Overcoming the Canadian Wilderness

Starting in highschool, I was discouraged from making paintings that were meant to be ‘hung over the couch’. While I’m grateful for the shove my teachers gave me to step into the conceptual realms of art practice, I’ve been feeling the need to decorate and turn my works into ornaments meant to be admired for their beauty creeping up on me. With a little bit of glitter or colourful fabric, many of the women in my family can make anything from a dinner plate to a road sign look pretty. I have grown up with a colourful Pakistani background, but I have lived and studied in Canada. Therefore, I define myself, and want my work to be defined, as both Pakistani and Canadian. So I’m not too surprised that the yearning to combine conceptual art and beautiful imagery, and not see them as separate entities, has finally taken over.

Unfortunately, decorative art, which is associated with craft, is often seen as primitive, feminine and ‘other’ in the Western art world.   Markowitz explains how this hierarchy between fine art and craft affects our society at a larger scale:

Some critics, with good reason, claim that this difference [between art and craft] in evaluative meaning reflects our culture’s elitist values: what white European men make is dignified by the label “art,” while what everyone else makes counts only as craft [and] once classified as craft, a work has trouble counting not only as great art, but as any sort of art at all. (55)

The relationship between craft and fine art can then easily be seen as an analogy of the inequality between not just genres and mediums, but also gender and cultures.

To find a basis for my work, I have been researching artists and movements that have overcome this class struggle between art and craft. The Patterns and Decoration artists, as well as contemporary artists like Beatriz Milhazes and Yinka Shonibare, MBE are inspiring examples. The P&D movement started in the mid 1970s in opposition to Minimalism. Unlike the Minimalists, the P&D artists celebrated ornamentation and beauty and were inspired by Feminism and multiculturalism. Balduccy writes: “Not only did [P&D artists] utilize floral and other decorative motifs associated with femininity and domesticity, but they radically questioned how art was defined by producing their works at a time when the art scene was dominated by male artists focused on abstraction and minimalism” (44). These artists broke through the boundaries that separated art and craft by incorporating techniques and patterns associated with femininity and domesticity into their works.

Like the P&D artists , Milhazes and Shonibare also fill their works with patterns. But instead of juxtaposing patterns from other cultures into their work, they include patterns that they believe are part of their own cultural identity. Milhazes’ paintings are inspired by the bold colours of Matisse and Op art. They overflow with crafts, motifs and colours inspired by her Brazilian culture (see fig. 1). In her 2006 interview with Achim Drucks, she declares that she doesn’t “have any fear of beauty”. And her fearlessness is probably why her bold and vibrant paintings are so  successful. Shonibare, on the other hand, uses motifs he finds in ‘African’ fabrics (Dutch wax-printed cotton), which is actually “printed on Indonesian batik, manufactured in Netherlands, Britain and other countries (including some in West Africa) and then exported to west Africa, where it is a popular, but foreign, commodity” (Hynes 60).  He uses these patterns in playful ways to comment on colonialism and postcolonialism, as well as question the authenticity cultural and national identities (see fig. 2). Like the P&D artists, both Milhazes and Shonibare use patterns and decorations  to broaden identity politics. Through the creation of ornamental yet conceptual art, they are able to level craft with fine arts, feminine with masculine and foreign with native.

While these artists are inspirational, for me to equalize craft and fine arts, I still needed to understand where the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘decorative’ fit within Canadian art history. So I started my research on Canadian artists. Since I’m very interested in landscapes in my own work, my research very quickly gravitated towards The Group of Seven. The Group was made up of seven famous and highly celebrated Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s and 30s. While their paintings seem harmless on the surface, my research has revealed multiple problems their selectively painted landscapes represent. In his book, Beyond Wilderness, Peter White states:

[W]hat the Group actually depicted in their signature painting was, for the most part, a few limited areas of  the Precambrian Shield in central and northern Ontario, in particular Algonquin Park, the north shore of Lake Superior, and Algoma. Devoid of human presence, these works also eschewed the industrial development of the land that often existed just outside the picture frame. (14)

By falsely painting Canada as untainted by people and culture, the Group allowed the British settlers to lay full claim on the land without any inhibitions or guilt (see. fig 3). They overlooked the aboriginal population and their history with the land, as well as the technological advancement of that era, to paint a ‘new’ vision of Canada. Yet, they are a group of artists whose work largely contributes to how Canadian art and nationality is portrayed internationally. With the Group being the standard for Canadian art, my work has become a direct response to their paintings and the cultural divides they create.

To help myself with the goal of changing the way Canadian art and landscapes are viewed, I have continued my research by looking at the paintings and perspectives of other influential Canadian landscape artists. One of these artists is Emily Carr. She was painting Canadian landscapes at the same time as the Group. Although she was associated with them, Gerta writes that in her paintings, “aboriginal art seems to grow from the landscape”  (qtd. in  Marcia 276-77). Unlike the Group, Carr included Aboriginal Canadians and their marks as a part of the land, instead of excluding them to create a false vision of untouched wilderness (see fig. 4).

Along with Carr, there are many contemporary artists such as Monica Tap, Peter Doig, Gary Evans, Wanda Koop and Kent Monkman, who have started to influence the way Canadian art, as well as Canadian landscapes, are perceived. In all of their paintings, the signs of human occupancy are revealed, rather than concealed in the fictional wilderness. Tap explores the idea of time passing in her work by painting landscapes that are in between reality and abstraction from low-resolution video footage (see fig. 5); Doig paints magical, expressive and personal landscapes/dreamscapes of places he’s been to, including Canada where he spent his childhood (see fig. 6); Evans very directly challenges the way Canadian landscapes are traditionally viewed with his surreal paintings of suburban neighbourhoods (see fig. 7); Koop paints the tense relationship between human civilization and the natural world (see fig. 8), and Monkman upturns the hierarchy of colonizer and colonized by removing the Western gaze (see fig. 9). While the Group of Seven still play a dominant role in defining Canadian art and nationality, contemporary Canadian artists are pushing through with paintings that in no way resemble the Group’s.

With this quote by Carr in mind, I have started a loose series of works:

We may not believe in totems, but we believe in our country; and if we approach our work as the Indian did with singleness of purpose and determination to strive for the big thing that means Canada herself, and not hamper ourselves by wondering if our things will sell, or if they will please the public or bring us popularity or fame, but busy ourselves by trying to get near to the heart of things, however crude that work may be, it is liable to be more sincere and genuine. (qtd. in Morra)

Like Carr, I want to get to the heart of what makes up Canadian art. I believe it should be the colourful footsteps of the many cultural, and wholly unique identities that adorn the landscape – not the myths of wilderness. My current practice is fueled by the idea of culture, along with individual and national identity, as being inseparable from land. You may view my current series of work here: Toronto MarksMulticoloured, Among Shades of WhiteOvercoming the Canadian Wilderness (Preliminary Studies), Toronto-scapes, Arts & Crafts and The Ignored Geniuses.

Works Cited

Balducci, Temma. “The Elephant in the Room: Pattern and Decoration, Feminism, Aesthetics and Politics”. Patterns and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art, 1975-1985. Ed. Anne Swartz. Yonkers: Hudson River Museum, 2007. 43-48. Ebook.

Hynes, Nancy. “Yinka Shonibare: Re-dressing history”. African Arts 2001: 60-65. ProQuest. Web. 30 August 2009.

Markowitz, Sally J. “The Distinction between Art and Craft.” Journal of Aesthetic Education. 28.1 (1994): 55-70. Web. 28 Nov 2014.

Milhazes, Beatriz. Interview. Interview with Achim Drucks. “Beatriz Milhazes: No Fear of Beauty.” Deutsche Bank – Artworks. Deutsche Bank AG. 2012. Web. 12 July, 2015.  

Moray, Gerta. “Wilderness, Modernity and Aboriginality in the Paintings of Emily Carr.” Journal of Canadian Studies 33.2 (1998): 43-65. ProQuest. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.

Morra, Linda. “Canadian Art According to Emily Carr: The Search for Indigenous Expression.” Canadian Literature.185 (2005): 43-57. ProQuest. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.
White, Peter. “Out of the Woods.” Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art. Eds. John O’Brian. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. 14. ProQuest.

Multicoloured

Multicoloured

2015

Dimensions: 5′ x 8′

Ink on Canvas

 

This painting is very closely related to Among Shades of White, Toronto-scapes and Skyline. It is a response to the works of The Group of Seven, a group of famous Canadian landscape artists. The image loosely references a picture taken of the Don Valley close to my neighbourhood, Thorncliffe Park Drive, which is full of mostly immigrants. Although I have more or less been faithful to the composition of the picture, I have played around with oil paint, oil pastels, markers, inks, and a variety of different colours and combinations to arrive at this image. You can see the various results I reached through my experimentation here: Overcoming the Canadian Wilderness (Preliminary Studies). The patterns that I have incorporated into the tree trunks, much like the totem poles in Emily Carr’s paintings (see fig. 1), come from floral henna designs, which are used in Pakistan as well as all over the world, including India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to decorate and celebrate. These designs are also used to decorate other ‘craft’ items such as clothes, pottery, jewellery, etc. Slowly, they are even being familiarized in Western culture. So while I find henna to be a part of my personal narrative, it is incorporated universally as a symbol of festivity and celebration, as well as femininity and craft. The patterns are hand painted without prior planning to reflect the spontaneity of henna art. And the 5’ by 8’ canvas, hung like a tapestry,  memorializes craft and culture just as The Group of Seven paintings (see fig. 2), continue to commemorate Canada’s mythical wilderness.

By incorporating these designs to make up the landscape, I am infusing Canadian identity, which is so closely related to the Canadian landscape, with patterns of the immigrants who are a major component of Canada’s population and its nationality. By painting these patterns on tree trunks, I want to connect the patterns and the landscape to the idea of cultural roots that one can choose to cultivate or cut off. Rather than painting Canada as a pristine and uninhabited land, I have painted it to be a land vibrant with a variety of cultures, colour and excitement. In doing so, I am hoping to overcome the distinction between art and craft, male and female, as well as open up the possibility of what being a Canadian work of art can mean. You may read more about my inspirations here: Overcoming the Canadian Wilderness.

 

Among Shades of White

Dimensions: 4' x 8' Modelling Paste and Ink on Canvas

2015

Dimensions: 4′ x 8′

Modelling Paste and Ink on Canvas

 

This painting is a continuation of Multicoloured. Instead of using an abundance of bright colours to fill the canvas, I have decided to leave the canvas blank and use texture, rather than colour, to add form to the painting. I am using the whiteness of the canvas and the modeling paste to represent blankness, coldness, emptiness and both visual and racial whiteness. And among the whiteness, I have created intricate floral shapes that hint at snow covered trees. Among shades of white, I  have create subtle shifts and changes to show there’s more to the landscape than the eye sees at first glance.

The painting loosely references a picture taken of the Don Valley close to my neighbourhood, Thorncliffe Park Drive, which is full of mostly immigrants. The patterns that I have incorporated into the tree trunks, much like the totem poles in Emily Carr’s paintings (see fig. 1), come from floral henna designs, which are used in Pakistan as well as all over the world to decorate and celebrate. These designs are also used to decorate other ‘craft’ items such as clothes, pottery, jewellery, etc. Slowly, they are even being familiarized in Western culture. So while I find henna to be a part of my personal narrative, it is incorporated universally as a symbol of festivity and celebration, as well as femininity and craft.

By incorporating these designs to make up the landscape, I am infusing Canadian identity, which is so closely related to the Canadian landscape, with patterns of the immigrants who are a major component of Canada’s population and its nationality. By painting these patterns on tree trunks, I want to connect the patterns and the landscape to the idea of cultural roots that one can choose to cultivate or cut off. In doing so, I am hoping to overcome the distinction between art and craft, male and female, as well as open up the possibility of what being a Canadian work of art can mean. You may read more about my inspirations here: Overcoming the Canadian Wilderness.

 

(Fig 1.) Emily Carr. Totem and Forest, 1931, Vancouver Art Gallery, Toronto, Virtual Museum, Web, 3 May 2015.
(Fig 1.) Emily Carr. Totem and Forest, 1931, Vancouver Art Gallery, Toronto, Virtual Museum, Web, 3 May 2015.

The Ignored Geniuses

2014

 

The Ignored Geniuses is a painting inspired by my love of bright colours, natural landscapes, and most importantly, my developing awareness of gender inequality in Western art history. Recently, my mother, Masooma Dairywala, has been bringing me pretty ribbons, lace flowers and other decorative items she finds beautiful. Although these items are meant to decorate clothes, she thinks that they belong in my paintings more. Ever since I started painting landscapes, an art form she approves of, her appreciation of my work has become even higher than her appreciation of colourful fabrics, glass paintings and henna application. Naturally, when objects are being valued, the ones that we depend on to survive, such as food and shelter, are the ones that are the most precious to us. But besides these items, I have come to realize that there is a hierarchy through which the value of an object is defined by most people outside the art world: realistic and beautiful objects are the most admired, useful ones come next, and the philosophical and experimental ones come last. This means that within art and craft, whichever is thought to be more beautiful becomes more important – my mother’s sudden change of heart about art, which she found mostly useless and confusing prior to my landscape paintings, is exemplary of this. Within the art world though, this hierarchy is always shifting and there is a bit more freedom. Yet, this freedom does not extend to accepting craft as an art form. The Ignored Geniuses has been created to challenge the art world for its exclusion of crafts as an art form.

Although the number of women artists is growing in the current artistic society, their work is still a minority in major galleries’ selections, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, and despite celebrating craft, places like Harbourfront still distinguish craft and design from visual arts. Since craft, particularly domestic craft, has always been associated with women, I find gender inequality between men and women artists directly linked to the large debates that presently surround the validity of textile artists, who are still predominantly female.

In this work, I have juxtaposed store-bought fabric with delicate ‘feminine’ patterns against a landscape oil painting, an art form that has historically been associated with powerful patriarchal institutions such as museums and galleries, as well as to ideas of the ‘fine’ artistic male genius. It took many trials in which I worked on fabrics with different patterns in various ways (colour pencils, fabric paint, markers, wood mounting, etc.) before I was able to create this painting successfully. I finally ended up with white fabric, which is supposed to mimic the colour of gessoed canvas, a sublime mountain painting, which despite its serious subject matter, adopts the unnatural shades of bright fabric dyes, and ‘girly’ fluorescent pink circles, which perform the dual tasks of marking the fabric’s pattern and interrupting the painting. While the fabric has been stretched over the frame and is no longer utilitarian, the painting is interrupted so that the pattern of the fabric shows through, disabling its ability to lead viewers into another world. With the fabric and the paint at the same level, unable to play the roles most associated with them, the piece can no longer fit one category and hangs in limbo, unclassifiable and confusing. By equalizing the value of these materials, I hope to subvert this idea of ‘genius’ as only being a masculine attribute associated with fine arts, and extend this term to the female artists who have not been memorialized in history. With this hybrid of symbolic imagery, high class and low class, women and men, beauty and intellect, and art and craft can no longer be binaries with clear-cut boundaries. In fact, with the existence of institutions such as the Textile Museum of Canada, as well as OCAD University’s Material Art and Design program, a positive change in our culture is already becoming apparent. Like much of my previous work, this painting is a vision of this change – of this new, accepting, and slowly transforming world.

In addition to promoting craft as an art form, a sub-theme I want to explore with this painting is of the art world turning away from traditional landscape paintings. Why can’t art be decorative and intellectual? Why don’t we acknowledge the intellect required to create aesthetically pleasing images? This painting is combining two different standards of beauty and decoration to offer a social critique. By showing the power of mediums and images combined to be more than what they are on their own, I am hoping to promote acceptance and respect for more than one kind of art making. You may read more about my inspirations here: Overcoming the Canadian Wilderness.

 

Can Mini Skirts and Feminism be Friends?

When a woman goes out wearing a miniskirt, an article of clothing most strongly associated with female sexuality, she becomes a symbol of two paradoxical ideas. On one hand, she is liberated through her rejection of traditional female images, such as the housewife, and is proud of her feminine sexuality. On the other hand, she is oppressed, and no more than a product of male desire.  Wright states that “[p]erhaps assertion of gender difference challenges the power relationship more effectively than any attempt to emulate what is seen as male” (202). According to him, women wearing and using objects that bring out gender differences are accepting these differences as positive attributes and therefore putting themselves in positions of power. While it is true that the mini skirt asserts these gender differences by bringing attention to the female form, Struder explains why it fails to challenge the power relationship:

When Mary Quant popularised the mini-skirt in the mid 1960s, it functioned as a strong sign of social, cultural and political freedom. Yet it was a fragile symbol […] its wearer was treading a fine semiotic line between provocative self-affirmation and would-be provocative self-objectification. (48)

The mini skirt started out symbolizing modernity, freedom and confidence, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it – but like anything associated with femininity, it has withered under the male gaze. The only way to bring back the power of the mini skirt, a feminine article, is by having femininity befriend feminism. Instead of defining femininity from a patriarchal lens, define it through a feminist one, so that the qualities associated with women are not passive and weak, easily oppressed by masculinity, but active and strong, capable of gazing back at their gazers.

The fact that both mini skirts and feminism set out to liberate and strengthen women at the same time signals that they are not as different as they seem. According to Borrelli-Persson, Mary Quant, in her 1995 interview with Vogue said that mini-skirts “signaled great high spirits […] They celebrated youth and life and tremendous opportunity. They had a kind of ‘Look at me’ quality. They said, ‘Life is great.’” Like feminism, they started out as a sign of rebellion, a break away from tradition. By showcasing gender differences, mini skirts became a tool for putting women in charge of the laws that ruled their sexuality.

Despite these positive attributes, mini skirts are still critiqued by feminists. This is because the ‘look at me’ quality that Quant speaks of ended up subverting women’s rebellious nature and turned them into sexual images of male desire. Although mini skirts were designed to empower women and give them the freedom to choose their appearances, Groeneveld points out that there is “an implicit assumption about ‘free choice’, which fails to acknowledge the way in which choice occurs within contexts that are socially constructed” (182). Since women are raised playing with grotesquely disproportionate Barbie dolls, and following media that shows women as individual body parts, as cleavages and vaginas, instead of whole individuals, a woman’s ‘free choice’ is quite constrained and limited. Mini skirts’ good intentions do not stop them from promoting sexism by fragmenting and sexualizing women’s thighs and legs, and in doing so, promoting women’s images as sexual commodities (see fig. 1 and 2). In this way, they pass women from the entrapment of home and tradition, to that of sexual commodification. Despite their controversial nature, Wright questions why “[f]eminists, in an attempt to express their reaction against traditional female roles, have often cast […] items of clothing which appear to be inherently feminine [as objects of exploitation]” (197), His question can be answered with another question: outside of our current socially constructed system, which values women based on their appearances, how many women would continue wearing mini skirts? Feminine objects are deemed as exploitative by feminists because they pair women’s physical discomfort with a single image of beauty that every woman has to aspire to. The mini skirt then, is the antagonist of feminism as it puts the women who wear it at a disadvantage – to place it back in a position of power, feminism and femininity need to become interchangeable terms.

More specifically, femininity, like feminism, has to come out of the shadow of our current society and redefine itself as assertive and political. For that to happen, women have to start questioning the patriarchal standards and norms that constantly shape them. Laurie notes that challenging sexism, acknowledging women as complete human beings, and achieving social justice are the tenets that feminism has built itself upon (37). These tenets can be upheld if the women who wear mini skirts wear ones that they are comfortable in, and wear them for the same reasons that they were first designed for: to accentuate and celebrate the female form as different but just as powerful as the male form. Moreover, if women find themselves under a sexist gaze, and choose to turn around and glare back at their gazer instead of walking away, they will gain agency and showcase themselves as powerful feminine individuals. In this way, not only will they express their strength through their appearance, they will also establish their power through their feminist/feminine gazes, and break through the social constructs that associate femininity with weakness and shallow beauty. This move can eventually achieve all three of the feminist goals; with one gaze, from being passive objects of male desire, women can challenge sexism, establish their individuality, and in doing so, promote gender equality. By breaking through stereotypes, they can redefine what it means to be female according to their preferences, and merge the gap between mini skirts and feminism.

In short, mini skirts and feminism can and should be friends as they can both help each other with their shared goal of liberating women. The mini skirt is a symbol of femininity, and if femininity is still being defined through a sexist lens, the mini skirt, like its wearer, will remain a symbol of oppression. But with the strength of feminism and femininity behind it, it will become a symbol of boldness and confidence. However, it is important to note that the mini skirt is an inanimate object and that everything it symbolizes is an extension of its wearer. As long as the wearer remembers to say, “I want!” before “I want to be wanted”, mini skirts and feminism will get along just fine.

Fig. 1. Love Shack Fancy Ruffle Mini Skirt. Blue and Cream. Web. 10 Nov 2014.

Fig. 2. Love Shack Fancy Ruffle Mini Skirt. Blue and Cream. Web. 10 Nov 2014.

Works Cited

Borrelli-Persson, Laird. “Viva la Miniskirt! Charting the Right to Bare Legs through History.” Vogue. Vogue., 24 October. 2014. Web. 4 Nov 2014.

Groeneveld, Elizabeth. “‘be a Feminist Or just Dress Like One’: BUST, Fashion and Feminism as Lifestyle.” Journal of Gender Studies 18.2 (2009): 179-90. Web. 20 Oct 2014.

Gaughran, Laurie. “Gender Reflection: Reconciling Feminism and Equality.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 24.5 (1998): 37-51. Web. 20 Oct 2014.

Struder, Brigitte. “1968 and the formation of the feminist subject.” 20th Century Communism 11 May. 2011: 38-69. Academia. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

Wright, Lee. “Objectifying Gender: The Stiletto Heel.” Fashion History: A Reader. Ed. Malcolm Barnard, New York: Routledge, 2007. 197-207. Print.

 

Published on: Dec 7, 2014

The Role of Women in Surrealism

Surrealism was a gated realm created exclusively for male artists, the majority of whom objectified and fetishized women. For a female artist to unlock this gate, she had to fulfill the male artists’ need for narrowing the role of women down to an object of male desire. This conception of women blinded male Surrealists to the fact that women were individuals with multi-faceted personalities, who wanted to be more than their muses. Because of their blindness to women’s capabilities, women “functioned within male Surrealist works at best as an idealized Other, at worst as an object for the projection of unresolved anxieties.”[1] This objectification hindered women artists from joining the movement and gaining entry into the art world. Despite these stereotypes, some women did manage to become a part of the movement, but “even when [they] were included by [Andre] Breton and the male Surrealists, a full recognition of their conceptual and creative force [remained] lacking.”[2] Being a part of the movement as a female artist did not guarantee the same amount of respect, which was given to their male counterparts. Due to these problems, artists Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun, despite exhibiting with the Surrealists and using their visual vocabulary, never became official members of the group. They used Surrealist practices, such as having dream-like images and mirrors in their art, but rather than using such practices to objectify women, they used these techniques to overcome ‘the subject-object split’, which was one of the core tenets of Surrealism. The subject-object split is the boundary between a subject, which acts, and an object, which is acted upon. To overcome it meant to treat everything as a subject, as an entity capable of independent action. The male Surrealists were not able to overcome this duality due to their obsession with “seeking transformation through a female representational object, which paradoxically [reinforced] the subject-object split that Surrealism was dedicated to overcoming.”[3] Kahlo and Cahun, on the other hand, overcame this duality by using their art as a venue to portray themselves as subjects, and not objects. Despite being females and not being a part of the movement, Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun used one of Surrealism’s base beliefs to beat the male artists at their own game.

Both Kahlo and Cahun overcame the subject-object split through their self-portraits, which were not made for the pleasure of the male gaze. Rather, their self-portraits asked questions about identity, and were reflective of the artists’ unidealized reality and transgender sexuality. By refusing traditional constraints and categories for women, such as gender specific clothing and haircuts, Kahlo and Cahun blurred gender lines. Lillian Faderman, a scholar on lesbian relationships, notes:

[T]hroughout history, lesbians were persecuted (often burned or drowned) for their sexual activities if they also cross-dressed as men, whereas if they engaged in the same activities in female dress, they were usually only reprimanded in the courts. [The] cross-dressing lesbian created more confusion about gendered roles, claimed male social privileges, and demonstrated her transgression publicly and deliberately in a manner that made her reform and return to conventional heterosexuality seem impossible.[4]

By cross-dressing, Kahlo and Cahun took visual symbols of power away from men and changed the view of women from meek and submissive objects to proactive seekers of change. They confused the patriarchal Surrealist system so that it could no longer easily categorize who should be tyrannized and fetishized, and who should be admired, based on gender. Unlike the majority of the male Surrealists, Kahlo and Cahun accomplished the merging of opposites through their self-portraits. I will discuss why these artists were not official members of Surrealism, and how they still serve as inspirations today, while analyzing them and their works to further prove their success in overcoming the subject-object split.

Frida Kahlo was one of the “young women who joined the Surrealist circle in Paris in the 1930s. [These women] declared themselves not Surrealist while nevertheless exhibiting with the group on occasion and adopting many of Surrealism’s core tenets.”[5] This was because of the problematic ideas of the male Surrealists as well as the differences in their art work. While the Surrealists’ main focus was on dream imagery, Kahlo drew on her personal experience to turn her work into a political tool. In Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, Kahlo is portrayed as described in the title. She has just cropped her hair, hair that is lying all around her and looks a little animated, and has donned a man’s suit which seems large for her body but does not sag on her shoulders. She sits on a chair with a mournful expression, but her gaze is unfaltering and shameless. Margaret A. Lindauer, author of Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo, points out that Kahlo “wears earrings and women’s shoes. So Kahlo has not presented herself as a man [rather] she has combined feminine and masculine [stereotypes].”[6] She has not given up her gender to become someone she is not. Instead, she is wearing men’s clothing to change her figure from a sexual feminine object to one of a woman in charge of her own image. By cropping her hair, a signifier of her gender, she paints herself as a subject capable of “liberating [herself] from patriarchally defined gender tyranny, not in order to become a man, but to have available some of the social privileges symbolically reserved for men.”[7] In her quest to liberate herself, Kahlo turned down the offer of becoming an official member of Surrealism, a movement with members who contradicted their own principles by objectifying women and not giving them the same privileges as men. For Kahlo, overcoming the subject-object split and opening up the eyes of her audience to women’s subjectivity was more important.

Due to her life-long fight against female objectification, Kahlo is an inspiration for women to break out of gender restrictions. By redressing her body and capturing it in paint, she still challenges and defies the roles and rules society placed on her. Through her art, even after death, she refuses to let her individuality be boxed, wrapped and ribboned by anyone, and does not remain silent about her identity. In her work, her gaze is never submissive. Even when subdued, it speaks against the compact, pleasurable descriptions that women are forced into. Kahlo’s self-portraits “do not employ the traditionally gendered imagery of colonization but [subvert] them to overthrow the binary-driven hierarchies of art and the colonizer-colonized.”[8] By putting the colonizer and the colonized, the male and the female, into the same space without any boundaries, Kahlo overcomes the subject-object split that previously divided these entities. With this act, she introduces women to the fact that gender should not be inhibiting them from raising their social status to the same level as men’s.

Unlike Kahlo, who was offered a position as a member in Surrealism because of her exoticism, and declined it, Claude Cahun wanted to join the movement and make changes within it. But unlike Kahlo, Cahun pushed gender lines beyond the male Surrealists’ comfort level. This is why “Andre Breton remained relatively unresponsive to Cahun’s attempts to gain artistic affirmation from them [and] never embraced [her] as a core member of the group.”[9] This goes to show the group’s hypocrisy. They were proud of admitting women into their group, but if a woman’s voice was louder than theirs, they kept her at a safe distance. For the Surrealists, Cahun was unacceptable as a woman since she could not be “treated as [an object] expected to serve as an inspiration for male genius [nor would she] allow manipulation of [her body] for aesthetic purposes and male sexual desire.”[10] Rather, she was an intelligent subject who created art that destroyed notions of females as objects made for the pleasure of men. She wanted to be a part of Surrealism despite their hypocritical values because like the male Surrealists, she also “wished to elevate the unconscious, the irrational, and the dream as inspiration and method for her art [with focus on the female body].”[11] But Cahun wanted to use these Surrealist ideas to overcome the subject-object split, instead of fetishizing the female body. She started with changing her name from Lucy Schwob to Claude Cahun. Claude is not a gender-specific name, and Cahun was her Jewish grandmother’s last name[12]. By renaming herself, Cahun rejected gender differences and showed pride in her Jewish ancestry in spite of the dangers that Jews faced during World War II. Her self-portraits are extensions of her reality. These portraits challenge “the gaze that had become accustomed to objectifying women [and subvert] the social and sexual hierarchy in which the artist [was] quintessentially male and his material female.[13] By removing boundaries dividing genders, and the lines dividing the active subject and the passive object, Cahun defied male Surrealist’s ideas while strictly following Surrealist principles. She rebelled against gender stereotypes and merged the split between subject and object without yielding into any of the Surrealist ideas for women, which is why, despite her groundbreaking work, the Surrealists never accepted her as a member of their movement.

By exploring and exhibiting her own image without idealizing it, Cahun took the power of objectifying women away from men and influenced other women to do the same. For instance, in her self-portrait with the mirror, Cahun wears a man’s coat and hair cut, and instead of looking in the mirror, she looks directly at her viewer. By doing so, “she challenges the traditional notion of a woman’s relationship with her mirror as an expression of female vanity. More importantly, she disrupts the fixed polarities of gender difference and the privileging gaze of men by showing that she is not simply the object of a gaze.”[14] She asks her audience to look at her as she is, a confident, unique, transgender figure. Like Kahlo, Cahun brings “to the surface previously hidden or feared aspects of the self, thereby empowering women’s ability [to create] a more liberated self-definition, a definition that allow[s] for multiplicity and paradox.”[15] In this way, she owns her position as an independent and strong subject with many aspects to her personality. She portrays herself untainted by any societal or gender constraints, and in doing so, she creates a way for other women to break through the objectification that is placed on them. Cahun overcomes the subject-object split through her art, by giving the same amount of control to the model, as she gives to the photographer. In her work, she turns the conventional object into a subject, and inspires others to do the same.

Both Claude Cahun and Frida Kahlo accomplished one of Surrealism’s main goals, overcoming the subject-object split, without being members of the movement, while the male Surrealists ignorantly worked against the standards that they themselves had set up. By breaking through conventions, Cahun and Kahlo changed how women were viewed by men and encouraged women to embrace their positions as subjects. They questioned stereotypes and created powerful work by portraying themselves as figures capable of authority. They disturbed the art world in a meaningful way. They fought tough battles so we could win today.

Unfortunately, their battles are far from won. Women might be less dependent on men in the present society, but they are still too often treated as objects that only reflect what men want. The act of focusing on individual female body parts to ‘celebrate’, or rather objectify them, which the male Surrealists enjoyed, is still very much a part of both men’s and women’s mindsets today. While men are seen as whole individuals, women are reduced to cleavages and legs. This objectification of women is used to sell movies, TV shows, cosmetics, magazines and clothes amongst many other products. And with the help of these products, this objectification is reiterated to the future generation of girls so they grow up thinking that while men can have many body types, it is the norm for a woman to have only one. To counter these societal entrapments, we need to keep on finding female inspirations who broke and break through these stereotypes; we need to remember to say “I want!”, before “I want to be wanted.”

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Cahun, Claude. Self-portrait. Photograph. 1928. Jersey Heritage Collections, Jersey.
Caws, Mary Ann, Surrealism and Women. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1991. Google Books.
Chadwick, Whitney. Mirror images: women, surrealism, and self-representation. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.

 

Chadwick, Whitney. Women artists and the surrealist movement. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

 

Belton, Robert J, The Beribboned Bomb: The Image of Woman in Male Surrealist Art. Calgary: Calgary Press, 1995. Ebrary Reader.
Elliot, Bridget and Jo-Ann Wallace. “Fleurs du mal or second-hand roses?: Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and the `Originality of the Avant-Garde.” Feminist Review 40 (1992): 6-30. doi:10.2307/1395274.

 

Ferman, Gloria. “Art History and the Case for the Women of Surrealism.” The Journal of General Education 27 (1975): 31-54. url: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy-library.ocad.ca/stable/27796489
Kahlo, Frida. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. Oil on canvas. 1940. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Knafo, Danielle. “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 2 (2001): 29-60. url:http://journals1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy-library.ocad.ca/pdf/15240657/v02i0001/29_cctts.xml.

 

Lindauer, Margaret A., Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Google Books.

 

Mahon, Alyce. “The Lost Secret Frida Kahlo and the Surrealist Imaginary.” Journal Of Surrealism & The Americas 5 (2011): 33-52. url: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy-library.ocad.ca/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=e086131e-06ab-43c1-a2ce-87e62e55aaeb%40sessionmgr114&vid=3&hid=117.
Wampole, Christy. “The Impudence of Claude Cahun.” L’Esprit Créateur 53 (2013): 101-113. doi: 10.1353/esp.2013.0009.

 

 

 

[1]Mary Ann Caws, Surrealism and Women (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 8. Google Books.

 

[2] Ibid., 2.

 

[3]Ibid., 8

 

[4]Bridget Elliot and Jo-Ann Wallace. “Fleurs du mal or second-hand roses?: Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and the `Originality of the Avant-Garde” Feminist Review 40 (1992): 20, doi:10.2307/1395274.

 

[5]Whitney Chadwick, Mirror images: women, surrealism, and self-representation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 5.

 

[6]           Margaret A. Lindauer, Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 45. Google Books.

 

[7]Lindauer, Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo.

 

[8]Alyce Mahon. “The Lost Secret Frida Kahlo and the Surrealist Imaginary,” Journal Of Surrealism & The Americas 5 (2011): 43, url: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy-library.ocad.ca/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=e086131e-06ab-43c1-a2ce-87e62e55aaeb%40sessionmgr114&vid=3&hid=117.

 

[9]Christy Wampole. “The Impudence of Claude Cahun,” L’Esprit Créateur 53 (2013): 102, doi: 10.1353/esp.2013.0009.

 

[10]Danielle Knafo. “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 2 (2001): 35, url:http://journals1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy-library.ocad.ca/pdf/15240657/v02i0001/29_cctts.xml.

 

[11]Ibid., 36

 

[12]Wampole, “The Impudence of Claude,” 101.

 

[13]Knafo, “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex”, 36.

 

[14]Knafo, “Claude Cahun: The Third Sex”, 37.

 

[15]Ibid., 58.

 

 

 

Published on: Jun 27, 2014

Pixellating Landscape

Pixellating

2013

Dimensions: 4′ x 6′

Oils on Canvas

 

I haven’t travelled much, so when I went to British Columbia this summer, I was in heaven. But while there, I couldn’t help being a bit pessimistic while thinking about the future of such a breath-taking place. Would the trees soon be replaced by buildings, and the mountains covered in garbage? Would the Pacific ocean become Lake Ontario? Would beautiful images have to replace ugly reality?

As I saw the amount of people photographing the landscapes with their cell phones and tablets, I also started to think about the accessibility of photography and how it would affect the future of painting, specifically observational painting. How long would it be before the analogue processes of image making would be undermined by digitally produced images?

I created this painting, with a photograph as a reference and photoshop as a sketchbook, to respond to my own troubling thoughts. Although the initial idea was to use fluorescent colours to paint straight edged squares that lay flatly on top of the landscape, I decided against it. The pixels are now similar colours to the colours of the landscape, with wobbly edges, bordering on organic, and there’s overlap between them and the landscape.

I changed my mind halfway about how to paint the pixels because I want to believe that there’s an alternative to the bleak scenario described above. There’s always a possibility that our future will have technology that takes us beyond the impossible, bring us larger than life digital and analogue images… as well as technology that will help preserve the natural, wild, free beauty of our planet. I want to think of a future in which the old and the new are in harmony rather than in a struggle to overtake each other. And this painting is a depiction of that hope. 

Why Painting Has Been Kept Alive

Painting has been pronounced dead many times. Douglas Crimp, one of the main critics of painting, argues that painting has become old-fashioned. With the use of techniques such as appropriation, quotation and duplication, newer mediums like photography, film, and video are doing what painting has failed to do (Miles, Christopher). Yet, the majority of art history revolves around painting – along with the majority of current art schools, artist studios, and art galleries. The medium may be defined as traditional, elite, and controversial, but contemporary painting’s role is crucial in advancing current conceptual art practices.

Paintings give works of art the distinguishable, physical qualities that make them art objects. If these properties are taken away from them, what qualifies as art is left to the museums and the art market to decide. Benjamin Buchloh states that freedom of conceptual art from medium and traditional criteria of judging art only strengthens the power of the art institutions. They determine whether it is art and what is not (Verwoert 3-4). This institutionalization of art can be prevented through painting, which gives art the visual properties that can be used to critique artistic ability, and gives power to artists rather than the art institutes.

Contemporary painting gives art some solid borders to push, some conventions that keep it from becoming so loose that its ideas become non-sensible. It holds art back from becoming so content based that the visual critique of works becomes completely irrelevant, from becoming cold, robotic, and boxed in theories and words. What is left to define then is, what counts as contemporary? And how a medium so bound with tradition can speak of our time and advance current conceptual art practices.

This curatorial catalogue essay is about the works of Olafur Eliasson, Marlene Dumas and Vija Celmins. Each artist has one work in the exhibition and all works can be defined by Arthur Danto’s definition of contemporary art: “what happens after there are no more periods in some master narrator of art” (Verwoert 5). Without relying on just historical backgrounds, each painting exhibits the importance of contemporary painting in the progression of present conceptual practices and makes Robert Musil’s words in The Man Without Qualities true: “If some painting is still to come, if painters are still to come, they will not come from where we expect them to” (Birnbaum 157). The artists use their historical medium in unexpected ways that analyse their surroundings, their subjects and art critics – rather than, as Bois says, relying “uncritically on the traditional understanding of the medium” (Verwoert 5). They are fully engaged in their work, keeping painting from becoming in Gerhard Richter’s words, “pure idiocy” (Crimp 24) – and all of their works follow Bois’s notion of a conceptual painting; a painting that is self-evident and produces “its own justification by means of continuous formal self-scrutiny and the creation of contextual relations” (Verwoert, 5). They produce dialogue about themselves in the context of the art world and through that, they have an impact on conceptual art practices.

The first painting I will discuss is Olafur Eliasson’s Green River (Tokyo, Japan, 2001, Stockholm, Sweden, 2000, Los Angeles, USA, 1999, Moss, Norway, 1998 and Bremen, Germany, 1998).

In this work, Olafur has taken pigment out of the studio and thrown it into rivers, turning them green, changing urban landscapes at a huge scale, and also changing the relationship between paint and painting, medium and artwork. This painting is described by Daniel Birnbaum as being “a zone of contagion, constantly branching out and widening its scope” (158).

In the interview between Olafur Eliasson and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Obrist describes the significant idea, the goal of this project, to be a vehicle that makes “the city visible for its inhabitants, who no longer take any notice of the way it works or what’s special about it, [and to challenge] their perception of their environment as something changeless and reassuring.” The painting makes the city, for a brief period, an interactive physical space rather than a mental backdrop. Other than commenting on the role of our surroundings, by taking paint outside the studio and making it part of an urban landscape, Olafur has blurred the boundaries between different art forms. By taking pigment out of its familiar setting, he has widened the scope of painting and merged it into other disciplines like performance art and installation. Using this approach, he has opened up more space for conceptual art practices to step over the lines of medium specificity and to engage painting with environments outside of museums and studios.

The second painting in this exhibition is Marlene Dumas’s Feather Stola (Oil on Canvas, 2000).

In this painting, the artist uses quick brush strokes, like the expressionists, to lay out a rough form of a nude woman. The nude woman is a traditional subject in the Western art world as a seductive form, but in Dumas’ painting, the colours make her look more bruised and hurt instead of seductive or appealing. Dumas’s sources for her paintings come from photographs in which the subject has already posed once for the camera. She takes these subjects and instead of painting portraits of them, she paints their faces and bodies to represent emotions, moods, and events. The themes of her paintings revolve around race, sexuality and a strange play between violence and tenderness (Horlock).

In Feather Stola, she has worked up a rough figure with soft brush marks, portraying lust and eroticism but in a way that looks both frightening and vulnerable. The relationship between art and female beauty is explored in this work, challenging Western perceptions of the female body. With self-awareness about the traditional medium and subject in her work, Dumas questions conventions embedded in art practices. Through this image, she has created room for not just painting, but also for the use of traditional subject matter in art works as a practice that is capable of self-critique, not unlike the unconventional and experimental materials often used in the current art world. Feather Stola is an example for conceptual artists who prefer working in traditional mediums, of how a medium does not have to limit conceptuality, and can instead, be used to further it.

The last painting to be discussed in this essay is Vija Celmins’ Untitled (Ocean) (Oil on Linen, 1990-95).

Vija Celmins’ work is a painting of a photograph. The photograph was taken in an instant, however the painting itself took five years to complete. One can feel the passing of time while viewing the piece, not just because of the length of time it took to paint it, but also because of the repetitiveness of the waves, stilled in their movement.

In addition to this piece, Celmins’ work is greatly influenced by Clement Greenberg, a Modern art critic. Her paintings are shaped by his theories about abstract works: “there are no longer centres of interest, highlights, dominating forms, every part [is] equivalent in stress to every other part” (Birnbaum et al. 82). She uses his criteria for painting in a way that works for a realistic painting so that her paintings lie in between abstraction and photorealism and describes her goal with her own work as “multidimensional, going back and forth in space while remaining true to the flatness of the surface” (Celmins, 85).

Her painting is flat, yet it depicts the fluidity of waves, but despite the illusionistic style of painting, it comes from Greenberg’s definition of abstract paintings. While following the rules established for painting by Greenberg, Celmins changes them to do the opposite of what they are for so that even with a flattened picture plane, her paintings have areas of depth. With the use of a much debated medium, she manages to intelligently criticize Greenberg’s writings about painting as a flat surface, while still following his opinions in her paintings, in his beliefs in a movement that could turn around and question “its own foundation, not to subvert it but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence” (1). Through this thoughtful way of thinking about the inspiration of her work, Celmins’ paintings both follow and defy Greenberg’s ideas. They break through traditional modes of thinking about abstraction versus realism and develop new areas of exploration in conceptual art.

Olafur Eliasson, Marlene Dumas, and Vija Celmins, each use paint in innovative ways that involve self-analysis. All the works in this exhibition portray the way painting’s role has changed over time and how a traditional medium can be used in a contemporary way so that it becomes a source of inspiration and advancement for current conceptual art practices. Instead of a window leading us into another world, paintings have become a mirror reflecting their time. They have turned into a network of thoughtful ideas instead of pictures created for aesthetic enjoyment. With the use of paint, metaphors come back into use and create a break from literalism that ties down art with the use of other more immediate mediums (Brisman, 1-2). By bridging conceptuality and painting together, art can be saved from the museums and art markets, painting can play a useful role in the current art world, and conceptual art can gain new perspectives by becoming more open to the history and traditions of painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Birnbaum, Daniel, et al. Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks. London: Phaidon, 2011. Print.

 

Birnbaum, Daniel, Vija Celmins, Douglas Crimp, et al. Painting: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011. Print.

 

Brisman, Avi. “Blindfolding The Muse: The Plight Of Painting In The Age Of Conceptual Art.” CAA Reviews (1999): 1-2. Art & Architecture Complete. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

 

Celmins, Vija. Untitled (Ocean). 1995. Sotheby’s New York. Sothebey’s. Web. 22 May 2013.

 

Danto, Arthur. “INTRODUCTION: Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary.” After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (1996): 5. Print.

 

Dumas, Marlene. Feather Stola. 2000. Saatchi Gallery,London. Saachi Gallery. Web. 22 May 2013.

 

Eliasson, Olafur. Green River. 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998. Japan, Sweden, USA, Norway and Germany. Web. 22 May 2013.

 

Greenberg, Clement. Modernist Painting. Np, nd. Web.

 

Horlock, Mary. “Marlene Dumas | Tate.”Home | Tate. N.p., 11 June 1997. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.

 

Miles, Christopher. “The Death of Painting and The Writing of Painting’s Post-Crisis,Post-Critique Future by Christopher Miles | ART LIES: A Contemporary Art Quarterly.” ART LIES: A Contemporary Art Quarterly. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

 

Obrist, Hans Ulrich. Conversation between Olafur Eliasson and Hans Ulrich Obrist. In Olafur Eliasson: Chaque matin je me sens différent. Chaque soir je me sens le meme. Edited by Joseph Jacquet. Exhibition catalogue. Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2002: 17-37. Translation by John Tittensor. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

 

Verwoert, Jan. “Afterall • Autumn/Winter 2005 • Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea.” Afterall. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.

 

Published on: May 4, 2013

Hybridization of the Image

Hybridization of the Image: Collaborative Project

2012

Approximate Dimensions: 36″ x 44″

Gouache on Masonite

 

This painting was done in collaboration with three other artists and their works. Our project started off with very broad rules that defined size (36” by 44”) and theme (dreamscapes). We decided to work on our own canvases and panels at first so we could see each other’s way of working and then spent two day switching paintings and adding our most prominent marks, colours and textures from our own paintings into everyone else’s. All of our paintings benefited from this, especially because of our chosen theme which called for depth and distortion and surrealism.

For my individual painting, I was focusing on dream imagery combined with somewhat mundane images of the physical world that get pumped up when merged into dreams.  The idea was to cover organic, dreamlike qualities and hazy colours with strong lines, forces of the real world and our actual surroundings that stay behind our closed lids even while we sleep, that further deform already distorted dreams.

Gary Evan’s landscapes have really stayed with me since I first looked them up and I love the idea of portals. This is where the cutout emerged from and settled the dream into a subway. Its purpose was to be a door opening into the real world, to serve as the gaps that we can’t recall when we wake up after long periods of slumber, that bother us until we forget about them and our curiosity leads us elsewhere.