|Carolyn Bell Farrell
A Sense of Place: Mary Brogger and Susan Schelle
Oakville Galleries, Oakville Ontario,
Aug.7 - Oct. 24, 1993
From the catalogue
[ 3,781 words ]
. . . the past, since it cannot be really destroyed, . . . must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently — Umberto Eco (1)
We are accustomed to viewing irony as a self-deprecating mode of humour. But if skilfully fashioned, it may become an articulate weapon against our own complacency. A self-reflexive tactic, irony allows us to see behind the masks, the veils of our persona. It enables us to traverse and scrutinize the imprints of tradition, to which we have so unwittingly become identified. Through contradiction, disparity and the inversion of expectation, irony reveals the dichotomy between imposed patterns of behaviour and lived experience. Exposing the fictive status of conventions which have become normalized, the ironic construction engenders a critical reappraisal of what has been taken for the 'real' or 'natural'.
In postmodern practice, irony is closely aligned with the strategies of fragmentation, discontinuity and decentralization, employed by artists to deconstruct the ideological messages encoded in the traditions of Western representation. Both a revision and a resistance, irony intervenes, refuting the authority of these representations. Through the transgression of convention, irony destabilizes concepts of hierarchy, privilege and status perpetuated by the dominant culture. Distorting the old and making room for the new, the ironic expression allows artists to address a dominant culture from within its own structures of understanding, while contesting and resisting those structures. A double-edged sword, irony elucidates while casting doubt. (2)
Appropriating images and forms from the decorative arts, Susan Schelle and Mary Brogger engage in reshaping the past in light of the present. Schelle's intimate sculptures combine exquisite copies of eighteenth century mahogany furniture with meticulously hand-woven tapestries and art historical references. Using perforated steel, Brogger builds sculptural works reminiscent of Louis XV period pieces. Like Schelle's Queen Anne reproductions, her rococo-style curtains, love seats and carpets convey an historical resonance and the opulence of a seemingly more gracious era. The draping of her steel curtains recall fine fabrics, their stylized floral patterning echoing the stock wallpapers and furniture design of the Euro-American elite. Elements associated with high design, these visual imprints persist as memories held by popular culture. Reminders of a past splendour and a cultural lineage to the European aristocracy, they continue to epitomize, and validate, notions of taste, wealth and social standing. The nostalgia evoked by these familiar forms and patterns is tempered, however, by the irony pervasive in these works. Through their constructions, the artists encourage a re-examination of the legacies embodied in these cultural expressions.
Deception and irony are not identical, but they are 'close neighbours'. Both rely on a disparity between appearance and reality. In deception, the reality is withheld. In irony, it is implicit. (3) The artists' pieces in A Sense of Place assume the outward guise of functional objects from domestic culture — footstools, plate shelves, a chandelier. This categorization is reinforced by their presentation within what was once a private home. A sympathetic setting, these domestic-scaled objects are placed throughout the series of small rooms, responding closely to the interior architectural details. Yet, the fit is uneasy. The solitary positioning of each work relates to the traditional viewing conditions of sculpture. The arrangement and elevation of forms, and their particular execution, denies their presumed utilitarian purpose. Adopting these presentational strategies, the artists subvert the classification of these objects as merely functional forms, contesting the historically prescribed canons which distinguish high art from craft.
Questioning ideas of hierarchy and status associated with the art object, Schelle and Brogger extend these concerns to address broader hierarchical structures within our society, particularly the privileges aligned with class and gender. The forked tongue of irony becomes an effective tool to disclose these hidden hierarchies and polarizations. It offers a means to expose and invert the value-laden divisions between high art and craft, public and private, masculine and feminine.
The hierarchical division of arts and crafts commenced during the Renaissance, and is usually ascribed to social and economic factors separating artists from artisans. The fine arts became the domain of the privileged classes while applied arts were practised by the working class. This division was further elaborated into separate spheres of gendered activity. High art was not only deemed the province of the cultured elite, but became associated with masculinity, the public sphere and professional practice. The domestic arts, on the other hand, were aligned with femininity, the private sphere and the home — the non-social space of sentiment and duty. (4) Creativity was essentially appropriated as an ideological component of masculinity, while femininity was constructed as the artist's negative — the non-male. Women and their productions, particularly those belonging to the domestic and the utilitarian, were confined to a radically separate and marginal place, outside of Western culture and Western history.
The presentation of these works within Gairloch Gallery underscores and ironically subverts the doctrine of separate spheres. It accentuates the elevation of the feminine or domestic arts to 'high art', and the corresponding transition from the private realm to the public space. Within these ironic expressions, the seen and the unseen exchange places in the hierarchy.
A Sense of Place continues Susan Schelle's exploration of women's experience and place within patriarchal society. In these works, the artist looks at femininity as a culturally assigned position within a complex network of power relations. Through various strategies, she externalizes the repressive social conventions which circumscribe feminine behaviour. Within several pieces on exhibit, Schelle incorporates the medium of needlepoint, a practice which bears an intimate relation with women's lives and domestic tradition in Western society. The cultural heritage and gender associations invested in this medium offer a mode of engagement. At the same time, Schelle's ironic presentations unmask our own complicity with the legacy of nineteenth century attitudes, attitudes which view needlework as a timeless, mindless burden of tradition, a minor art positioned outside of culture and outside of work.
Tools for transmitting behaviour from mother to daughter, needlework and embroidery were intended to inculcate feminine virtues — patience, piety, obedience, humility, silence, self-containment — the ensuing behaviour to be envisioned as innate or natural. From the eighteenth century, they came to signify an aristocratic life style, affirming a man's social and economic standing by offering evidence of his ability to support a leisured wife. Once accepted as a vehicle for inculcating and manifesting femininity in the privileged classes, these art forms were adopted by the working classes, while retaining their class associations. Ultimately, needlework became an instrument of self-effacement in the construction of femininity for women of all classes. (5)
Solitaire includes nine tapestry-covered Queen Anne footstools, arranged in a rectangle and presented on a raised base. Countering our expectation of a colourful floral motif, Schelle's tapestries display stylized black and white images of contemporary objects — a set of books, an envelope, a pair of glasses, a domino, a camera. Through these spare singular shapes, the artist creates a network of codes. Signifying solitary leisure activities, they rephrase the card game cited in the title. While a pastime associated with women of leisure, needlepoint is also a solitary, repetitive and manual task, a labour-intensive activity designed to fill time for lack of other more meaningful occupations.
Similarly, Sampler consists of a monochromatic tapestry depicting a numerical sequence from one to sixty hand-woven around its perimeter. Here, Schelle visually quotes the monotony and oppression of women's lives — the slow passage of time, the long hours spent sitting still, alone, confined to the home, with one's head bowed over a tedious and demanding task. Mounted in a black frame and resting on an ornate mahogany easel, its presentation ironically underscores the limitations of practising art with a needle and thread, while the pronounced lack of personal expression becomes a visual metaphor for the constraints imposed by the feminine ideal. Privileged Skin also cites the physical and emotional confinement of women, as well as the intricate interdependence of class, race and gender. In lieu of a treasured memento displayed under glass, this Queen Anne curio table contains the words 'PRIVILEGED SKIN' woven into the natural silk surface.
In all of these pieces, the artist's presence is conspicuously absent. The stark images combined with their flawless execution belie the fact that they are handmade. Despite the hundreds of hours necessary to produce these tapestries, no trace of the artist's 'hand' remains. The invisibility of the creator makes reference to traditional crafts and the feminine realm of domestic arts where authorship has been effaced — in opposition to the realm of fine art where value relics on authenticity, originality and the 'signature' of the artist, and where concept ranks over manual skill. Through these pieces, Schelle calls attention to the invisibility of the artisan, of women artists and of women in general within Western society.
In Collect, Schelle's irreverent tongue in cheek humour is targeted at the status of the art object itself, as a social sign entrenched within systems productive of power, privilege and value. This two-part piece consists of a mahogany shelf supporting a circular silver tray engraved with the word 'Collect.' Opposite the tray is a small portrait of a Flemish woman slicing bread, reminiscent of a seventeenth century Dutch genre painting. The picture is enveloped by an oversized gilt frame, foregrounding the art work as a marker of taste and investment. While projecting a veneer of an historicity, the portrait's representation as a black and white photograph undermines its authenticity and displaces it within a transhistoncal context. Summoning bourgeoisie ideologies of femininity and domestic labour, Schelle alludes to the fact that women have been economically and politically powerless through much of history, questioning the close identification of Western art with the wealth, power and position of those w ho commissioned and purchased it.
Images of women in Western culture have a particular history, one which represents them as passive, possessed and on display. While women have been excluded from this structure as producers of art, they have been included as the object of contemplation. Souvenir offers a literal expression of women's exclusion from the society of male producers, and their seclusion as ornament. Comprised of twelve 9-inch porcelain plates edged in gold, each rests on an individual mahogany shelf. These souvenir plates present pairs of women dressed in traditional ethnic costume, transposed from black and white photographs taken in the 1920s and 1930s. Posed and gazing back at the camera, the women embody stereotypical notions of femininity, while the textures of their hair, skin and dress reinforce the interplay between artifice and nature. In these images, the identity of the women is submerged by their costuming, yet Schelle avoids the seduction of colour and beauty associated with these kinds of fabrics. As in Solitaire, her restraint generates a critical neutrality which defamiliarizes the work. At the same time, her precise, controlled presentation — the cool, clean facade her works project — intentionally mirrors the nature of the social conditioning which women in particular have been subjected to, one which inhibits behaviour and experience by stressing the pretext of maintaining appearances.
SMLXL rephrases the sentiments expressed in Souvenir, but with a subversive twist. The essence of femininity is most often linked to the body. Here, in place of traditional renderings of the female figure, the precious gold frames surround patterned configurations of miniature black and white dice, conforming to the size demarcations listed in the title. Body size, one of the ways in which women 'measure themselves', is literally expressed as the consequence of the roll of the dice. Despite the obvious playfulness which characterizes this and other pieces by the artist, we experience a marked sense of unease in apprehending Schelle's work. Her quiet ironies are discomforting, as they unexpectedly touch upon values and attitudes to which we, if only unconsciously, subscribe.
Irony is a place of paradox, the space between two worlds: past and present, visible and invisible, permanent and impermanent. Through this inherent duplicity, the ironic expression disrupts any notion of a singular, stable, unified meaning, becoming a form of cognitive dissonance. Mary Brogger's works reside in the place of paradox, her equivocal forms simultaneously affirming and negating the qualities they purport.
Like Schelle, Brogger's practice involves the reproduction of objects and images belonging to past cultures. In these forms, she mirrors our desire to hold onto the prevailing values, ideas and assumptions which have shaped both personal and public identities. This desire becomes particularly pronounced in an era characterized by a constantly changing sense of reality. To cope with these feelings of estrangement and displacement, a continuum is sought — an identification of the past with the present, where each is projected onto the other. Brogger's fixed representations rephrase this identification with the convictions instilled and validated by history. At the same time, the sense of permanence, of continuity, embodied in her static steel forms is thwarted by factors of change which invade and animate these pieces.
Brogger's 'chandelier' incorporates an elaborate steel armature threaded with beads of ice, the effect simulating crystal. Essentially a performance work, the ice begins to melt on contact. A pronounced sense of anxiety, of time fleeing, is experienced in witnessing the melting ice which, within hours, dissolves into a reflective pool of water on the gallery floor. Here, Brogger comments not only on the ephemerality of beauty, but on the fictional belief in an eternal, unchanging society devoid of contradiction, discontinuity and transformation.
A solitary Chippendale-influenced 'settee' with a damask pattern executed in pierced steel is obliquely situated in the panelled 'dining room' of Gairloch. Part of a series of 'furniture quotes' produced by the artist from an encyclopedia of decorative arts, (6) this piece reiterates the idea of copying — of deliberately imitating the past — so apparent in Schelle's work. Despite being steel, the settee is constructed from a thin metal sheet, its vulnerability accentuated by the torn and rusted edges — visible signs of its slow, but inevitable corrosion. Starkly lit, the settee's long shadow conveys an impression of greater solidity than the actual piece.
Within the setting of Gairloch, Brogger's patterned floor-piece approximates a 'Persian carpet' belonging to a domestic interior. At the same time, its material properties, its solitary placement in the gallery room and its slightly elevated position infer an object of 'high art.' Suspended on hundreds of straight pins, it maintains an illusion of floating. Hovering above the ground, the light plays with the intricate filigree patterning, casting subtle shadows on the floor. The effects resemble water moving over sand, or an aerial view of a terrain through passing clouds. For the artist, the carpet becomes a kind of 'surface mapping,' (7) in which a two-dimensional veneer is projected onto three-dimensional space. I'nable to walk on it, the viewer becomes physically excluded, re-positioned as an observer contemplating an aesthetic object. Operating in much the same way as Schelle's Solitaire, the sense of hierarchy between fine art forms and domestic crafts becomes askew. Like Schelle, Brogger also raises issues of anonymity in labour, the straight pins making reference to textiles and women's industries, as well as the precarious support structure for making art.
This paradoxical relationship between material and function characterizes all of Brogger's pieces. A curtain is essentially a veil, a soft fabric covering used for warmth, privacy and protection from the light. In Brogger's 'curtain', light permeates and dematerializes a solid substance, undermining the curtain's presumed utilitarian purpose. Although constructed of steel, the delicate patterned spaces suggest fragility, negating the metal's intrinsic qualities of durability, rigidity and imperviousness to the elements. In a similar manner, an upholstered settee suggests a solid form which is both pliable and yielding. Brogger's steel construction refutes these connotations, while the patterning creates a visual dialogue between interior and exterior space. This paradox is accentuated by Brogger's ironic application of a traditionally 'masculine' material to 'feminine' forms, pointing to the instability of categories determined by social convention.
Brogger has continued to work with the damask pattern over the past few years, a motif originating from the incised filigree decorations on steel swords imported to Europe from Damascus. Within this body of work, it underlines the importation and appropriation of Eastern art forms by Western European culture, and reconnects the pattern to her choice of material. Brogger's floor-to-ceiling curtain created for this exhibition is intricately cut in a light-scattering paisley pattern. Her reliance on daylight to animate this piece emphasizes the cyclical nature of time. This concept is rephrased through her choice of paisley, an Eastern pattern ingrained in Western aesthetics which is marked by its continual reappearance within the cycles of fashion.
Stencilling the decorative pattern onto steel sheets, Brogger then cuts the sheets by hand, linking the individual pieces together. In contrast to the seamlessness of the carpet, the visible links and the rough edges of the pieces expose their fabrication while imbuing the piece with a more aggressive tenor. Placed several feet in front of the window, the curtain also oscillates between two and three-dimensions. In contrast to the dynamic play of light and the colourful garden flowers visible through the patterned spaces, it appears as a stark, rigid frame. Reduced in dimension, colour and material, it becomes a mere silhouette, an outer shell or mask.
Just as Schelle's contemporary black and white designs displace the historical designation of her objects, Brogger's use of contemporary materials and current technologies counter the visible allusions to the past, resituating her work as post-Minimalist sculpture. The artist initially projects a decorative pattern onto sheets of steel. Employing an electrical current, she uses a 'plasma cutter' to trace the pattern. Through this approach, her work transcends the dichotomy between the realm of crafts and the technology of electronic imagery. As in needlework, the activity entails a puncturing of the material's surface. By piercing the steel, the pattern is formed. Its identity is created through negative space, through absence, achieved by literally cutting into the outer facade.
Although Brogger's works project a strong physical presence, the presence of the individual artist within the work is removed. Like Schelle's pieces, this 'aura' of absence raises questions around authorship, originality and identity, which are further conflated by Brogger's appropriation of historical designs. Rather than expressions of personal reminiscences, the images inspiring her pieces reside in a public, historical domain. While her furnishings are handcrafted, little evidence of the artist's labour remains. It's as if the artist becomes invisible in the process of creation. Her subjective impressions retreat behind a mask of pre-existing representations.
We fulfill positions suggested to us from an early age, imitating something of the conditions into which we are born. Through this repertoire of roles, we represent ourselves. For each role, we adopt a mask. In contrast to the mobile expressions of the human face, the mask is fixed, a crystallization of attitudes, values and ideas. This mask is our rigidity, our attachment to convention and our stake in the world: it is our self-image. Like a two-way mirror, the mask sends a message outside as well as inside. As we grow to conform to our masks, we tend to confuse the mask with the person behind it, taking the role for the player. As long as these masks are more real to us than our own unseen reality, we continue to be played by our roles. The challenge lies in playing the role consciously, seeing the difference between the outer mask and the inner person. This is the function of irony.
Within their individual-practices, Brogger and Schelle create works which operate as metaphors for the disparity between coded reality and authentic experience. For these artists, irony is not merely a deconstructive strategy. It has a corrective purpose. While its reflexive capabilities foster a critical rethinking of how historical values shape self-perception, irony moves beyond a mental construct. For Brogger and Schelle, it becomes a vehicle to a psychological space. Inviting complicity and distance, their ironic expressions enable us to see that we are inescapably implicated in that which we contest. Oscillating between convention and subject, they prevent our identification with either, opening up a new position in which contradiction is embraced. By actually placing us in the paradox, we not only see the mask as worn by others, but we feel it on ourselves. Like adding a little silver to the glass, their irony turns our outward gaze back in upon itself.
From the catalogue A Sense of Place
Text: © Carolyn Bell Farrell. All rights reserved.
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