| Jan Allen
Joyce Wieland: Twilit Record of Romantic Love
The Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University
December 18, 1994 — March 26 1995
from the catalogue
[ 4,018 words ]
Joyce Wieland: Twilit Record of Romantic Love
In this statement, artist Martha Townsend identifies the suspicion with which we regard representations of love. Love is inherently a condition of vulnerability, and its representation has become problematic in the late twentieth century. Historical images of love and sensuality from the Classical through the Romantic periods hold love hostage in forms of expression that are inadequate to the current milieu. The irredeemable isolation conveyed by Betty Goodwin's struggling figures and the alienation of Attila Richard Lukacs' skinheads best capture the mood of social representation in contemporary art. Today, love finds its most ready expression in the ritualized rounds of longing and betrayal paraded through the pages of the tabloid press. The denial of love's discourse in the forum of high culture is disturbing, given that love is, in many ways, the locus of our most basic social values.
Twilit Record of Romantic Love presents a body of drawings that tackle the subject of love head on, tracing changing conceptions of love over four decades of the career of Toronto artist Joyce Wieland. The show offers an examination of the constitution of desire that is a subscript to the artist's more widely examined work in painting and film and a record of social history through a turbulent period. The significance of Wieland's drawings on the subject of love lies in their correlation with changing values from 1954 to 1992 and the insight they offer into the sexual politics of the time.
Although the exhibition title is derived from a single work, Twilit Record of Romantic Love evokes the movement expressed across the whole. The early drawings make well observed comment on the psychological tension inherent in relationship: the uncertainty captured in a sideways glance, the frisson of merging and parting, and the pulse of fear and pleasure taken in the dissolution of personal borders. The erotic drawings of the 1960s explore sexual pleasure in both figural images and in an increasingly abstract symbology. With the dissolution of ideals of romantic couplehood in her more recent drawings, Wieland turns to mythical and pantheistic imagery that posits love as a radiant capacity that flows, significantly, without surrender to a love object. An understanding of love as a destabilizing force, one that both connects and threatens to consume the individual, lies within this narrative of changing forms and emphases.
Wieland's representation, and thus constitution, of feminine desire has had a tremendous impact on the present generation of artists through its subversion of the hegemony of the male gaze. Because Wieland's drawings take the female subject as the point of reference in their expression of human intimacy, Twilit Record of Romantic Love demarcates a central facet of the hard-won development of women's position in this culture over the past four decades. (2) The drawings trace dramatic changes in attitudes toward love and sexuality, documenting the erosion of the formidable social model of heterosexual monogamy.
As Kass Banning has argued, critical writing on Wieland's work has fallen into two camps, the laudatory and the dismissive, with both sides slipping into a conflation of art and biography that forestalls meaningful interpretation. The accessibility of Wieland's imagery, its humour and frank sentiment, has to a certain extent caused her work to be given short shrift. Even the broad characterization of Wieland's oeuvre as feminist, nationalist and ecologist, while fair enough, can close off the complexities of the work in a way that amounts to dismissal. In this brief study, I attempt to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of the familiar 'Wieland', eluding both the baying dogs of idealization and the vortex of devaluation. To this end I largely eschew biography in favour of interpretation of change within a defined band of Wieland's production and examination of this work in terms of changing social values.
Wieland's early drawings convey the pleasures of new found romantic love in the cosy domesticity of Untitled (in France), 1954, (3) and the rapture of mutual attachment in Untitled. Although Wieland represents self-love in Woman Amusing Herself and love between women in Untitled, most of the works celebrate the heterosexual couple in the playful sensual fusion portrayed in Lovers and Untitled. As Marie Fleming has documented, Wieland's interest in erotic drawing was reinforced by exposure to Picasso's Vollard Suite in 1956. (4) Picasso's influence can be seen in both subject matter and means of rendering, from the spare contours that succinctly capture figural volume to the use of dense hatching and cubist elements. The urgent sensuality of Wieland's images is reminiscent of Picasso's work, but Wieland's feminine subjects are decidedly less passive.
A series of portraits of lovers reveals the complexity of intimacy and its relation to power. In several of these drawings, such as Untitled and Untitled, the woman anxiously watches the man while he looks out toward the viewer, a pattern of the gaze that suggests dependence. The fusion of couplehood in these early drawings is often marked by a wariness that emphasizes the vulnerability that love entails.
A dynamic of feminine dependency is made explicit in the ink drawing Woman is a Parasite. This work posits love as a dissolution of personal boundaries in which woman exists at the expense of a male host. The image is a telling diagram of experience, of the social conception of woman's position in relationship under patriarchy, with a partner who does not acknowledge benefit from the relationship.
Among Wieland's papers from this period are notes for a parodic advice column entitled 'Dorothy Dik'. In them, D. D. blames Troubled for the abuse she suffers, saying, 'look into yourself — and that's where the trouble is...You probably haven't curl[ed] your hair for weeks. And when was the last time you brought him his slippers?' Although the narrative exaggerates for comic effect, it clearly reveals Wieland's assessment of the position of women in relationship. At this time women bore full responsibility, moral and emotional, for sustaining (and enforcing) a system that did not serve them well. The ideal of monogamous union was to be achieved by suppression of feminine will in the guise of mutuality.
In addition to the pattern of the gaze noted above, Wieland's representation of the male and female figures exhibits a pattern of darkly hatched male and faintly rendered female subjects. While Jay Scott has suggested that Wieland's imagery contains an underlying dynamic of the absorption of the male into the female, in these early drawings the male is the central subject, either as the love object or as an unknowable, definitive presence. (5) The recurrent dark man is drawn with a density that occasionally approaches obliteration; the paper is scored by the vigour of the hatching, creating a fetishistic opacity that contrasts with the transparency of the feminine subject.
A 1956 suite of ink drawings models love as unstable and shows the fragmentation of the monogamous relationship. The floating Lovers are joined by a kiss, their bodies forming a graceful arc that poses love as a joyful, but precarious, state. In Picture Upset by the Moon, the domestic scene is disrupted by a moon: the cosmic emblem of love has fallen out of place, unleashing disorder into daily life. The image represents loss of love or the incursion of strife into the relationship. An undated cartoon in Wieland's archive makes less subtle reference to the war between the sexes: a woman with dishevelled hair regards a footed bowl and muses, 'Is this pot large enough to hold his head?' Here Wieland posits a close link between love and anger, expressing the frustration that arises from inability to control the loved one.
Another drawing from the 1956 suite, entitled Chain, is the first among these works to portray love as a connecting force that exceeds the monogamous relationship by extending beyond and between couples. The title suggests not only linkage but a compulsive and irrational sexual concourse: the chain of love depicted here is repetitive and insistent. Through the 1950s, romantic love has traced a path from blissful union to an unsettling and compulsive tie between men and women. While the loss of the specificity of the love object is not liberating, the playful graphic style suggests that such love is pleasurable.
In Wieland's prolific outpouring of love imagery in the early 1960s, love is conceived as a socially diffuse and increasingly eroticized state. In contrast to the drawings of the previous decade, there is a near absence of representations of the unitary couple in Wieland's work through this period; multiple couplings and biomorphic renderings of sexuality dominate.
In some respects, the 1961 Figures, with its crowd of fragmenting and merging figures, best depicts the ambience of this new territory of romantic love. Although the sexual identity of the mingling figures is somewhat ambiguous, the image shows a male figure surrounded by women. His collage head has been redrawn in a vestige of Wieland's earlier pattern of overworking the male subject. But if the male is centrally positioned in Figures, it is the energy of strident female sexuality that dominates: anxious glances are no longer directed his way. Love here is reduced to an anonymous sexual movement. The slippage of sexual activity from the bonds of monogamous social convention is clear in a series of pencil-over-chalk drawings from the same year. In The Lovers #26, little copulating figures prance in a landscape of breakaway emblematic forms such as monumental genitals and hearts adorned with spiky (pubic?) hair. In this work, the multiplicity of relationship observed in Chain is more explicitly erotic: The Lovers #26 presents a fantasy of orgiastic frolic. Other images from the period suggest that this pleasure does not come without cost. The pierced hearts and isolated figurative blotch of Twilit Record of Romantic Love convey a strong sense of loss. Wieland's use of bloodlike red ink in this work and in Untitled refers to both sexuality and idealized love. (6)
Wieland's work of this period moves away from figurative images to schema of emblematic forms that posit love as a game. This notion of a game suggests both playful detachment and rules of exchange. Wieland spells out the symbology of exchange in a cartoon-like iconographic key found among the drawings of this period: the dollar sign stands for money, the heart for love and the phallus for sex. In a context of rapidly shifting social conventions and beliefs, Wieland maps out elements of human motivation, the objects of desire which function as tokens of power.
Paul Kelley describes the advent of the free love ethos in the 1960s thus:
If love is no longer tied to conventional family structure, sexuality becomes a territory to be explored for its own sake. Wieland's drawings appear to document and express this change in mores, but they pre-date widespread social change. When several works from this series were exhibited in the Isaacs Gallery in the early 1960s, the rising divorce rate and the availability of reliable birth control in the form of the pill, markers of the so-called sexual revolution, had only begun to change public attitudes. Although the 1960s is popularly identified as a decade of free love, Kelley states, 'the period of love, drugs and social activism did not actually begin until about 1965 and ended around 1975.' (8) The 'double standard' that accepted male promiscuity and condemned female sexual activity outside marriage remained deeply entrenched through most of the decade. Geoffrey James points out that the 'open eroticism' of Wieland's work of the early 1960s was remarkable in the 'prudish moral climate' of Toronto. (9)
The mingled anatomical elements that emphasize bodily pleasure and diagram the erotic impulse at the same time suggest a loss of coherent self-concept. For example, in the entangled genitals, arteries and organs of Untitled sexuality is a visceral event, a forcing open of capacities that is both pleasurable and full of the risk of dissolution. The wheeling cellular forms of Untitled and the towering phallus of The Lovers #44 have an air of mechanistic compulsion. (10)
These drawings take an almost clinical interest in the process of sexuality. The monumental breast of Untitled parallels Wieland's observation of the breast in the 1964 film Water Sark, footage described by Kay Armitage as 'a sequence that combines almost scientific contemplation with the expression of erotic pleasure curiously without narcissism.' (11) The assertion of the feminine sexual imagination in these works is not contained in a firm subjecthood. The drawings celebrate the pleasure of sexuality while acknowledging its power and capacity for personal dissolution. They constitute a significant visualization of feminine desire in a field stocked in this period by images of female subjugation to male desire, for example in the work of Wieland's peers Dennis Burton, Graham Coughtry and Robert Markle.
In the 1970s, Wieland's Picasso-inspired output of love imagery waned. The pleasure and optimism of the earlier drawings is increasingly infected by awareness of women's lack of power in relationship, of the social cost of the failure of ideals of romantic couplehood and of the pain that so often accompanies intimacy. Nature displaces man as the primary love object.
Drawing for 'The Far Shore' Poster, prepared to accompany Wieland's feature length film, marks a significant turning point in the artist's conception of love. (12) This 'Northern Love Story' confronts the impulse for an ideal of love and the impossibility of its realization in the form of an equitable relationship between men and women. The direct gaze and implied forward movement in Wieland's depiction of the heroine Eulalie in the poster portrait suggest that her desire will not be compromised. The artist and free-spirit, Tom, is the love object that draws Eulalie from the strictures of an unhappy marriage, but their passion can exist only suspended in water, a sensual medium that signals their removal from social realities. The narrative solution in the film, implicit in its title and in the poster drawing, is the woman's disappearance to the unattainable realm of the 'far shore,' a desired space of actualized love that does not yet exist in the social landscape. Refusal and removal are Eulalie's only options for change; the natural world offers refuge from stormy and unsatisfactory human love. (13)
Through the 1970s, love of nature in the form of sentient story-book animals, particularly rabbits and deer, emerges in Wieland's drawings. The artist describes this human / animal continuum in a 1987 interview,
With the erosion of heterosexual monogamy, the romantic impulse is redirected.
This change occurred in a context of a reformulation of relations between the sexes in North America. The birth rate reached its lowest point in the post-WWII period in 1975, the proportion of women in the paid work force rose dramatically, and a wave of feminist activism called into question the social tenets of the previous generation.
Wieland herself suffered a traumatic loss in 1978 with the end of her marriage to Michael Snow and sought emotional healing in cosmology, most particularly Anthroposophy. (15) This off-shoot of the 19th-century spiritualist movement, Theosophy, espouses the fundamental unity of all beings and the infusion of matter with spirit. The 1979 drawing Abandoned conveys a desperate vulnerability and the sustaining role of the natural world. Here the rabbit appears as a spirit guide / companion in what at first seems an improbable conflation of Beatrix Potter and Joseph Beuys. Nature is the source of love. (16)
In the 1979 He tells her the story of how his father killed him when he was a child, the rabbit is once again the mediator between the viewer and the image, its steady gaze inviting the viewer to witness events. The connecting gaze of the animal spirit guide displaces that of the male observed in the drawings of the 1950s.
He tells her the story...portrays the disturbing dynamic of love in which woman functions as a canvas for male pain, literally and figuratively wounded in a vicious embrace. The conflagration in the distance confirms that this is not an isolated event but part of a widespread loss of order. The woman responds to the man's revelation of childhood trauma with both terror and compassion. It is in the context of this recognition of the destructive capacity of intimacy that Wieland's 1980s drawings must be understood. Like Eulalie diving into the water to escape the irresolvable contradictions of her desires, Wieland dives into the sweet ablutions of the coloured pencil drawings. (17)
In 1981, Wieland exhibited a group of coloured pencil works at the Isaacs Gallery under the title The Bloom of Matter. (18) The delicately rendered round and oval drawings suggest, in the Anthroposophical tradition, that all matter percolates with the divine light of love. Historical and mythological figures are called upon to situate individual experience. The manic sensuality of works such as Victory of Venus is reminiscent of the orgiastic works of the 1960s, but with telling differences in their soothing prettiness, the rampant presence of nature and the suppressed role of the male subject. Likewise Beloved Rose, a fleshy pastoral dedicated to Wieland's mother, proposes a decidedly feminine and naturist chain of nurture in a realm of sexual plenitude. (19)
Wieland's coloured pencil works are perceived by many as being at odds with both mainstream art practice and social realities in this period: their open sentiment and delicately fashioned eroticism lead Martha Fleming to charge Wieland with 'purposive ignorance of all that surrounds her.' (20) But, seen in the context of Wieland's long engagement with the subject of love, these lyrical pantheistic images express not ignorance but willful cultivation of a counter reality, a sustaining fantastic realm. Wieland's drawings respond to the loss of certainties of a culture in decline: in the face of the cumulative failure of social structures and ideals, she turns to spiritualism and an historicism that seeks continuities. Ruptured expectations are smoothed over by a stubborn romanticism that may be viewed as facile vacuity or as heroic triumph, depending on one's degree of cynicism.
Her Love is so Strange reiterates the vertiginous structure of the 1981 painting The End of Life as She Knew It. Love is held out like a gift in a final generous gesture; the universe itself seems to writhe with the energy of love. The plaintive optimism of these recent drawings is a tenacious expression of faith in love. They carry the same willful determination and willingness to work against the grain of fashion that allowed Wieland to produce the feisty eroticism and social critique of her earlier drawings.
In the preface to Fragments of a Lover's Discourse (1977), Roland Barthes points out the eviction of love from social discourse:
Wieland's drawings on the subject of love echo Barthes' lament. From cartoon-like pencil drawings to highly finished coloured pencil tondi, Wieland's acute observation brings us back insistently to love as a motivating force.
The trajectory of Wieland's changing conception of love moves from enchanted couplehood, through erotic love and pain-filled alienation to a diffuse transcendent love. For romantic ideals of couplehood, these drawings form an animation storyboard of disaster, reminiscent of Wieland's sail boat and plane crash works of the 1960s. While the goal of monogamous bliss silently and inexorably plummets earthward, victim of indifferent forces, the love that flows without an object pulses on.
The motif of twilight offers a pervasive image of longing and of change. In the late twentieth century, romantic love dwells in the half-light: as the planet rolls away from the life-giving sun, we experience the magic hour of amplified emotions, nostalgia and gentle regret, a light that so intrigued the Symbolist painters in northern Europe at the close of the last century. Twilit Record of Romantic Love documents the extrication of love from faith in a monogamous solution and the embrace of transcendent forces to give meaning to individual life.
from the catalogue
Text: © Jan Allen. All rights reserved.
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