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Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Barbara Lounder
Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, July 2 19, 1986

Vanguard, Vol. 15 #5, Oct/Nov 1986.
[ 932 words ]

It has been interesting to watch Barbara Lounder learning to make her work 'work', to transcend the didactic for the frisson that will drive the point home, unforgettably. In the process she improves her defences against the obvious criticisms made against anyone who tries, in her art, to 'deal with the issues', as the liberal phraseology has it, confronting her life. So she is charged with näiveté. She has also to deal with the psychoanalysis that, on some level, she is attracted by the repellant, and the charge that, by drawing our attention to reports of 'issues' in the media she is merely compounding the extent to which we are trapped as passive recipients. The despair and sense of uselessness which prolonged exposure to this level of mediated experience induces need no compounding, the argument goes, and it has long been apparent that we are victims of a lot of mediocre journalism.

Should this new work, Trouble Dolls, which is not illumined with streaks of optimism or beauty, be taken as a challenge to more effective oppositional action? Or does it taunt us with our inaction? Is it possible to detect a strategy behind this piling on of agony, so much shapeless tragedy, the antithesis of the orchestrated Aristotelian catharsis?

Lounder has learnt the force of imagery and at the same time how to control the informational aspect of her work. It is making her into a formidable practitioner of the text and image genre. She shows how this genre might mature to the point where it offers the kind of 'experience' that it originally eschewed as only attendant on the frivolous and irrelevant fetishization of the object.

In Trouble Dolls (for Beatriz Marroquin) Lounder, making use of what is becoming one of her most favoured devices, allows the press coverage, the newspaper clippings stained carmine, to tell the appalling story of Beatriz Marroquin, a suspected Guatemalan 'subversive', her failed attempt to find refuge in Canada from the fate that she knew awaited her, and the bureaucratic failure which sealed it. In what seems like an act of homage and penance, Lounder has painstakingly reproduced by hand, in actual size, seven double page spreads from one of the standard books on the subject, Indian crafts from Guatemala and El Salvador by Lilly de Jongh Osborne, both the author's original coloured illustrations and the accompanying text. Her gesture is a kind of apology for the detached, tourist's, 'folklorique' interest in things from Central America — the peasant dresses, woven bags, bright hangings.

But the desperately poignant image that brought together the necessarily partial documentation of a tragedy, the still more partial information about Guatemala found in the selective biases of 'folklore', were the minute 'Trouble Dolls'. Found in an import store in Halifax, the label tells that these little beings, scarcely an inch high, bound in brightly coloured wools and scraps of cloth, may, at night, each be told one trouble and then put under the pillow. After sleep the trouble will have vanished.

Lounder had made two of them larger than life, uniting the symbolism of the dolls with the death of Beatriz Marroquin to produce an icon strong enough to challenge the futility of that death. The work is also a kind of atonement in the same sense as Jamelie Hassan's Desaparecidos. The figures dominated the gallery, awkward like the time, and scale out of joint. No longer appealing miniatures, their deformities were all too apparent. The facial features of these stick bodies were distorted, they had no hands, and we have read of the torments of Marroquin. It is all too evident that there are Guatemalan troubles that cannot be told away.

Papier Maché, an installation that occupied a room at Ecphore (the open, un-juried exhibition held for the second year in the empty building which formerly housed the City Club in downtown Halifax, August 4 -14) continued the theme of victimization by the mass print media, was a wry comment on her own practice and, like Trouble Dolls, found its focus in an image, another appealing idea transported from Central America. The walls and sloping attic ceiling were papered with clippings from the North American press dealing sequentially with all the woes: chemical pollution, nuclear danger, women's rights, native rights, the defence industry in Canada, arms control . . . Suspended amongst this mush of 'information' were the Papier Maché piñatas. They may have left their precise, native meanings behind, but they still travel with the power of their inherent definition: beautiful, bright, carefully made objects that can only withstand a certain amount of the battering that, usually, children are invited to give them in search of the goodies trapped inside. Lounder's pinãtas, bird, snake, spider, were only partially gratifying. Broken open they disgorged, along with the candies, skeins of tumbleweed and, in Papier Maché, fragments of flesh.

Lounder has added a new layer of significance to these extraordinary objects. Again, brightly coloured, exotic creatures from another culture stand in complex counterpoint to the signifieds of the wordy paper environment in which they are to be scrutinized or assaulted. One feels for them. Amongst several metaphorical readings available we are wrapped and bound and some kind of assault is necessary to free us.


Vanguard, Vol. 15 #5, Oct/Nov 1986


Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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