the best four days of Jack’s life, but it’s the beginning of the end for Odile. Once Odile packs her bags, all Jack is left with is a sketchbook he bought at her garage sale and a dirty magazine they made with self-portraits. Its title, scrawled by Odile, is ALPHONSE F. IS IN LOVE. Alphonse F. is their shared alter ego (like the non-sound of a glove in the snow, it is a source of potential irritation), but it’s hard not to feel touched by her admission of love, however quirky and fleeting.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

From Conceptualism to Feminism

“When Lippard returned to America, she had a sense of how art and politics could dovetail.”

Lucy R. Lippard may claim that being a library page at the MoMA is the only real job she’s ever had, but as a freelance writer, art critic, and curator, she has worked undeniably hard. It’s evident from her list of accomplishments, and in her comment that editing other people’s texts resembles being on vacation compared to writing herself. For anyone who thinks curators sit back and let other people do the heavy lifting, get this: for her so-called Numbers exhibitions—the subject of a new book—she did favours like source out and shoot 400 photographs of purposefully mundane Seattle horizons for artist Robert Smithson who couldn’t be there to do it himself. Curiously, each Numbers show was named for the host city’s population and Canada was lucky to have one. First came 557,087 (Seattle), then 955,000 (Vancouver), then an overlooked 2,972,453 (Buenos Aires), followed by a touring c. 7,500 (Valencia, California). The fact that the third show was so overlooked (Pip Day highlights the absence of press coverage and the shortage of archival material) demonstrates the importance of publishing books on the history of exhibitions.

From Conceptualism to Feminism: Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows 1969-74 (Afterall Books, 2012) is the third title in the Exhibition Histories series published in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna; the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; and Van Abbemuseum. It looks not so much at her shift in focus from conceptualism to feminism as the blending of the two: her final Numbers show was still heavy on idea-based art but it included only women artists, some of whom made work with a feminist bent and others who didn’t.

Lippard’s activist impulse was rooted in time she spent in Argentina in 1968 before the Buenos Aires show to jury an art award. It’s hard to imagine being exposed to the type of art being produced there without being affected. For example, Tito Fernández confiscated gallery visitors’ belongings and banned conversation inside the venue to comment on the police state. Characterizing the ‘dematerialization’ of art was Graciela Carnevale’s Acción del encierro (Confinement Action), for which she invited people to a gallery and without forewarning them, locked them inside until someone on the street broke a window an hour later and they escaped. The artists worked in solidarity, at one point burning their works collectively to protest police censorship of a single artist’s (Roberto Plate’s) work and reading a manifesto-like statement at a conference after cutting the electricity. When Lippard returned to America, she had a sense of how art and politics could dovetail.

I almost didn’t review this book because Conceptual Art really isn’t my bag (so many ropes, so many mirrors!). Much of Conceptual Art is text-based (Nancy Wilson Kitchel said it best: “My work would be different if you couldn’t read”) and I find myself agreeing to a point with Peter Plagens’ scathing Artforum review of Conceptual Art’s writing quality. Ultimately, though, I was won over by coverage of the many thought-provoking pieces, like John Latham’s Still and Chew (1966/67). A part-time art instructor at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, Latham was frustrated by the scholarly high-fiving of critic Clement Greenberg, so he checked out the school library copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture and proceeded to make a unique protest. He invited students, critics, and artists to chew a page from the book and spit it out in a flask. It was chemically treated, and when Latham received an urgent overdue book notice, he had the audacity to present the then liquid solution to the librarian, poker-faced. The next day he was fired.

From Conceptualism to Feminism: Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows 1969-74 includes a main essay by Cornelia Butler, interviews with Lippard and several exhibiting artists, and reproductions of selected index cards that were used in place of traditional catalogues for the exhibitions.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Taking AIM! The Business of Being an Artist Today

“This social cherry-picking is a valid strategy…”

Two years after I moved, people still ask whether I miss New York. I always respond by contrasting life in the Bronx with tourism in Manhattan and the hipster art scene in Brooklyn. My sole regret about leaving the Bronx is that I never had a chance to participate in the Artists in the Marketplace program run by the Bronx Museum of the Arts. I was delighted, then, to discover Taking AIM! The Business of Being an Artist Today (Fordham University Press, 2011, Ed. Marysol Nieves), a book marking its 30-year history of promoting professional development through guest speakers, peer-to-peer studio visits, etc. As I started reading, I wondered if I made a mistake by leaving (prompted by the realization that I shared a glass of wine with one of the two artists interviewed in the introduction after blogging about a book she wrote, and also for my blog, I interviewed one of the three artists from the first chapter). As I settle into my new life in a city with an approximate population of 53,000, it was good to read artist Whitfield Lovell say, “The most significant moments in my career happened when I left New York” (p. 28) and to read Steven Rand from apexart express the need to send New York-centric individuals to remote regions of the world for a broader perspective.

Though partly celebratory, Taking AIM! should in no way be perceived as navel-gazing. Its advice to artists has universal application. Like other professional development books for artists, it emphasizes (repeatedly) that being an artist is hard work. As is typical of these guides, it deconstructs the art world—which collector Dennis Scholl rightly calls a subculture—through multiple perspectives. The content is organized by roles, such as art critic, which is useful if an artist wishes to bolster one section within a CV or foster a particular relationship. This social cherry-picking is a valid strategy, as seen in the advice of, for example, collector Ella Fontana Cisneros to develop a relationship with curators before gallerists, or in the chapter on art fairs, which stresses that gallery representation precedes art fair participation.

As a librarian who conducts collection development in the arts, I always ask whether there is a need for the latest artist guide. The answer is in gallery director Paula Ha’s comment: “Much has changed in the art world, but in some ways, much has not changed at all” (p. 60). In other words, advice on, say, applying for grants and residencies already exists in written form, but there’s always something new to add. At this moment in time, newness is summed up by a cartoon in the introduction of a present day Leonardo da Vinci looking at his laptop and being perplexed that Michelangelo wants to be his friend. The final chapter of the book is entirely devoted to social media, something that was only mentioned in passing in artist guides a few years ago. Curiously, in this chapter, professionals’ comments from separate interviews are cobbled together in the imagined transcript of a single discussion, but it works well, as does the book overall.

Another fantastic resource, also at the end of the book, is the timeline of global news and art events (with regular and bold type differentiating the two). Interdisciplinary educators will appreciate that it highlights art’s role as a social barometer. It reveals, for example, that Keith Haring’s Crack is Wack mural in New York coincided with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and that Nelson Mandela was freed from jail the same year that African artists began exhibiting at the Venice Biennale. It would be nice to see more coverage of Canadian content besides the development of NAFTA* and CAFKA**, especially since content relevant to Canada is included (for example, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage is included, but the surge of weddings of gay American couples in Canada is not). This presumably unintentional editing out of Canadian content is the very reason I submitted work to two exhibitions about reproductive rights this year in the US: to emphasize parallel politics. In the same way that I don’t think Canadians as a whole imagine life in the different boroughs of NYC to differ substantially, I don’t think Americans as a whole realize how deeply connected Canadians feel to their politics. Let me assure you, though, the meme ‘binders full of women’ was discussed all the way up in North Bay at the reference desk this week.

*Not that I don't appreciate the North American Free Trade Agreement. It is, after all, the reason I was able to work in the US.
**Contemporary Art Forum, Kitchener + Area

Friday, September 28, 2012

Féminismes Électriques

“Sometimes a rose is a rose is a Rrose.”

Although I recently bought my first car, I wasn’t about to drive seven hours to Montreal by myself. To get to a book launch and panel discussion at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse last Friday night, I had to choose between taking a bus at 2 am or taking two six-hour train rides that connected at Toronto’s Union station. That’s when it hit me that I had really moved to northern Ontario. I opted for the train since it meant breaking up the trip with a night of sleep. It also meant that I got to bid farewell to the Northlander in its penultimate week of operation.

I’ve been spoiled traveling with my husband, not just because he loves driving, but because he is bilingual. As I looked unsuccessfully for a map in a Gare Centrale store, I fretted about what I would say if the clerk didn’t speak English. Simple answer: improvise. (“Je desire de chercher pour les directions dans la grande papier [I want to look for directions on large paper]”). The French translation for ‘map’ came to mind an inconvenient five hours later, which was doubly frustrating since I’d had a teleconference with map librarians earlier in the week in which French terminology was discussed.

I didn’t fare much better at La Centrale, where I could only catch a string of four French words at a time, and only two of the six panelists spoke in English. Here’s the punchline of my visit: the following evening, I was having dinner at the home of a former La Centrale board member when she pointed out that the book is being launched at Art Metropole. In, ahem, Toronto. Alas, I’m glad I attended the standing-room-only event to show my support. And perhaps this post will bring people to the Art Metropole launch, which happens tonight. Therein lies the power of self-publishing in the Internet age. As Chris Kraus argues in said book, Féminismes Électriques (2012), blogs are the new zines.

At the launch, editor Leila Pourtavaf spoke about the desire to give feminism “renewed life” through the book’s essays, interviews, and artist project (the latter by G. B. Jones). In short, this means enhanced inclusivity, encompassing trans and queer artists as well as artists with diverse ethnic backgrounds. Trish Salah provides a compelling account of the risks inherent in pluralistic feminism, such as treating male artists as special or as non-men of sorts. Interestingly, La Centrale, Canada’s first gallery for women, recently programmed its first show for a man, the late Will Munro. This shift is the outcome of the gallery spending six years reworking its mandate through consultation with members and colleagues. The publication is equally thoughtful.

Why would six years of contemplation be necessary? Consider that, according to Bernadette Houde, ‘lesbian’ remains a radical term. Helena Reckitt suggests that gender is equally (and relatedly) radical, provoking genderqueer art that experiments with gender rather than accepting existing anatomically-derived definitions. If feminism in its initial iteration focused on the needs of traditional women, how can its contemporary counterpart advocate for those labeled as Other?  

Féminismes Électriques is a fitting title, because its content reminds us how electrifying feminism is: it is feisty, inspiring, sometimes serious and other times fun. Often, feminist art evokes the familiar, such as Women with Kitchen Appliances, a collective that blends images with audio work created using kitchen appliances. ‘Familiar’ doesn’t mean banal, though, as proven by a video by Palestinian artist Jumana Manna featuring her adult self breastfeeding from her mother. Sometimes feminist art takes the familiar and reworks it to emphasize clichés, like Lesbians on Ecstasy, which does ‘performative sampling’ of lesbian folk music from the Second Wave, to resist the association between women and nature and the disregard for female musicians’ technical skill. Arguably opposite to playing with the familiar is indulging the imagination as Stéphanie Chabot and Dominique Pétrin do, with role-playing involving vampires and cannibals. In an interview with Manon Tounigny, Pétrin emphasized how universal art is but also how open to interpretation it is: in performances involving monsters, she found that children have a literal interpretation, teens are impressed, intellectuals interpret it as subversive, gays think it’s queer, and older people find it exciting. Sometimes a rose is a rose is a Rrose.*

The book concludes with a chapter by Aneessa Hashmi, who writes, “The circulation of knowledge cancels out hierarchy” (p. 191): a fantastic mantra for feminists and librarians alike.  

On the occasion of my 100th post, I would like to thank everyone who has read, commented on, or encouraged my writing.

*Apologies for the inside art joke, but I couldn’t resist.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rethinking Professionalism

“Charlotte Schreiber…couldn’t attend [Royal Canadian Academy of Arts] meetings because it would have meant being alone with 39 men.”

Women. Art. Professionalism. Isolated concepts or a natural combination? I’ve been pondering this question for the past three weeks, ever since I started embroidering in the campus parking lot half an hour before starting work to take advantage of the natural light that has waned by the time I extract myself at the end of the day.

The convergence of women, art, and professionalism is also the subject of the book, Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012). To be upfront about bias, I should add that I am a former Queen’s employee and that my former place of work, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, is mentioned on the opening page of the preface for its contribution to feminist art history.

An outgrowth of the inaugural Canadian Women Artists History Initiative conference, this multi-authored, hefty tome is a very useful addition to academic library collections supporting gender studies or Canadian art history.

While reading Kristina Huneault’s introductory chapter about the ill-fitting concept of professionalism for women artists, my mind kept flitting back to Eunice Lipton’s Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire (1992, Charles Scribner’s Sons). Spurred on by Linda Nochlin, who famously asked why there have been no great women artists, Lipton traveled to Paris to restore dignity to Victorine Meurent, Edouard Manet’s model. Although Meurent was an exhibiting artist and a member of an esteemed professional art society who declared herself an artist twice in the French equivalent of the census, her contemporaries and later art historians dismissed her as an amateur and a prostitute (arguably equally offensive terms). Huneault’s parallel examples from Canada are lower profile but no less gripping. She identifies discrepancies between a census count of female artists compared to the membership in the Ontario Society of artists. And then there’s the case of Charlotte Schreiber, the only female artist accepted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in its first fifty years, who couldn’t attend meetings because it would have meant being alone with thirty-nine men.

If you read this book, the historical references may make you angry, whether it’s the virile description of the Group of Seven or the flipside, emphasis on the feminine stature and fashion of Canada’s first female architect. (Curiously, the impulse to emphasize the gender of artists continues today, as one of the female artists’ techniques in the book is described as loving). At the very least, you’ll probably find yourself annoyed by comments like Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson calling the arts appreciation show hosted by his former lover Anne Savage “quite a little job” (p. 121).Yet, there’s inspiration to be found in women’s comments; consider Margaret Watkins’ retort about a critic who passionately disliked her photo of dirty dishes: “Evidently the poor duffer knows nothing of Modern art” (p. 170).

Lest you get the impression that art is unique in its gender bias, Jennifer Salahub reminds us that it affects other disciplines too. As a librarian, I found her comment disheartening: “…when I first began to research Canadian needlework in the 1980s, the Library of Congress Catalogue directed me not to needlework, sewing, or even embroidery but to the letter ‘w’—women’s work.” (p. 138). I tend to be angry rather than annoyed when I read such things, but this book helped me slow down and resist a knee-jerk response. Reading the rest of Salahub’s chapter about intriguing artist, Hannah Maynard, I learned that the Victorian artist included textiles in her photos to maintain a lady-like image while pursuing an unconventional career. From a contemporary perspective (read: privileged life—the kind where I am allowed to drive and work and vote), it’s so easy to overlook awesomely experimental work and harp on what’s traditional, like the artist marketing herself as Mrs. Richard Maynard.

The most poignant content for me was Sherry Farrell Racette’s roll call of names of Akwesane artists who practiced basketweaving. Seeing a photo by Mary Kawennatakie Adams, the first artist on the list—of a basket adorned with teeny decorative baskets the size of a thumbnail—had a tip-of-the iceberg effect and served as a strong argument that female Aboriginal artists have been grossly overlooked by the existing model of art history. Add to that other groups like nuns that have historically been heavily engaged in craft and the entire concept of professionalism starts to fall apart.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

“...Weiwei is so shocking because he points out society’s dark side. He does this pointing, very often, with his middle finger.

Last night at Doc North in North Bay, I watched Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), a documentary about the notorious Chinese artist. Since Weiwei was detained last spring and interrogated daily without communication about his well-being to his family or the international community for 81 days—presumably for his activism but officially for tax fraud—screening the film had a pronounced resonance with this week’s jailing of three women in Russia. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, who are suspected members of the anonymous feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, which addresses issues ranging from the environment to politics, were charged with hooliganism. To quote Weiwei (who is described even by one of his friends as a hooligan) commenting on his own struggle, “If there is no free speech every single life has been in vain.” 
The film directed by American Alison Klayman opens with shots of the cats milling about Weiwei’s Beijing studio. Taking matters into its own paws, one of those cats figured out how to leap into the air and press on the door handle to exit. Weiwei is like this exceptional cat. That he regards himself as more of a chess player than an artist reveals his exceptionalism.

Weiwei’s mother says she wishes her son were purely an artist, but notes that if no one speaks out, what will happen? Her comment is undoubtedly informed by memories of her family’s exile to a remote region of China because of her late husband’s modernist poetry. Growing up in the family he did, Weiwei knew exactly what he was getting into by taking on the mantra, “Art is about sharing information.” One of his most engrossing projects has been the compilation of the names of 5,212 child victims in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, attributed in part to poorly constructed schools. This endeavour later took visual form in a installation of backpacks that spelled out “She lived happily for seven years” (trans.) and audio form in a recording of individual voices reading one name. As one of his volunteers says, his work “…doesn’t just have to do with art. It has to do with life.” 
Blogger and media figure Hung Huang says Weiwei is so shocking because he “points out society’s dark side.” He does this pointing, very often, with his middle finger (see movie poster). The night police broke down his door at 3 am and punched him in the head, causing a brain injury that required surgery, Weiwei shot back with a photo on Twitter, which has become his international mouthpiece after authorities shut down his blog. The price he has paid has been high (he was fined the equivalent of $2.4 million US for tax evasion), but the reward is also high: he was named the most powerful artist by Art Review Magazine last year. Watching him walk through his installation at the Tate Modern with his young son on 100 million ceramic seeds hand-painted by assistants who revere him, one senses his vision and his resolve. “Everybody just live your life,” he told reporters upon his release from those mysterious 81 days. And this is his.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey

“…far from a tell-all memoir.”

The other night, I was in the biography section of The Strand in New York when I overheard a customer ask an employee how she had located a particular book. The employee explained that the bookstore’s system allows for multiple fields to be searched simultaneously and she had used publisher and author. The customer thanked her and said, “You’re so sweet.” If only all reference interviews were this pleasant! Interestingly, the new Denise Green biography I picked up for half price eludes bibliographic organization. In the introduction to Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey (2012, University of Minnesota Press), Ingrid Periz asks, “Where would it fit on a library shelf?” (p. 11).  She elaborates on how it blurs genres: it’s part autobiography (Green has written or co-written only a third of the content) and part multi-authored biography, mixed with advice and art criticism, in a tone that vacillates between scholarly and chatty.

Contributor Peter Timmins writes, “…words remain the subservient partner to images” (p. 169) in Green’s practice but they are what interest me most, as much as her simplified renditions of everyday objects and fluid use of line are engaging. She’s a good writer—a case in point is the description, “the uncontrollable spread of colour which was India itself.” It’s no wonder the New York-based artist became editor of the feminist journal, Heresies and the equally radical Semiotext(e). What fascinates me is that she began writing about art with the explicit goal of becoming respected as an intellectual, to fight the gender bias facing artists. Her secondary purpose was to weigh in on how paintings were critiqued during the postmodern era governed by Clement Greenberg’s writing; she fought for critics to consider the subjective experience rather than interpreting works in a vacuum.

It’s ironic, then, that the book doesn’t delve too deeply into Green’s personal life. Not surprisingly, the chapters written by her colleagues—primarily art critics, curators and gallerists sprinkled around the globe—focus on her artistic contributions over the past forty years. The chapters she has written, however, are far from a tell-all memoir. In part, this discretion may be the result of thematically arranged chapters like ‘the Paris years,’ meaning there is some jumping around (though not to the extent of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One). For example, she mentions that her alcoholic father had a car accident and in another passage, she concedes that one of her painting series stems from latent grief for him, but the reader never learns whether said accident was fatal. Nor does she disclose any details about the courtship leading to her second marriage. The majority of self-revelation is concentrated on her childhood in Australia and the family dynamics that prompted her to leave the country as a teenager. Periz is accurate in observing, “…Green the woman stays somewhat hidden” (p. 15). In a sense, this strategy allows the reader to focus—intermittently at least—on Green’s art independent on her gender, which is refreshing.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Better living through chemistry? Lise Melhorn-Boe's artist's books make you think twice

... there’s  a mindset of, 'I don’t want to know this.'”

 Now that her show, Endangered, is over in North Bay (where, incidentally, I’m moving next month), Kingston artist Lise Melhorn-Boe was free to chat about her work. 

HS-Your show at the W. K. P. Kennedy Gallery focuses on intense subject matter, like the recent increase in deformed penises in babies attributed to chemical exposure and the positive correlation between homelessness and multiple chemical sensitivities. I swear my eyes started stinging right after reading Toxic Face Book, which describes the toxins found in common cosmetics. What kinds of reactions have you received in relation to this body of work?

LMB- I have had a lot of positive feedback. Even people who thought they knew a great deal about our environment told me they had learned something. However, many people do think it’s depressing. I thought I was presenting the material in a lighthearted enough way that it would take the edge off the negativity. People are very interested but they’re not gaga over it like they have been for some of my other work, especially my work about women’s lives where they could really relate and wanted to share their own stories with me. With this body of work, there’s  a mindset of, “I don’t want to know this.” Some of the information is very scary. It’s maybe easier just not to know, so you don’t have to worry about it and you don’t have to make choices, but art (or some art) is about making people think and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

HS- In your artist books, it often feels like you could keep turning the pages forever to read more and more dire statistics about the environment. Gypsy Moth was such a lovely read because the woman who almost died after being dosed with pesticide designed to kill gypsy moth caterpillars gets better at the end. How do you strike a balance between presenting dark subject matter and giving people hope that they can change their ways and make a difference?

LMB- As I said, I was coming at it [the subject matter] from a lighthearted angle. (Laughs). It’s an interesting question and hope is important. Because I was so overwhelmed by negative information, I wasn’t feeling hopeful myself so it was hard to put that in the work. To be honest, sometimes I am glad I am getting old. I’d be really depressed and angry if I were in my twenties, knowing what is ahead of us. At this point in my life, I’m more resigned and cynical.

HS-In terms of making a difference, you don’t just walk the walk. Not only do you make art about garbage, but you refuse to use plastic bags to line your own garbage can, you pick up litter if it can be recycled, and I remember at White Water Gallery, you would save up styrofoam that couldn’t be recycled locally so you could recycle it when you went “down south” as the people of North Bay say. Have you always been so environmentally conscious?

LMB- I made my first environmental project for a Man and Society class in high school when I was seventeen, I think. (What a sexist name! They later changed it to Society, Challenge and Change). It was a collaged book on pollution. So yes, I’ve always been concerned about the environment and involved in environmental groups. This is a timely question because it struck me today that I’ve been riding a bicycle for 50 years.

HS- Today’s protests in Ottawa by scientists angry about the federal government’s cuts to funding for environmental protection underscore the precarious state of the environment. If you could have the attention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, what would you say to him?

LMB- There’s a term, “precautionary principle,” which posits that it’s better to be safe than sorry. At the moment, anyone can come up with a product and market it and later say, “Oops, that was dangerous.” As a nation, we should think strongly about what materials we’re introducing into our lives rather than trying to mop up disasters in retrospect... and I’d tell him to forget about the tar sands and to come up with a different plan.

HS- Text is very prominent in your work. Which tends to come first: text or image?

LMB- In the past I would have said the text, definitely. When I was working with women’s stories, the story birthed the form of the piece. I interviewed women and used questionnaires, but for this body of work, the responses I got from people were very negative and they weren’t good stories. People were overwhelmed by their health issues and I was not inspired visually by their stories. A story has to have a visual component to transform it into a visual piece. I ended up doing more research in the library than usual, so a lot of the text is factual as opposed to narrative. Maybe that’s why Gypsy Moth stands out. It has a beginning, middle and end, and she [the subject] told it well. Pain started with the text and Happy Memories—those are all stories from actual people.

Garbage [in which she collected garbage for seven weeks—save for organic waste—and displayed one week’s worth in each of the seven copies in the edition, each stored in a tiny, adorable garbage can] started with the heavy duty plastic mesh bags which came from the only organic produce that was available to me in North Bay. I thought it was so incongruous. Since the store refused to take them back, I decided I had to do something with them. 

With this whole body of work, I was thinking of the environment as a topic, so I was more aware than usual about my materials. I recycled materials and I recycled ideas. Toxic Face Book uses a leftover cast of a face from a feminist piece called Colour Me Dutiful that was too thin to use at the time. What's For Dinner? uses a similar format to two earlier books—I have often made work about food. And I've used clothing a lot too, in the past, so the baby clothes in Endangered Species and the paper doll clothes in Toxic Kids fit right into my oeuvre. Endangered Species uses PVC connectors I found while trying to find a sturdy way to construct a large tunnel book in the shape of an ice hut for Ice Follies, an art installation festival in North Bay where artists use ice huts on the lake for installations. I was initially planning a piece about the projection that Lake Nipissing [in North Bay] wouldn’t have ice in twenty years, which would be about sixteen years from now. Then the idea morphed because PVC is a really toxic material to create and it seemed perfect to talk about the effect of toxins on babies.

HS-You have an inventive approach to materials, like using a transparent overlay of fabric to represent cheese on a pizza in the book, What’s for Dinner? Do you have fun coming up with these visuals?

LMB- Oh, I have a lot of fun! For me, because it was so much fun making this work that it overshadowed the negative content, I was taken aback when people focused on the negative content over the visual presentation.

HS- You’ve made pop-up books for a long time before your work took an environmental turn. Do you find this format has a different resonance with this subject matter?

LMB- I’ve always used it for its playful character so it was deliberate to pair some of these painful topics with this format to affect the tone. Pop-ups are fun; I teach them to kids in classrooms. I was trying to add an element of playfulness [with pop-ups in this body of work].

HS- What’s it like to make explicitly personal work like Body Map, where you show the interplay between health problems and the environment, with text overlaying  a fairly sizeable photograph of your naked body?

LMB- Just recently, a woman I know who has had breast cancer told me I was very brave and I was surprised because I’d never really thought of it that way. I came up with the idea for Body Map when I did a residency at Queen’s University. I thought about approaching a student photographer but I chose to ask my husband to take the photos even though he’s not a photographer. I’ve been to nudist colonies but I wasn’t comfortable stripping in front of just anyone. Maybe there’s something different about being photographed than walking on the beach. I think I might have been hesitant to do something like that before I had cancer but having had a mastectomy, I don’t feel quite as sexual as I once did, so it’s less revealing personally. Besides, once the image is out there, I’m separated from it.

No Safe Levels also shows my naked body but I took artistic license with it. It’s a pop-up and technically, I needed the right breast to pop up because it was on the fold. That’s actually the one that was cut off, but I just switched them. It’s much more abstract [than Body Map] and not everyone realizes it’s my body.

HS- Can you comment on one of the final images in Breast Cancer Journal  in which a figure floats through the sky, separated from but seemingly drawn to, the earth?

LMB- It was the result of a meditation, something that came to me in a vision. I think it’s me but why I’m floating out there I can’t remember. (Turns the page). This one I had a vision of in a winter solstice ceremony. I saw my breasts on fire. (Turns the page). And this is me holding up my child self and coming back up to the light. (Turns the page). I’m holding myself and mothering myself. It [making this journal] was all very positive. I debated about using text in this piece but I decided I liked the mystery. It wasn’t actually intended to be an art piece. A few people I showed the images to found them powerful, so I thought, “Why not?” In a way, this is more revealing [than works like Body Map]: this is my naked psyche or naked soul rather than my naked body. 

HS- Your earlier work was very feminist. Is the relationship between our health and the environment a feminist issue in your opinion?

LMB- It pertains to everyone but because women have more body fat than men and toxins reside in body fat, in that sense, these toxins affect women more, so that makes it a feminist issue. Also, women carry the next generation and they say the best way to detox is to breastfeed, but that means passing the toxins on to your baby. It was something I worried about when I breastfed. (Looks at her son who coincidentally appeared in the stairwell at this moment). For those reasons, it’s a really important issue for women.

HS- Lastly, are there other environmental artists you admire?

LMB- This is going back a long time, but I was always very moved by Ana Mendieta’s work. The way she put her body in the environment—there was such a strong connection between her and the earth. I suppose that’s essentialist, stressing the connection between women and the earth, and it annoys some people, but if I had to choose a camp, that’s the one I’d fall into.

For images, see Transformer Press

This interview took place on July 11, 2012 at Lise’s home.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The legacy of Judy Chicago

“…the Feminist Art Program, an experiment that tested the limits of education.”

On my final bus ride between Toronto and Kingston, I finished reading Entering the Picture: Judy Chicago, The Fresno Feminist Art Program and the Collective Visions of Women Artists (Routledge, 2012). Just as I read about artist Sylvia Savala’s father dictating her profession (legal secretary), just as I was thinking, “We’ve come a long way, baby,” a young man behind me barked at his girlfriend to shut up. I rotated my torso with exaggeration and glared icily. When he asked, “Can’t you just leave me alone and send me a [expletive] text?” I considered inviting her to sit beside me. I decided against it, not only because it could make things worse for her later, but because I too was vulnerable: as a woman travelling alone at night, arriving to a closed bus station with no one to meet me, I wasn’t about to take him on*. With regret, I state the obvious: there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Judy Chicago is a woman who knows how to get a lot of work done. Through the California Institute of the Arts, she facilitated Womanhouse, the first feminist installation by 26 female students, which graced the cover of TIME Magazine. She also spearheaded The Dinner Party, the first massive installation reflecting the vision of a single woman, which ended up debated in Congress. But before all that, at an unsuspecting state university campus in rural Fresno, California in 1970, she launched the Feminist Art Program, an experiment that tested the limits of education.

Chicago’s teaching method was the outgrowth of experiments she’d made along the way while teaching art part-time beforehand, like silencing all the men in the classroom so the women could be heard. The fifteen young women under her tutelage in the Feminist Art Program wore work boots and learned to renovate a studio as well as any man. The intuitive curriculum she fashioned promoted self-analysis using Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Through consciousness-raising sessions, the women made leaps and bounds in their artistic development.

If this all sounds too good to be true, a little too much like Mona Lisa Smile—the film in which Julia Roberts plays an unconventional art history teacher who introduces her students to modern art and (in the process) feminism—then I’m not delving deep enough.The collective opinion of Chicago’s students was that the being in the program was incredible, but it was also risky. They got themselves into dangerous situations like interviewing rape victims in seedy neighbourhoods in the middle of the night for an audio work. Their emotional states were also at risk. Former students recall Chicago prying into their personal lives,but also pushing them away by insisting, “I’m not your mother!” and throwing a bottle of wine at the wall in one of their many group dinners. They were intimidated by her: one student admitted to feeling pressured to make so-called vulvic art, a staple of Chicago’s oeuvre. Others embraced this trendy subject matter with aplomb; witness the CUNT cheerleaders. Having Chicago as a matriarch may have been a tumultuous experience, but her alumnae also recall her devotion to teaching and her generosity, like slipping a twenty dollar bill to a needy student and never expecting it back.

One thing is certain: Judy Chicago has made a major impact on women artists. One says she’ll never forget the time she heard her give a presentation, and another admits she treated her advice as if it had come from God. There are accounts from many women in this book, which is a collection of conference presentations for a symposium celebrating the 40thanniversary of the establishment of the program. Some of them knew Chicago very well, others interacted with her peripherally while engaged in parallel projects, and some were part of the next generation when Chicago moved the program to the California Institute of the Arts. We even hear from Chicago herself, who shares great anecdotes, like the San Francisco Museum of Art making so much money in the bookstore when The Dinner Party debuted that they bought a computerized cash registered and named it after her.

Reflective of conferences in general, some of the writing is superb, but some of the entries meander and trail off. All in all, though, it’s a good read.

*The following month, a similar situation arose and I did intervene. This time, the woman ignored me and the man told me to go (expletive) myself. It seems to be a losing battle.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Damsels in Distress

“He’s lying. I find that very attractive.” -- Violet Wistler

Sitting in the Westdale Theatre for Damsels in Distress (2011), as part of the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s I Heart Film series, I felt a twinge of irony because I wanted to be rescued. From this movie. Specifically from Violet Wistler (nee Emily Tweeter). Gerta Gerwig plays the self-righteous main character, Violet, whose outreach mission at Seven Oaks University on the east coast involves distributing soap to fraternities and donuts to suicidal students. Her vocabulary harks back to the days of Dawson’s Creek, when a professor friend of mind noticed particular terms seeping into students’ papers in unison, reflecting the improbable diction of Dawson, Joey, Pacey, and Jenn. The only way Violet’s doe-eyed roommate, Heather (Carrie MacLemore), would use the term ‘precocious’ is from hanging around her. Her other roommate, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), is a childhood friend who backs her up consistently, always on the lookout for ‘playboy operators’ and non-suicidal students scamming free baked goods. While applying mascara, she muses, “If humility comes from within and you never had any, where are you supposed to find it? I gave up looking long ago.” Their new rommmate, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student, enters their social circle and calls the group’s humility into question, provoking Violet to actually thank Lily for her chastising. She probably is grateful instead of embarrassed, because she would regard the opportunity for increased self-awareness as a gift.

The movie, directed by Wilt Stillman, starts out seeming like it might reverse the ‘damsels in distress’ stereotype. The young women attend a party with the intention of helping frat boys discover their potential under the tutelage of Violet. “There’s enough material here for a lifetime of work,” she remarks as one dude launches himself over a railing. Soon, though, the young women become swept away by young men who cause them to say such ridiculous things as, “He’s lying. I find that very attractive.” Heather dates a colour blind student who becomes panicked by rainbows, Lily falls for a friend whose supposed religion supposedly requires him to express his love physically “from the wrong side” and Violet considers—gasp—going to the library stacks on a date. The male-female dynamic isn’t really critiqued, because the only element that bears any resemblance to modern romance is the ethics of boyfriend stealing, from outright to seemingly unintentional. This female-female issue is not plumbed, as the secondary characters disappear as soon as the newer romance develops.  Strangely, aside from Violet, all the characters feel like secondary characters and I found myself not really caring about the fate of their relationships, be they friendships or romances.

It’s also difficult to care about an overbearing character like Violet. At the same time, it’s hard not to respect Violet for rescuing herself from her funk when she is spurned by her beau, a frat boy she chose because he is unrefined.  She walks in the rain alone, she sits in a diner alone, she checks into a motel alone (Motel 4 instead of Motel 6 because it’s cheaper and thrift is a virtue), and she dances alone before she dances with a new partner. An odd feminist, she implies that you can really only depend on yourself, even if your self is a fabrication, complete with an alias.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

 “This is an outright war on breast cancer and your dollars are the ammunition.”

As an artist, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the association between females and the colour pink, but these thoughts have never strayed into the rich (literally) connection in breast cancer marketing. Sure, I’d noticed some bizarre products like a pink plastic stapler resembling a high-heeled shoe, but the extent of this marketing extravaganza and its connotations were lost on me. Enter Samantha King, associate professor of gender studies and kinesiology at Queen’s University, where she presented in today’s MiniU conference.

In the introduction to her book, Pink Ribbons, Inc. (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), King ponders what brought about the change in representations of breast cancer on two New York Times Magazine covers. A 1993 cover with artist Matuschka revealing her mastectomy scar contains the caption—incidentally, known in the publishing world as a ‘slug’—“You Can’t Look Away Anymore. The Anguished Politics of Breast Cancer.” A 1996 cover, meanwhile, features supermodel Linda Evangelista covering her breasts with her arm and the caption, “This year’s hot charity.” Evangelista’s “hypernormal femininity” (p. x) and chic portrayal of the disease were a sign of things to come, but they weren’t the first in a series of marketing oddities.

Rewind to the early 1990s, when the pink ribbon originated. It wasn’t always a pink ribbon. It was peach and it was the brainchild of Charlette Hayley, who regarded it less as a brainchild and more as a sincere gesture to bring attention to federal funding shortages for breast cancer prevention in the US. When she declined an offer from Self magazine and Estée Lauder to partner with them in a magazine issue devoted to breast cancer awareness, they appropriated it anyway. Based on a lawyer’s advice, they changed the colour. “Colours are really important,” King stresses, and focus groups revealed that pink denotes qualities like lack of threat; certainly, it would be in corporations’ best interests to avoid acknowledging the threat posed by breast cancer. King thought at the time that “the pink ribbon would soon lose its lustre” but it seems to have perpetuated this “insidiously gendered…cause-related marketing” (p. xxiv). Pink is so closely linked with femininity (at least in the last 65 or so years) that we are stopped in our tracks by breast cancer awareness campaigns with slogans like, “Real men wear pink.” This particular slogan was used for a partnership between the NFL and the Komen Foundation, which is notorious for withdrawing and reinstating funds for Planned Parenthood (which, incidentally, plays an important role in breast cancer screening). Men are generally excluded from this pink marketing, which is problematic since they too are at risk of getting breast cancer. King highlights the bizarreness of women receiving gifts like pink bears when they are diagnosed, in contrast to men, who would not receive, say, Matchbox cars when diagnosed with prostate cancer. Even products that are associated with men can have a feminine version thanks to corporations cashing in on the breast cancer awareness trend, most notably a handgun with an interchangeable pink grip. If you still don't think pink products are ubiquitous, consider that the pink ribbon is featured on one of only two coloured Canadian coins in history (a quarter, which was only distributed at a drugstore chain), or that one of only two American stamps to be sold for higher than the letter rate was part of a breast cancer awareness campaign. Also consider that the other Canadian coin commemorated war veterans and the other US stamp commemorated 9/11. This is an outright war on breast cancer and your dollars are the ammunition.

These marketing gimmicks wouldn’t be so perturbing if their wording weren’t frequently misleading (noting, for example, that an unspecified portion of proceeds goes to an unspecified charity); or if the same companies didn’t put a cap on the money they donate to said charity; or if the dollar amount donated per person weren’t so bleak. King gives the example of a yogurt campaign that would require consumers to consume three large containers of yogurt a day for four months to generate $36 in donations. It hardly seems worthwhile, but who in the general population bothers to do the math? 

It’s not just the products we buy that are pink. Pink branding has spread to our environment, with corporations competing over who will light up the next major monument, be it a pyramid or the Eiffel Tower. Last year, I was part of an art show called PINK that involved local businesses in a small town outside Chicago creating pink window displays simultaneously. It’s no wonder King has observed breast cancer patients counting down the days on an online forum until the end of breast cancer month (October) so they can escape the constant presence of pink and the commoditization of their experience.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the face of breast cancer tends to be “youthful, ultra-feminine, and radiant with health” as well as Caucasian. What, then, can we make of donut and fried chicken companies launching breast cancer campaigns or cosmetics companies doing the same while continuing to include known carcinogens in their products? They’ve been labeled ‘pink washers’ by a San Francisco-based activist group.

If you think that participating in a walk-a-thon or marathon is a better choice for helping in the fight against breast cancer, you’ll be disappointed to hear that many of them have declared bankruptcy for using trademarked phrasing by a major fundraising corporation. Or that in one of the most high profile fundraisers with well-meaning participants celebrating their own survival or honouring loved ones affected or killed by the disease, almost one-third of the money raised was used for administration and marketing costs as well as entertainment for the participants.

The film, Pink Ribbons, Inc. (2011, National Film Board of Canada) opens in the US on June 1st. For a clip, click here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nude PM portrait brings national media attention to library

“Here, the power dynamic is turned on its head.”

A week ago, it was only the locals who were talking about Margaret Sutherland’s nude portrait of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, which is how I heard about it. By the week-end, Googling ‘Harper painting Kingston library’ produced ten-plus pages where every single result was about the controversy. On my lunch break today, I headed over to 130 Johnson Street to see the arguably iconic portrait in person.

The children’s librarian pointed me to the doorway where two viewers lingered hesitantly before heading in to see Stephen Harper reclining on a chaise lounge, without a stitch of clothing. I overheard one visitor say, “You know what’s great about showing controversial work? It gets people in to see the show.” A quick head count of fifteen people on a sunny Tuesday at lunchtime suggests that this is indeed true.

In the same way that Charles Pachter’s paintings of the Queen on a moose elicited hostile reactions forty years ago, Sutherland’s portrait has provoked extreme feedback, ranging from hilarity to disgust. My husband and I debated when the last time was that a painting caused as much commotion in the Canadian media as Sutherland’s Emperor Haute Couture (2011). His suggestion was the National Gallery of Canada’s 1989 acquisition of Barnett Newmann’s Voice of Fire (1967). In contrast to that scandal, it’s exciting that the present discussion has stemmed from a female artist in a lower profile setting, while also highlighting the role of libraries beyond collections of books.

Satirical artistic representations of politicians have a long history with caricatures, so what is it about this painting that is so startling? Is it its realism and his sheer nudity? Harper’s sex organs may be visible, but it’s not a sexualized painting. It brings to mind a comment by performance artist Stuart Ringholt in relation to his recent tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia where guide and guests were required to be naked: “We are sexualized with our clothes on—with them off, we are not” (1).  Sutherland’s portrait is hardly titillating, with Harper’s patchy chest hair and slight paunch. The background composed of figures in neutral business suits creates a drab setting that runs counter to idealism. It’s telling that the portrait is covered in a different fashion than Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866), a painting where female genitalia is the focus. It was screened for a private peepshow, whereas Sutherland’s portrait is draped during children’s programming. Here, the power dynamic is turned on its head: after centuries of women being painted nude by men, Sutherland disrupts the gaze that has been in the male domain for so long. Harper meets the viewer’s gaze, but curiously, his expression seems apathetic and less forceful than the gaze of the dog resting by his feet.

Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s new communications officer, tweeted disdain for the portrait, noting that Harper is a cat person (2). Since this is common public knowledge, Sutherland’s choice of dog seems purposeful. While symbolism isn’t reigning supreme these days, the fact that the artist has acknowledged Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) as a source of inspiration gives the green light to consider symbols in historical works like Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia (1514). In these works, the dog symbolizes fidelity, which is fitting considering that Sutherland cites among her frustrations with Harper cuts to arts funding, census-taking procedures, and prison closures.

The Tim Hortons cup passed to Harper on a china plate by the sole female in the background is also reportedly symbolic (representing the common folk of Canada). It also reinforces the Canadian-ness of the painting: Tim Hortons is so integral to our national identity that its Olympic advertising is unforgettable but American locations feel the need to specify that it is a coffee and bake shop. As product placement, it also serves as a reminder of political branding and last year's public outcry that followed the discreet switch in federal government communications from ‘the Government of Canada’ to ‘the Harper Government’. All seriousness aside, I had to laugh when I looked down at the Tim Hortons drink I picked up spontaneously on my way back to work and realized the probable cause of my detour.

The Kingston Arts Council's Juried Art Salon, of which the painting is part, runs until May 30. If you are in the area, be sure to cast your vote for best in show.

Works referenced:[showUid]=125&no_cache=1


(1)  As cited by Mark Whittaker, “New Tour at Museum Reveals All,” The New York Times, May 1, 2012.

(2) Andrew MacDougall @PMO_MacDougall  On the Sutherland painting: we're not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person. [Twitter post]. May 18, 2012.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Art ? Craft

...what about the need for art to come to craft?” -- Isidora Spielmann

Before heading to The Mansion for a panel discussion entitled Art ? Craft yesterday, I happened to read an article on this very topic in the spring newsletter from MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, Winnipeg). In ‘No More Bins’, a reference to Laurie Anderson’s eschewing of unnecessary categorization, author and craft-based artist Heidi Eigenkind says her “deep seated aversion to binary structures” (1) surfaces when someone makes a comment like ‘some potholders are just potholders’. It’s interesting that some people can see the distinction between art and craft so simply while others—like last night’s panelists from the Organization of Kingston Women Artists, Diane Black, Margaret Hughes, and Isidora Spielmann—are struck by the complexity of their relationship.

Margaret Hughes observed that art and craft are starting to merge again, reminding us of their parallel status and professional integration in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I have to agree; as I wrote in a post about a textiles show at Project Space last fall, “craft and art have become rather comfortable bedfellows.” What does it mean, though, when someone can’t admit who they’re sleeping with? What does it say about me that the first time I crossed the border with my textiles sculptures, I referred to them as ‘craft’ rather than ‘art’ even though I have always thought of them as the latter? On a subconscious level, I must have assumed the customs official would be more willing to approve their admission to the US. And I’m sure I’m not the only fibre artist who has hesitated about responding to a call for submissions for a craft show because of how it will affect the perception of my art long-term. These examples suggest that the art/craft question is not an inconsequential one.

Isidora Spielmann noted that it’s common to talk about the need for craft to come to art, but what about the need for art to come to craft? Damien Hurst was cited as an example of a conceptual artist who is relatively divorced from the process of making. It brings to mind Mira Schor writing in Wet (Duke University Press, 1997) that all artists can’t seriously go “back to scraping sheet gut every time you need a sheet of tracing paper.” (2) Yet there’s something inspiring about Margaret Hughes having built not one but two kilns by hand and Diane Black being a modern day blacksmith. Schor has a good point when she says it wouldn’t be a terrible fate if painting, long the golden child of the art world, were to become ‘relegated’ to the realm of craft.

All three artists have approached a variety of media with fervour, aiming to perfect their technique and to infuse their work with meaning. They’ve switched between art and craft over time, and they feel comfortable in both worlds. What can we make of hybrid examples like Spielmann’s couture garments on which she has painted by hand, or of Hughes’ inclusion of her own pots in her still lives? The waters are muddy indeed, which poses a challenge for art librarians like myself in terms of cataloguing images, but it’s exciting to see this cross-over. Clearly, these are artists to whom the dismissive statement, ‘some potholders are just potholders’ does not apply.


(1) p. 5.
(2) p. 185.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Escapism in Paris

“Couldn’t it be Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt she fantasized about being instead of Monet?”

From the small selection of paperbacks at the Kingston train station, I purchased Secrets of Paris by Luanne Rice (2012, Bantam Books [1]) for my trip back to Toronto. As an information professional in the arts, I was sold by this description on the back cover in spite of it being a romance novel: painter-turned-photo stylist Lydie McBride leaves her native New York for a year in Paris while her husband, Michael designs an information centre for the Louvre. It seemed a better choice than tabloid magazines, plus I’d already read the Via Destinations magazine on my way to Kingston.

Instead of infusing Lydie and Michael’s relationship with romance, the city of love drives a wedge the size of the Eiffel Tower between them. Michael cavorts with Anne Dumas, an attractive historian who is obsessed to a fault with celebrated 17th Century writer, Madame de Sevigné. Lydie, meanwhile, finds solace in friendships with foreigners that develop too quickly to be convincing. Patrice d’Origny is a happily married and well-to-do housewife who hails from the Boston gallery world and proclaims Lydie her best friend almost immediately after meeting in a café. Her maid, Kelly Merida, is from the Philippines and wants nothing more than to immigrate to America. While Patrice is on vacation for a month, Lydie goes from being served by Kelly as a guest to being her sponsor to feeling physically sick when her immigration petition is denied. If only we all made soul mates so speedily.

The pace at which the McBride’s marriage unravels, in contrast, is believable. The novel begins almost a year into Lydie’s grief for her father’s murder-suicide of his lover and himself, which understandably placed a strain on her own romantic life. It’s sad to see the warning signs of infidelity that they don’t address, and there is a nagging feeling that Michael’s infidelity could end in comparable tragedy. In the love triangle that ensues between Lydie, Michael, and Anne, it is inevitable to side with Lydie and Michael not because the dynamics of their marriage are written about in great detail or with gripping dialogue but because chapters are written from their points of view (as well as Patrice’s and Kelly’s) but never from Anne’s. Also, the only glimpse the reader gets into Anne’s marriage is of Lydie and Michael bumping into Anne and her husband, Jean, at a bistro and Anne confiding in Michael that she is contemplating not joining Jean for a vacation in August because they aren’t getting along. Whatever pain Anne feels is unknown to the reader.

Eventually, Michael ‘pulls a 180’ and decides he loves Lydie. Paris is romantic enough that their reconciliatory consummation needn’t be at an old hotel outside the city where Impressionism was reportedly born, where Eugene Boudin and Edouard Monet painted. It does, however, bring a reference full circle: consumed by grief at the beginning of the book, Lydie sits at a café across the Seine from the Louvre and imagines herself as Monet. (Couldn’t it be Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt she fantasized about being instead of Monet? Alas…)

Reading about Michael trying to secure a particular Poussin painting for his architectural project and striving to pay homage to the Louvre’s history in the wake of the controversy over the contemporary courtyard pyramids seemed a fitting way to unwind after my first week of training at a gallery with a rich historical collection housed in a designated heritage building. Given my new position, you’d think it would be stressful for me to read about Anne Dumas high jacking a decaying 300-year-old costume from the Louvre’s collection to wear to a ball so she could upstage Lydie and bring Madame de Sevigné to life, or to read about her trying to convince Michael to hide with her in the museum’s storerooms and spend the night illicitly, but it was fantastical enough to function as escapism. All in all, this is decent reading for passing time on the train but that’s the best endorsement I can give.

(1) Originally printed in hardcover in 1991 by Viking Penguin.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Let’s talk about sex, baby

“…this panel of three female authors at the Art Gallery of Ontario…considered what it’s like to write about sex.”

As an analogue TV owner without cable, I’m behind on contemporary programming. Because I have seen exactly one episode of 30 Rock while visiting relatives, I missed the reference in the title of last night’s panel discussion organized by Toronto artist, Margaux Williamson; I mistook ‘I’m a Very Sexy Baby’ for a discussion about the sexualization of baby girls in Western culture (a classic case of projection since that’s the focus of my own art). As it turned out, this panel of three female authors at the Art Gallery of Ontario moderated by Darren O’Donnell considered what it’s like to write about sex. That’s also a topic close to my heart: I’m very aware of what boundaries I don’t want to transgress in writing a blog containing words like ‘masturbation’, ‘labioplasty,’and ‘sexting’. To clarify, these entries in Artist in Transit are always written in the name of art, librarianship, or feminism. Still, it makes me nervous that a colleague at the academic institution where I started the blog described it to his class as an ‘erotica blog,’ though that may say more about the lens through which he views the world than it does about my writing. It’s a concern that is paramount for me today, writing this post and knowing that tomorrow I assume another academic position. I feel like a hybrid of the 30 Rock characters, Abby Flynn and Liz Lemon, shown in a clip at the AGO event. As Abby says, why is it any worse for Abby to use her sexuality than it is for Liz to wear glasses to look smart?

The passages read by the authors proved invariably that language and sex are intertwined. Tamara Faith Berger read a passage in which a female character defends her sexual choices to a friend while smoking a joint; Chris Kraus read a sex scene from the female point of view in which “words come out as they do,” but she is tongue-tied post-coitus; and Sheila Heti read about a woman distracted from playwriting because of a task assigned by her lover, to write a report on an elderly man’s voyeurism.

If this seems like an unlikely event for the AGO, allow me to share some details about the writers: Sheila Heti collaborates with Williamson, and she had artist Shary Boyle read a draft of her first erotic novel before it contained x-rated passages. Chris Kraus started reviewing art in the process of writing her cult classic, I Love Dick, because the object of her desire was an art critic (1). Berger, meanwhile, went to art school, and was always interested in sex as a subject but couldn’t find a way to address it visually. “Going to art school helped…with writing porn,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

O’Donnell asked what was at stake for the authors in writing about sex. Although their initial responses indicated it was relatively risk-free, the comments they made later suggest otherwise. Kraus, who called the art world puritanical, felt that I Love Dick was written off as “exhibitionism and narcissism” and that she was only respected as a writer when she took sex out of her books. Heti removed her email address from her website when her writing took an erotic turn because she was worried about receiving perverted comments, and Berger had someone walk out of her recent reading at a public library. Liz Lemon was right on the money when she said, “Society puts a lot of pressure on us [women].” The Madonna/whore complex is alive and well in writing, and kudos to these women for staring it down.

The prickly topic of feminism came up on multiple occasions. Williamson noted that she has watched a lot of television while doing her residency at the AGO, and she was intrigued that 30 Rock addressed “such insane feminist politics” (re. Liz trying to correct the behaviour of the threesome-loving, pigtail-wearing Abby, all the while indulging in reading a website “where women talk about how far we've come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies” [2]) without fixing problems. The three authors are similarly unapologetic about the explicit passages in their published works. Even when the sex scenes are degrading in some way or the outcome of obsession, as Berger says, “You can’t devalue the bond” or dismiss its role in paving the way for self-awareness. In the authors’ books, a single male character unlocks female desire, so even if that desire is not female-generated, as far as feminism is concerned, at least it’s not at the mercy of the entire male sex. “That’s what’s hot about it,” Heti says. An audible gasp went around the room when audience member Misha Glouberman raised the notion of male-generated desire. It was a reductive moment that reminded me of something I heard Moe Tkacik, co-founder of Jezebel (see Liz Lemon quotation above), say two years ago at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art, which has been burned in my brain ever since: “Men. F*#! ‘em. They’re the problem.” As a feminist, I feel that attacking men for being thoughtful about female sexuality is counterproductive, and as a librarian, I have to say that making observations about fictional characters does not constitute agreement with their philosophies. There must be a better use of our collective energy.


(1) Guthrie, Kayla. Performing is Storytelling: Q+A with Chris Kraus. Performing is Storytelling: Q+A with Chris Kraus.
(2) TGS Hates Women, season 5, episode 16, aired February 24, 2011

Monday, March 19, 2012

Babe Walker takes on art school

“The ironic conclusion to the socialite’s brief stint in the art world is that she finds it ‘silly and fake’, so she has her nanny perform a voodoo exorcism.”

If you’ve seen the 2011 remake of Arthur starring Russell Brand, you are familiar with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Arthur careens through life without regard for anyone else, utterly dependent on his nanny (Helen Mirren) and spending money as recklessly as he drinks alcohol. If you replace Arthur with a young woman; his rich mother with an equally rich father; Helen Mirren with a Jamaican nanny; and Arthur’s collection of automobiles from famous movies with a designer wardrobe, you’ve got Babe Walker’s facetious new memoir. White Girl Problems (Hyperion, 2012) is the 140-characters-plus version of the Twitter account crafted by the Cohen brothers and Lara Schoenhals, which was voted one of TIME Magazine’s 140 best Twitter feeds.

Generally, I’m not one to read a book endorsed by Tori Spelling on the cover, but I had heard that the main character ends up in art school, and I was curious to see how this most improbable of choices transpired.

Babe doesn’t apply to college because she assumes she will become a famous actress without even trying and fall into the arms of Leonardo di Caprio. Her hard-working entertainment lawyer father convinces her to buckle down, and gets her into the University of Southern California for performing arts. Before long, she is suspended for parking wherever she wants. Next up is her flirtation with visual art at the Rhode Island School of Design, a school whose chicness she prefers to Brown, “some stupid school I’d never even heard of,” where she was registered but refused to live in a dorm with a roommate.

Until this point, her only awareness of art was noticing that a waiter at her Studio 54-themed Sweet 16 party was dressed like Andy Warhol and telling her father that her pre-labiaplasty genitals looked like Basquiat so she needed the surgery as a high school graduation gift.

At RISD, she majors in glass blowing. She never attends class but she attends seminars occasionally because of the hot teacher. In her world, it’s the whole experience that matters and not just what her transcript reflects. And she does make some work outside of class with an androgynous printmaking major she befriends because she calls her skinny. One night, high on mushrooms, they break the heels off of all of Babe’s shoes and toss her designer clothes out the window for a bonfire that gets her arrested. She passes out during the mug shot but ultimately makes it into Art Forum. (Editorial note: I know—it’s Artforum, not Art Forum. Disregarding details is key to Babe Walker’s identity. When her father agreed that she could come work for him, she mistook an entry-level office assistant job for a junior partner position). Her “artist moment” comes to an end when her horse, who is named Mischa Barton, flips out during a photo shoot with her friends and she breaks her back. The ironic conclusion to the socialite’s brief stint in the art world is that she finds it “silly and fake” so she has her nanny perform a voodoo exorcism. From there, she writes poems, such as “A Babe Haiku” about couture, and eventually studies fashion, where she should have put her focus from the get-go.

This book will make you laugh, because it’s hard not to laugh at something like Jamie Oliver being double booked because of a birthday party for Jennifer Aniston’s cat’s cat. It will also make you glad you are the kind of person who doesn’t send 93 texts to an ex in one night or drop $246,893.50 at Barney’s in an afternoon. The latter incident is what finally landed her in rehab and gave her the time and space to craft her memoir, which she considered calling Babe Walker: The Babe Walker Story but whose title came instead from the jabs of her rehab peers.

At the end of the book, there’s a hint that Babe Walker has some substance after all. She meets her biological mother, Donna, who is a former runway model and coincidentally the lesbian partner of her rehab roommate. Just when this emotional turn threatens to counteract the horrendous superficiality of the rest of the book, a therapy session with Donna ends with Babe elated at receiving the oddest of heirlooms: a crotch-emblazoned Chanel bikini from spring 1994.

For more on the infamous Babe Walker, check out @whitegrlproblem on Twitter and