WATCH OUT: A Critical Selection from the Permanent Collection
Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick
Curated by Danielle Hogan
Anne Meredith Barry, Shirley Bear, Rebecca Belmore, Erica Deichmann, Gathie Falk, Alexandra (Flood) Darbyshire, Eliza Griffiths, Catherine Hale, Renee van Helm, Sarah Maloney, Mary Pratt, Lorraine Simms, Diana Thorneycroft.
Questioning is the art of learning. Learning to ask important questions is the best evidence of understanding there is, far surpassing the temporary endorphins of a correct “answer.”
What is WATCH OUT and how does WATCH OUT fit into the overall mission of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery? WATCH OUT is an expectation and it’s a possibility; it is a premonition as much as it is forewarning. It is, above all, a declaration, WATCH OUT. Socially engaged art, and the artists who participate in it, are a public resource. Watch Out asks, how art helps us as a society, to see and ask critical questions. How do socially engaged artists and their art support and contribute to local, provincial and federal systems of governance? Creative acts and objects that respond, comment and act in the spirit of ‘common good’ are what interest me. WATCH OUT is the name I gave to my artist in residence project that sees me blogging daily events, hosting workshops and curating this exhibition that shares its name. Purposely multifaceted, Watch Out, as residency and/or exhibition is the means by which I can leverage visibility for other artists and it is how visitors to the BAG can make and share their feelings, impressions, observations and ideas with me and others, those they came with, or those they come to while engaged with the gallery’s team. Finally, it is that time spent with WATCH OUT inspires visitors to initiate and instigate their own creative, intimate and public conversations. Each work of art represents someone’s lived experience and, as a tool for communication, art can only be relevant to the extent that we are willing to let it seep into our hearts and minds.
This first show of 2018 looks forward. And it looks wide as it looks back, at events that have touched us in the past. This collection of works brings together specific artists represented in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s (BAG) permanent collection.
The Beaverbrook Art Gallery (BAG) gave me the opportunity to create WATCH OUT at a unique point in time. Consider just some of the present challenges, Idle No More, KXL or Keystone XL, NoDAPL protests (Fig. 1), Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo campaigns to be reminded, that we are at a precipice politically and socially. Our situation – these crises – feel simultaneously unprecedented, and eternal… Culturally, we could reverse backwards from this brink or, if we are disquieted, galvanized enough, and immensely sensitive to the intersectionality of oppressions, that is, the ways in which race, class, gender and sexual orientation, exist within each issue, then we might cut loose and embark on the awkward, fragile labour of improvement – towards a wiser future. Not to, is either choosing to stall or regress…
Figure 1. Tonya Stands recovers from being pepper sprayed by police after hoping to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, 2016. (Donnella)
Figure 2. I Am Worth More Than One Million Dollars to My People, 2010. Rebecca Belmore. Print mounted on Alupanel. Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Consider the image I Am Worth More Than One Million Dollars to My People (Fig. 2), deceptively simple, a photograph of a text-based work, originally executed roughly, and in black, white and red paint. This piece was created by Anishinabe artist Rebecca Belmore, and was purchased for the Beaverbrook’s permanent collection in 2015. It is as significant as it is thrilling to have it in the show. Belmore is an official member of Canada’s Royal Academy of Arts, Canada’s 2005 official representative at the Venice Biennale and an artist widely recognized for being amongst the most prominent of her generation internationally. Thematically, this piece is remarkable to WATCH OUT because it expresses Belmore’s spirit and brimming fury at the time of its creation.
Known for working across the mediums of performance, video, sculpture and photography, Belmore was in the midst of an extremely stressful legal battle that was exacting a high toll on her personally, and on other members of her family. One morning, at the apex of fear and anxiety, Belmore decided (possibly career terminating decision) to enlist the help of another artist to design a performance; that friend met her outside her Vancouver studio and together they made a sign, that would become re-created as a photograph that is part of the BAG permanent collection re-presented in this show. Within hours, in a singular performance Belmore presented, I Am Worth More Than One Million Dollars to My People (Worth) to the curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery saying, “I quit!”. Belmore describes the experience as providing her with “immediate relief”. Clearly, this work spoke to many of those present because, soon after she performed Worth, Belmore received new financial and moral support. In a moment of personal crisis, Rebecca Belmore was able to challenge her audience to think broadly, as she herself later described, to consider “what is an artwork worth?… Who is allowed to give and whose right is it to take? So, it’s all about giving and taking and the fact that the art – not just the object, more the idea – belongs to me” (Lederman, 2010). I Am Worth More Than One Million Dollars to My People is both work of art and residue. Lives are priceless; ‘value’ judgments will be forever contested for as humans – as individuals – as a society the presence of competing priorities is eternal and ubiquitous. For those in the art world and out, the job to mediate each challenge openly and in good faith remains.
Shirley Bear is a powerful visual artist from of Tobique First Nation, she is also a poet and prominent First Nations activist. Her piece, Oka Warrior #1 (Fig. 3), references Canada’s first highly publicized, violent land dispute between First Nation’s peoples and the Government from 1990. The crisis lasted nearly 3 months and ended non-amicably resulting in one fatality, lasting emotional trauma, and the development of a national First Nations Policing Policy. Bear’s image is part of a larger series she titled Fragile Freedoms, and visually suggests that fragility through her choice of raw and delicate pulp paper behind the warrior – pieces of which are falling away. Still the Oka warrior stands and stares. Resolute, with back against the wall, looks from behind the (thinly) protective hood, resilient and watching out.
Figure 3. Oka Warrior #1 (from the series Fragile Freedoms), 1991. Shirley Bear. Serigraph on handmade paper. Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
WATCH OUT (for the Feminists)
It is impossible to write a definition of feminism because feminism is meant to address and redress the historical imposition of patriarchy, that is, the practice of oppression against women. “Women” suggests a category that seems at once self-apparent, but begins to shift and break and tear under the weight of more than half of the human inhabitants of the planet. How on earth could any category account for all of these people, all their lives and loves and struggles? Any articulation of feminism, then, is always partial and incomplete and necessarily located. It can only be truthful in the locatedness of a given person, a given subject, a given position of point of view. Feminism begins through the fundamental questioning of patriarchy and heteronormativity in whichever ways these manifest in the people’s lives, and in their articulations of collectivity and being together. [..]. The point is that we are not one. We are not one body, nor once gender, nor one sex, nor one race or ability or age. Feminism itself is the realization of the not-one. There is no position that can be outside of embodiment. And that body is a body that bleeds, that secretes, that has lovers and friends and ones they hold dear. That body is a body that desires and in its desire created new world and new possibilities for feminism and for art.
– (From ‘Proposition for the Twenty-First-Century Feminism 1: On Sex, Gender, and Feminism’, Section 2 in DESIRE CHANGE: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada.)
What are masks? We see people wearing masks for a number of reasons. We see them in our everyday lives, in historical and contemporary culture rituals, for protection during sporting matches, for health care, anonymity, (protests) (Fig. 4), as a beauty regimen, in performance (Fig. 5) and/or Halloween costumes. However, how often do we think about the masks we all wear, (many of us) without thinking of them as such? Are cosmetics masks? Wardrobes, professional uniforms, emotional dispositions can be masks of sorts.
Figure 4. Kathleen Hanna (video footage, circa 1995). Film-still taken from the documentary Punk Singer. Retrieved online January 12, 2018 from http://www.tenover6.com/blog/2014/04/all-girls-to-the-front/
Figure 5. Pussy Riot band members performing ‘Punk Prayer’ at Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, 2012. Retrieved online January 12, 2018 from https://www.fact.co.uk/whats-on/pussy-riot-a-punk-prayer
Recognized internationally for her contributions to the fields of feminist, gender and queer theory (Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 1990 and, Bodies that Matter, 1993), the American philosopher Judith Butler states that ‘gender is not something that one is, it is something one does, an act… a “doing” rather than a “being” (1990). Following this, we have the freedom to think more broadly about the concepts of acting as “doing” our personalities; and ‘masks’ a logical human concept, which is integral to the “performances of one’s gender. The film Paris is Burning (1990) (Fig. 6) is a fascinating in-depth look at this topic, focusing on drag culture in 1980s New York. The documentary is also an exploration of assumptions, stereotypes, and in 2016, it was selected for preservation by the American Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The film’s director Jennie Livingston says of the documentary “It’s a little story about how we all survive” (Koltnow, 1991).
Figure 6. Paris is Burning, 1990. Retrieved online January 13, 2018 from https://www.out.com/popnography/2015/5/30/after-controversy-houses-unite-represent-paris-burning-screening
WATCH OUT features captivating work by a group of artists who are women (she and they), each with their own gendered/racial/sexual/religious and cultural singularities. Curatorially, my interest is in shifting assumptions, highlighting exclusions, and on complicating narratives that have been stereotyped, oversimplified and generalized for too long. Consider Mary Pratt’s painting Cold Cream (Fig. 7), a person stares out from the canvas, hair twisted-up in a red towel, cold cream covering their face. As raw and beautiful as it is confining, this painting concedes an appreciable amount of insight regarding the person’s state of mind but not, regarding their gender. (Those familiar with the artist’s work will identify the model, but the painting, and the title, do not.) Pratt subjects are both vividly in our face, and confined by the very edges of the canvas’ frame. Writer Lisa Moore says about Pratt – an artist recognized for her extraordinary, and iconic photorealist style – that, ‘Mary Pratt’s exacting surfaces warn us [WATCH OUT]: There is more going on—always—than meets the eye’ (2014).
Figure. 7. Cold Cream, 1983. Mary Pratt. 1983. Pencil and oil on masonite. Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
In fact, Mary Pratt’s subjects have always been ones that are close to her heart and close to home, as stated by The Beaverbrook’s director and CEO, Tom Smart. Smart declared that it was, in fact, Pratt’s (deceptively ‘simple’) painting of a table, Supper Table (1969), which finally launched her career. In his book Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light, Smart states that it was this painting that “announced forcefully her mode of representation — photorealism — and the fact that she would choose her subject matter drawn from the immediate environment of her house in Salmonier” (1995).
Double labour made visible; the subjects from many of Pratt’s paintings are additionally indicative of labour she initially performed in the kitchen. Consider just a few of her still-life subjects: grils (a fish commonly eaten in Newfoundland), other meat shown lying atop sheets of crinkled tinfoil (likely headed to the oven), and gem-coloured jams (captured seemingly glowing from within) setting, in Mason™ jars, on her table. Asked how she chooses her subjects, Pratt says;
And it was pretty much an erotic reaction. I figured I wasn’t going to paint anything that didn’t affect me personally and physically. For me, creativity was very close to the whole creative process of creating babies, and that creativity was exciting and wonderful. It was a physical thing. (Rynor, 2013)
Regarding her nudes of ‘Donna’, Pratt notes, “when I looked through the canon of naked women painted by men, there they were, these voluptuous beauties ready to say, “Well, climb aboard!” (Fig. 8) and I thought, “That’s not what women are like. We are not like that.” And so, I changed my mind” (Sandals, 2013). Pratt’s astonishing paintings feature a model whom she and her first husband Christopher shared. To compare her paintings to that of her ex-husband’s, is an exceptional example of distinguished, subjective, narratives (readings) of the same sitter; they are most telling, and highly charged.
Figure 8. Venus of Urbino (detail), 1586. Tiziano Vencellio. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Uffici Gallery.
We need to be taught how to think critically and broadly about what we see. WATCH OUT focuses on the importance of reading into and against what we see, watching, asking questions, and considering all of the possibilities surrounding what those things (objects depicted) could/might/do/don’t mean. Additionally, WATCH OUT challenges the myth a ‘single creative genius’ whether having to do with the works of artists themselves, or that curators are singularly responsible for the entire creation and development of their exhibitions. American academic, as well as political and social activist bell hooks writes, ‘feminism is for everybody’, and WATCH OUT is certainly ‘that type of feminist’ exhibition. Too often, popular culture encourages us to believe that the people around us – those peripheral to our immediate experiences are, like paper-dolls, two-dimensional rather than the intelligent, multifaceted, contradictory, and frequently erring beings, we all are.
Gathie Falk’s grand painting, of a salmon-pink coloured feather boa draped over a simple, Victorian-style chair (Fig. 9) calls a variety of scenarios to mind: the drag queen boudoir, icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Marlene Dietrich (Fig. 10) and Ava Gardener, Ingrid Bergman), burlesque dancers, maybe props from a Halloween costume (and perhaps even Jim Henson’s character Ms. Piggy!).
Figure 9. Chair with Feather Boa, 1985. Gathie Falk. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Figure 10. Marlene Dietrich from the film ‘Morocco’, 1930. (Photograph: Cinema Museum). Retrieved online January 12, 2018 from https://prideinlondon.org/events/2017/07/06/marlene-dietrich
Many such personalities have become iconic, hyper-gendered, symbols of femininity and queer icons. Socially transformative ideas and objects such as: haircuts (Fig. 10), ‘power’ suits, underclothes, feather boas, and jewelry can, and do, connote narrow representations of gender, signifiers that have been chosen and reinforces through mass media advertising and popular culture, and equally, exploited for their own gains.
Figure 10. JD Samson. This image of Samson was taken from her modeling portfolio, viewable on her personal website. Retrieved online January 12, 2018 from http://www.jdsamson.info/media/
The influences of this are so powerful and pervasive that social ‘norms’ are pulled from those capitalist sources, and understood to be (to be read visually as) ‘proof’ regarding the existence of ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ signifiers of gender and sexuality, rather than what they in fact are, objects of experience. WATCH OUT is an exhibition that asks you to pay close attention to the differences. Consider another painting from this show, Vancouver based artist Renée Van Halm’s discreet little piece Backdrop (1990). It has two pink, narrow strips of paint that cradle the edge of two of sides of this rectangular painting. Van Halm took inspiration for this painting from Fra Angelico’s altarpiece painting The Annunciation (1430), which depicts the angel Gabriel informing the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant with Emmanuel, the Son of God. Rather than focus on the ‘event’ of this subject, Van Halm – an accomplished painter who has maintained a career long fascination with architecture – asks us to consider the affects of the stage upon and within which this main-event unfolds. Critically, we could ask, is Van Halm challenging us to watch our own reactions to the multitude of distinctive ‘backdrops’ against which the occurrences of our lives play-out universally?
Figure 11. Moncton Tijuana Bible, (1999). Eliza Griffiths. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
The painting Moncton Tijuana Bible (fig. 11) (1999) features two people sitting on a pink couch, embracing. Both people are wearing some eye make-up and are nude from the waist up. Here, the artist’s sexual inferences go far beyond visual for ‘Tijuana bibles’, also called Dirty Comics, are short, erotic comics, which were originally produced in the United States between the 1920s and 1960s. The piece is by the artist Eliza Griffiths and to my mind, is certainly a work around which many of the other ideas in WATCH OUT revolve. Griffiths is a Canadian painter, born in London England and currently teaches at Concordia University in Montreal. By way of her choice of subject matter, her paintings explore a wide range of distinct experiences of sexuality, gender, vulnerability, and inclusion; she focuses the subjects into two main psycho-socio-sexual themes – gender and narrative – and notes that she is “lured by the desire to represent a wide range of desires, as expressed through the lens of women’s sexuality”.
Alexandra (Flood) Darbyshire is a Toronto born, UK based artist. Her painting Valentine Ring #1 (Fig. 12) is taken from her late 1990s series Gem Hour, a body of work focusing on the notion of excess, concepts of ‘femininity’ and on TV culture, themes similarly suggested by Gathie Falk in her painting Chair with Feather Boa (1985) (Fig. 9).
Figure 12. Valentine Ring #1, 1998. Alexandra (Flood) Darbyshire. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Darbyshire created the image Valentine Ring #1, by taking photographs of her television screen as the objects were featured on the Shopping Channel™. In her catalogue essay for Gem Hour, Lianne McTavish notes;
Ornament and fashion have always been taken very seriously by Flood [Darbyshire], in a way that disrupts received notion about what is frivolous and what is important. Traditional aesthetic theory, [..] codified a hierarchy of forms in which decoration was related to the feminine, the decadent, and the domestic. (2000)
McTavish goes on to remind readers that it can be difficult for woman artists to identify with “the allure of materiality” because they themselves have been (continue to be) recognized as ‘beautiful objects’ themselves. Still, McTavish notes, “as Jean Boudrilard has argued, it is precisely through an identification with objects that we approach a sense of selfhood. […] our intimate relationship with everyday objects ‘supports our very project of survival’.” In considering the myriad possible meanings in this painting, Valentine Ring #1, I am reminded of the essay Beautiful Dreamer: Landscape and Memory, (retrieved from: https://aras.org/newsletters/aras-connections-image-and-archetype-2016-issue-3) by painter and academic Jennifer Pazienza. In this paper she writes,
For Elaine Scarry (1999) beauty compels replication, a begetting, the means by which we renew our search for truth and our concern for justice, what throughout my career I have called re-creation. (Pazienza, 2015)
I am compelled to wonder, could this piece be – in the spirit of Pazienza’s statement – one such ‘re-creation’, not just of beauty, but a re-creation of outdated, and sexist inferences regarding women’s gender?
On paper, a description of Vancouver painter Gathie Falk’s work sounds remarkably similar to that of Newfoundland’s Mary Pratt. In 2017, the 89-year-old Falk was interview for the National Gallery of Canada. In the introduction to that online interview, Falk’s work is described by saying, “What the rest of us might see as ordinary, [..] Gathie Falk sees as extraordinary” (Rynor, 2017). One of Canada’s most critically acclaimed artists, Falk is known in particular for her ceramics, paintings and performance art. Addressing a career long fascination with everyday objects such as apples and shoes, Falk says, “I saw the power of making things that are ordinary. And by making them out of clay, they wouldn’t be a hard, flat surface; they would be slightly undulating — more like human flesh, so that everything that I make shows the imprint of my hands or the workings of my hands”.
Our hands, they are parts of our body that possess the power to push others away, or to pull them close; our hands could hit and slap, or they can caress and hold; our hands are the location of our singularly most visibly identifiable characteristic – our fingerprints – something that is fascinating, and singular, and in no way related to labeling our sexuality, or our gender…
WATCH OUT (It’s Femaffected)
Femaffect as specific, negatively feminized impression or feeling that has become “stuck” (Ahmed, 2010) to certain artworks, particularly to fiber mediums and gendered creative processes associated with softness (Hogan, 2017).
I am thrilled to have been able to include two works in WATCH OUT by the gifted Canadian artist Sarah Maloney. She is an artist who has frequently used strong anatomical imagery and/or references in her work. Her Knitted Collection (’97-’00) of detailed, anatomical pieces (bones, skin, muscles) uses knitted, embroidered and crotched techniques, petit point and needle point each of which, as Maloney notes, functions ‘much like the cells within our bodies [the stitches are] tiny parts of the whole’.
In my doctoral dissertation, I wrote a great deal about the meanings embodied by and in the act of knitting, and textiles more generally; the word textile comes from the Latin word texere. The word itself means to weave, to braid, to construct. This work by Maloney (and this exhibition) looks at Fiber and, indeed, many things have fiber. We know our truths with every fiber of our beings: fibers make up the material from which textiles are constructed; fiber is part of a healthy diet. Thread, yarn, and rope are made: they connect us, cover us, and save us. Spun like a narrative, fibers may be knotted, looped, braided and woven. There are many means of altering (our) fiber, including: printing (upon our memories, and our skins), embroidery (elaborating on reality), knitting, quilting (together our communities), sewing (up our flesh), and dying (death) (Hogan, 2017). Each of these notions are important to WATCH OUT’s central resolve as a collection and apply directly to any contemplation of Maloney’s works, Brain (1998-99) (Fig. 14), and Feet (1998-99).
Figure 14. Brain (detail), 1998-99. Sarah Maloney. 35.6 x 35.6 x 152.4 cm, knitted cotton, stainless steel armature. Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Also appearing in WATCH OUT are exceptional pieces by Diana Thorneycroft, Erica Deichmann, Lorraine Simms, and Fredericton based artist Catherine Hale. One can never know the impact of a single action, protest, performance, art piece, or exhibition; WATCH OUT presupposes that something unusual, or unanticipated has happened or is about to happen, of this I know for certain. The women whose works appear in WATCH OUT have – each in their own unique way – made significant contributions to the positive advancement of women in art, and society.
Feminist practice focuses on the potential values that are inherent by way of experiences rather than ‘results’, and favours collective over autonomous gains. Working collectively, feminist practices acquire power from collectivity, and tends to prioritize communal experience. WATCH OUT represents my desire, as artist and curator, to point-at, challenge and interrupt hegemonic narratives that exist within the art world internationally.
Watch Out (Afterward)
‘Success’ measured and alternately defined reminds viewers that there are many less-flashy jobs or acts of ‘care’, practices that go into the creation, development and execution of any exhibition and that these jobs are frequently performed by women “and other ‘others’” (Buurman, 2017) as she describes it. In her essay ‘Home Economics’, author Nanne Buurman reminds us that;
Even with several waves of institutional [art institutional] critique, as well as curatorial and exhibition studies [performed by theorist and academics] calling attention to the powers of display and the ways in which curators produce meaning, the conversations dedicated to feminist curating have [so far] been largely concerned with these identity issues [which artists get chosen for exhibitions, and the production of meaning or value that results from such opportunities]. Because relatively little attention is paid to the ways in which the conditions of presentation in the art world are also gendered, [..] [One must] consider the political economy of exhibitions and their gendered divisions of labour. (2017, p. 32) (*Additions within the square brackets are mine.)
It absolutely, ‘takes a village’ to design and host an exhibition. Here, within the body of this essay, and not buried in a ‘list of credits’ are the names in alphabetical order of (to the best of my knowledge) all those who participated in the creation and execution of WATCH OUT: Meghan Callaghan, Sarah Dick, Jeremy Elder-Jubelin, Troy Haines, Jeff Hoyt, Mikaya Hoyt-Hogan, Tate Hoyt-Hogan, Michael Doucet, James Kennedy, Tony Louis, Johnny Leroux, Roberte Melanson, Adda Mihailescu, Liliana Mitrovic, Jennifer Pazienza, Tom Smart, Jessica Spalding, and Christina Thomson.
Inclusion, desire, expressions of gender, uncertainty – are complex, sensitive, and central topics within each of our daily lives. They are also themes that make up the central socio-political content of this exhibition. So please, – WATCH OUT – pay close attention, you won’t want to miss any of them…
- Danielle Hogan, Ph.D. (January, 2018)
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