| Liz Wylie
Barbara Astman: personal / persona — A 20-Year Survey
from the catalogue
[ 6,451 words ]
The gathering together of twenty years of Barbara Astman's art production, both for exhibition and for reproduction and discussion in this catalogue, provides the opportunity to evaluate that body, to attempt to examine and ponder it, not only in its own context, but also in the various contexts of its creation and reception.
The structure and format of this catalogue are intended to parallel the artist's practice, which has been generally to create work in discrete series, each one quite distinct from another. Rather than presenting the catalogue text as one seamless whole then, it has been conceived as units or blocks, each one tied to specific groups of work. And rather than relying on the single, 'authoritative' voice of the exhibition's curator, the catalogue text is interpolated with — at times wholly consisting of — quotations from the artist's statements over the years and excerpts from relevant texts by other authors on Astman's work. By these means it is hoped to evoke some flavour and indication of the artist's own ideas as well as the critical reception of her work at any given period. Interspersed with these components are contemporary elucidating and/or connecting passages by the curator, making for a potential multi-dimensional reading of the artist's work.
As well as paralleling the structure of Astman's artistic practice, this essay format can also be seen as a metaphor for the experience a woman can have of her own life: that of finding herself in different settings and situations as she changes and grows, each new circumstance forming a separate chapter; fallow times, and periods of production and new directions. Certainly, Barbara Astman's practice has tended to reflect, embody and engage with this structure of lived experience, so it is intended that the catalogue format will underline and harmonize with this aspect of her work.
The Early Work 1974 -1977
When Barbara Astman graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1973 at the age of 22 she began immediately to exhibit her work professionally. She was included in group shows in Toronto and, in 1973, she had a solo exhibition at Laura Jones's Baldwin Street Gallery of Photography. Astman's early and experimental work with the colour photocopier attracted wide attention and interest. In the mid-seventies, colour photocopier technology was not yet available in Toronto, so the artist made periodic visits to her home town of Rochester, New York, to produce the pieces. Astman was instrumental in establishing the pioneering Visual Arts Ontario's Colour Xerography program (which is still in existence), and she continued to administer it until 1983. Her own idiosyncratic structure in her use of the medium was inspired by Mexican serial, photographic 'soap opera' magazines. Relying on a storyboard, narrative format (for example, depicting her friends and acquaintances on imaginary trips), Astman also played off traditional forms of imagery in popular culture, such as the family snapshot and photo album.
Initially, Astman had been studying silversmithing and design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, School for American Craftsmen, hoping to develop a practical outlet for her interest and talent in the visual arts. She eventually found this unsatisfying and socially irrelevant. She toured the Ontario College of Art facilities when she visited Toronto to see the Bauhaus exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1970, and decided to apply. (Now, some 24 years later, she is still on faculty at the OCA and has been one of the College's important instructors in alternative processes in photography, drawing and painting.)
Astman first studied sculpture, not photography, at OCA, starting with clay and plaster, creating traditional busts and heads. She also did some work in aluminum, making wave forms, which she then placed in beach settings. It was in photo-documenting her sculptural pieces that she stumbled across photography and realized she had found a medium with which she could truly have free rein to explore the areas and issues that excited her. She moved quickly and deftly into black-and-white photography, sewn-and-stuffed photo pieces, created using pre-sensitized photo linen, then her colour photocopy work. With her quasi-documentary style and exploration of new photo-media, Astman inserted herself into the vanguard of so-called 'camera art' activity in Canada, along with artists such as Suzy Lake. ('Camera art' was the term used by American artist and writer Les Levine in his catalogue essay for a show by the same name of 24 Quebec artists, produced by Optica in Montreal in 1974.)
Astman's art of the mid-1970s was heady, quirky, visually rich, all created in a spirit of innocent celebration. Ubiquitous nudity, funky appliqués, casual non-traditional portraits of friends and lovers, embodied a bottom-line daring disregard for the generally unquestioned male hegemony in art schools and within both the market and prevailing ideology of the art world in the 1970s. A feminist approach to art stemming from the women's movement of the 1960s was only in its infancy at this time. (Judy Chicago published Through the Flower in 1975; Lucy Lippard, From the Centre, in 1976.) Astman's work was among the first that any of us saw that was unabashedly female. With the personal, private feeling of entries in diaries or journals, or items pasted into scrapbooks, Astman's images were intimate and appealing, but also amazingly brazen and confident.
The artist's use of the storyboard format in the mid-seventies took the conceptual grid apparatus a step further, playing with the notion of narrative. Works like Some reasons for getting to know Italy orOn Tour with Myra (1977) weren't strident, belligerent, or overtly political, but they were completely her own and they seemed to embody a blithe disregard for the intimidating paradigms we faced as art students and emerging artists in those years. They seemed, oddly, to be about self-expression, which is what so many of us were blud-geoned into abandoning at art school in the 1970s in favour of a rigorous conceptualism. It is important at least to attempt to mentally reconstruct how exciting and radical this work was back in 1974. In Canada at this time, conceptual work was still at the fore, but the notion of the supremacy or authority of earth works and much other neo-dada 'information' art was dwindling. New Image painting began in Canada in the mid- to late-70s with artists like Tim Zuck and Eric Fischl working at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax and painters like Shirley Wiitasalo in Toronto. Also in Toronto, the 'generation' of abstract painters following in the footsteps of Jack Bush (who died in 1977) began to dominate the upscale, collectible scene. They were to be followed by the so-called Queen Street 'generation' of artists including those who organized the 1983 Chromaliving exhibition, for example.
To experience Astman's mid-1970s bodies of work now is to do so through a pronounced veil of nostalgia, both for a time that is gone and for a period of life when one was adult enough to have mature experiences, but young enough to be free from responsibilities. Surely unaware at the time that she was embalming this experience in her work, Astman captured, nevertheless, the richness and poignancy of these years, just on the fly.
In 1976 Astman was taken on by the Sable-Castelli Gallery in Toronto, where she continued to exhibit her work regularly through the 1980s. This exposure and 'accreditation' brought her art to the attention of magazine and newspaper reviewers and, indeed, most of her exhibitions were reviewed both in the local press and in national art magazines. Generally, the reception was positive, and people began to follow her production. Toronto Globe and Mail art critic John Bentley Mays asked eagerly in 1984, 'What is Barbara Astman going to think of next?'
In 1975, Lorraine Monk, of the Stills Division of the National Film Board, gave Astman a solo show in their Ottawa exhibition space, and she subsequently made a substantial purchase of the body of work exhibited (now in the collection of the NFB Stills Division's successor, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography). This was important accreditation and encouragement also, especially since her work was not about straight photography, but photography moved radically into the realms of sculpture and design.
As well as participating in several group exhibitions of photography, both in Canada and the U.S.A., during the 1970s, in 1976 Astman was included in a group exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, of artists using the colour photocopy medium, organized by curator Karyn Allen. This show was among the first in North America to explore the work of artists using this new medium and sprang from Allen's interest in artists exploring new technologies.
The Visual Narrative Series 1978 - 1979
Astman began working with the Polaroid camera in 1977, while on vacation, when she had no access to a colour photocopier. She instantly responded to the sensuous, soft surface of the SX-70 prints (as opposed to the grain present in silver-process photography). As well, the richness and painterly quality of the colour was very appealing. And the so-called 'instant camera' was immediate, always accessible, unlike the colour photocopy machine, which was highly cumbersome and, of course, not portable. As with her work in the colour photocopy medium, Astman was considered on the edge of exploring this new technology as an artist. She was not consciously chasing for this status, and recalls feeling satisfied with the instant camera mostly because it could work as quickly as her own imagination and thought process. It provided instant feedback and gratification.
Continuing to pursue the storyboard format with the Visual Narrative Series, Astman used a group of six images in each work, giving the viewer a sense of progression from one image to another, thus leading to a narrative reading of the pieces. Astman wanted words to play a more dominant role in her work and introduced text 'captions' under each image. Photo / text is now a common format / strategy, practised by many artists, especially those interested in deconstruction and politically feminist art, but this was not so in 1978. Astman came to the conjunction of photo / text intuitively, intent on exploring her immediate emotional environment — her friends and relationships. She was daringly revealing and seemed to have no qualms about making the private and personal aspects of her life open to public scrutiny and criticism.
23 untitled pieces make up the Visual Narrative Series. They all began with a grid of six Polaroids. Six short sentences were composed by the artist to be arranged under these images. These were then re-shot and blown up to either a 30 x 40- or a 48 x 6o-inch size. The grid was inspired by the storyboard format of preparation work for films and from the aforementioned Mexican serial photo-magazines. Implying narrative, the grid itself was also a conveniently neutral format, a benign organizing factor. It removed the emphasis from a single image and spread the reading throughout the sequence of images in each work.
The six-line captions were drafted and revised until they worked back-and-forth with the photographic images, making for an integrated experience. They were intended to work as indicators of an individual's emotional states and that person's impact on, and interelationship with, others living along with them. For example:
The tone of the writing is descriptive, detached, as is the camera's relationship to the sitter, yet the content of the supposed 'narrative' seems intimate and personal.
Untitled, i was thinking about you ... Series 1979 - 1980
In this series of life-sized, colour photo murals, Astman used herself as the model in every piece and typed spontaneous letters to her absent friends directly over her image. Acting as an art director, she selected the colour of both her clothes and the fabric backdrops, and stood so that her image would be cropped below her eyes and above her knees. Assuming a simple, frontal pose, she took her own photographs, using a self-timer. Astman's posed body resembles a fragment of ancient statuary, anonymous within the frame, and creates a shape that fits and fills the square composition. Without the eyes, her figure is not a self-portrait, removing the emphasis on herself as a subject. Instead, her interest was in her memories and thoughts of friends. As soon as the SX-70 photograph came out of the camera, Astman would pop it into an electric typewriter and begin to pound out a spontaneous letter to a friend, triggered solely by remembering each of them. The typewriter keys pushed aside the film emulsion, revealing the white backing underneath. These Polaroids were reshot and blown up to 48 x 6o-inch murals for the series, bringing her depicted body to life size.
Astman says she feels the words acted as a textured barrier between the viewer and the anonymous woman depicted in the photograph. 'They have a physical presence beyond their narrative presence.' (statement in 1990 /91 AGO Artists with Their Work sheet) Certainly, the works have an intriguing ambiguity of emphasis and dynamic spatial tension.
The Red Series 1980 -1981
If there is a single, precise meaning to Astman's Red series, it is still elusive over a decade since the work's production. Was the artist questioning the 'reality' of photography? What is the life-sized, alabaster woman with red lips telling us about the red objects and her relationship to them? Without words (since they have been replaced by this new alphabet of red household items) we cannot be sure of our individual interpretations. But somehow the Red series evoked a strong response from viewers, some feeling the work had feminist overtones, others simply enjoying the associations of the colour red. The Red series was memorable, and, perhaps more than with any other body of work the artist has produced, Astman became identified with, and undifferentiated from, the pale, ruby-lipped woman holding red implements in these photo-murals. Less personal, less to do with her lived life, and more to do with enigmatic arrangements and iconography, the Red series formed a watershed in Astman's career between her early work and her mature art. Since her eyes are cropped, a sense of remove creeps into these works; they cannot be read as portraits per se. The artist has begun to distance herself, her daily life, and her relationships from her creative output, but at this point, she is still including herself as the model in, and central subject of, her explorations and her pieces.
In a complete break with her previous two-dimensional, photo-based work over the preceding two decades, Astman began a sculptural series in 1982, which she eventually titled Places, since they referred to actual places she had been. Inspired by a trove of 1950s linoleum she discovered in Rochester on a visit to family, these miniature abstract environments are emotional, Proustian scenarios, like maquettes for stage sets awaiting players. Rather than dealing with her current emotional states and concerns, the sculptures in Places were unleashed from Astman's memories. Using her associations and involuntary memories triggered by the intriguing visual qualities of vintage linoleum, Astman created pieces about nostalgia. As Karyn Allen pointed out in her 'spatial hieroglyph' essay, they are not literal representations of rooms, but abstract versions of them. In each case, the attendant title (which, in a gallery or museum setting, is on a label and placed in close proximity to the sculpture) is intended by Astman to be an integral part of the piece, underlining the importance of personal memory in each one, since she did not wish them to be mis-read as simply formal arrangements and designs. She hoped that a parallel would be established, between the linoleum's simulation of other materials and the memory's recreation of reality.
Settings for Situations 1984
Exploring plastic laminate as a material and utilizing a much larger scale, Astman concentrated less on memory, in her next series of sculptures, than on the metaphorical and associative qualities of the staircase. Astman had been deeply affected by a month's stay in the Italian town of Manarola in 1983, which was on a hill and accessible only by long flights of stone stairs. She began to ruminate about our associations with stairs, both in popular culture and as an archetype, at a subconscious level. Climbing stairs can indicate a move to a higher realm, either of consciousness or experience; and descending can represent a movement into the subconscious. One thinks also of the devotional act of climbing stairs of religious monuments and temples. In Astman's Settings, the stair elements often seem to give onto stage-like areas, which the artist says she was considering as theatrical sets for the playing out of life's situations. Her titles for these works are active, nudging the viewer to consider the act of stepping as a metaphor for existential movement and change.
Travelogue Series 1985 — 1986
Astman's Travelogue works are four-foot-square photo-collages, using either black-and-white or colour photographs, with text and drawing. The pieces form a vague narrative when seen together. They are poetic, elliptical, and about fantasy, anonymity, and desire. Astman also created a book project using the Travelogue images.
She claims the series is based on actual travel (as opposed to that bogus travel of her 1977 Travel Fantasy series) and the varying emotional states induced by observation and the participation of 'being there'. The ersatz photographed textures in these works are from the tiles used in Places, which themselves simulate a whole variety of materials and surfaces. Astman felt intrigued by the North-Americanness of the simulated surfaces and materials of the tiles, and this aspect further identifies her in the travelogue, a North American travelling in Europe, the real and original culture from which hers derived or evolved.
After the two sculptural series, which were usually removed from Astman's every-day life in terms of their visual elements and meaning, Travelogue represents something of a return to the intimate and personal on Astman's part. We can relate fairly directly and easily to the woman as traveller, an exploring foreigner in parts unknown, and can vicariously experience her wonder at new cities, hotels, people, and other travel experiences. Any references to friends or loved ones are oblique, not directly referential. Considering her past private revelations, it might seem odd that Astman turned to considering past experiences and did not deal overtly about her then current experience of becoming a mother. It is as though she wanted to keep the sleeplessness, mess, joy, despair — the overwhelmingness of becoming a parent — private, and keep her art removed from that area of her life. Although perhaps a result of a natural protective urge towards her family and the individual privacy of its members, her work seems markedly removed from feminis art practice in this sense, since rather than making use directly of the domestic, child-rearing experience, she seemed to want to escape it in her Travelogue works. This was achieved in a way that was at once abstract and metaphorical and that allowed a sense of the creative individual to remain in the work, an aspect of a woman's identity that is often difficult to maintain in the family / motherhood context.
What has Astman's relationship to reality been, especially as a photographer? Tooby's thesis was that the artists in Visual Facts were exploiting reality in their work. In the case of Barbara Astman, it might be more accurate to consider her as playing with reality — she rolls it around in her palm, like a child discovering the qualities of mercury. Exploiting sounds too pre-meditated and aggressive in her case. She delights in all the contrasts and paradoxes inherent in exploring reality, but perhaps most of all — in the emotions attendant to life's experiences.
The Curtain Series 1988
Commissions / Public Art
Beginning in 1981 with a photographic mural commission for the C.I.L. Building in North York, Astman has produced several commissioned works in public environments. These projects loosely relate to her studio practice, but differ in some fundamental ways from it. With her commissioned works, Astman's background in design comes to the fore, as she harnesses her creativity to address problem solving, confronting the restrictions and possibilities of each site, budget, and the importance of visually communicating her ideas and of convincing committees or juries of her plans.
In 1988 Astman was commissioned to create a billboard design to promote the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Since she was working on the Curtain Series in her studio at the time, she decided to incorporate the red, parted-curtain motif in this image. Constellation-like arrangements of white circus figures cavorting on a black background complete the bill-board design. When the billboard was backlit at night, the circus figures read even more emphatically as stars in a night sky. Also in connection with the 1988 Winter Olympics, the artist was commissioned to create a piece in the Olympic Speed Skating Oval. Astman designed an abstract ornamental entrance floor in linoleum.
In 1993 her project for The Conservatory Tower building complex at Bay and Hayter streets in downtown Toronto was unveiled — a series of cast concrete paving stones integrated with the regular paving stones around the exterior perimeter of the building. Users of the site find themselves stepping on images of realistic leaves (referring to the five kinds of shrubs and trees planted by the site's landscape architect), reminding them of their place in the natural world, even when working in an inner city environment.
Throughout the early 1990s Astman has played a long-term role as the visual artist — along with the architect and landscape architect — on the development board of a recreational complex in St-Laurent, Ontario (a suburb of Ottawa). Exploring the notion of 'community', she has created a cognitive map in etched glass for the entrance-way of the centre, a weathered zinc panel with quotations about community for an exterior installation, and two pieces for the centre's library, containing text about the role of knowledge in a community.
In 1994 Astman was commissioned by Cadillac Fairview to create imagery for fourteen eight-foot-high glass panels separating an indoor retail area from a daycare centre at their downtown Toronto Simcoe Place. In imagining what sorts of shapes and lines would read effectively in etched glass, catching the light and adding drama to the dividers, Astman came up with images of nebulae and galaxies. This work is in progress at the time of publication of this catalogue.
The Fruit Series 1990
One constant factor informing Barbara Astman's work has been her honesty. She has never shied away from dealing with what has been on her mind, with how she has been feeling. In the Curtain Series she explored the state of being a married woman and a mother who still experiences outwardly oriented desire, even just unfocussed, intransitive desire. In the Fruit Series we are confronted head on with the theme of age and decay. Astman's fruits are over-ripe, rotting, definitely past their prime. Their state and status as the subject in her work makes them read as stand-ins for the figure, the artist, or the self, and for how she is fitting into her world.
To speak of desire, when we have aged, when we are mothers, has been seen until recently as unbecoming, even obscene. And to see beauty in the alterations that time wreaks — wrinkles and age spots, for example — has been unthinkable. Yet this seems to be Astman's route of enquiry in these works. The brilliant, lurid colour, the appealing sensuousness of the wax coatings, are remarkable and unmistakable, yet also weird and unusual. Viewers feel curiously uncomfortable and uneasy. Is the Fruit Series in fact a memento mori, nudging us to consider our own mortality?
The Rock Series 1991-1993
Subtler and more spiritual than the Fruit Series, the Rock pictures each contain images of five or six stones that float in an indeterminate space. Sprinkled in the interstices are dried flower petals, seeds, leaves, earth, and weeds. After working in flecks and marks of colour with oil stick, Astman has sealed the surfaces in sensuous layers of encaustic.
It is intriguing that the artist intuitively decided to arrange the organic petals and leaves in amongst the black-and-white, smooth stones. With the juxtaposition of the large, smooth, blank surfaces of the stones against the scattered, delicate plant materials, she invokes an archetypal resolution: that of the static and absolute power of the rocks with the energized chaos represented by the tossed petals and weeds. Not only do the stones act as stand-ins for the bodies present in so much of Astman's earlier work, but they are images of being, 'invulnerable and irreducible'. (Lucy Lippard, Overlay. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983, p. 15)
The notion of a subject and content that is timeless and spiritual is something new in Astman's work. She was consciously aware only of choosing rocks as more neutral objects than the fruits. But, in fact, their seeming muteness has granted her an even more powerful form of speech. To most hunting-and-gathering cultures, including the native North American populations, rocks were considered the bones of the earth, and, as such, the site of the soul of the earth (just as bones were the site of the soul in humans and animals). Cross-culturally, there are several myths about both gods and humanity descending from rocks and stones. (See Mircea Eliade, transl. Stephen Corvin, The Forge and the Crucible. New York: Harper, 1962, pp. 43, 143.)
A greater feeling of distance from her subject on the part of the artist is present in this work, more so than in any of her previous series. There is a sense of contemplation, reflection and thoughtfulness behind the images. The art is still personal, but not narcissistic. A viewer senses that the personal here is only a filter, a vehicle for a more universal meaning.
Seeing and Being Seen 1994
Astman's most recent series of work utilizes images of human eyes, either appropriated or from her own photographs of herself and her children. Arranged in pairs, but often mismatched ones, the eyes have been collaged and shot as Polaroids. These images were scanned and output onto large sheets of frosted mylar, creating works that are elegant, sensual, and haunting. The sense of being watched while we are looking at the work is thought provoking, since it parallels our life experience. Astman was considering how we view others, how they view us, how we view ourselves — at different points in our lives — and decided to explore these eye images as metaphors for this process of seeing and being seen.
The Retrospective View
The retrospective format and context begs certain questions of a viewer / reader, for instance, what is the overall context for this twenty years of artistic production and what is its ultimate meaning? In many ways Astman's work has more to do with popular culture than with the tradition of art history and art making. It has never fit into any specific paradigm — modernist, post-modernist — nor has her work been embraced by a school or group. It cannot be defined or identified by medium. She seems just to have responded to her own creative urges, as they changed over time, and the underlying, central thrust of her work seems to have been to create meaning from her emotional responses to life. Much of her work skirts the edge of the poetic. It's never really narrative, but sometimes it mimics or borrows from the narrative form for effect and tone. Her studio practice or method seems not to have been one embracing chance. She dreams up ideas, then casts around, trying materials and formats, ensuring that it all comes together convincingly. In a sense, in her studio she is often largely engaged in sheer art directing.
It seems to me that the source and wellspring for all her work is her own emotional responses, either current ones, or memories of earlier responses, to her life situations. I see this as archetypally female. She continually gauges her emotions, translates them, and creates visual forms and metaphors for them. Astman exists as her own centre — her work is not about external issues or other places. And her work, more so than with many artists, seems incomplete without an audience. It would be like a rehearsal otherwise, since the viewers complete the equation, closing the loop of the relationship with their own experience and reading of the work.
I wish especially to thank Liz Wylie for her unfailing support throughout the entire process of examining twenty years of my career. Her enthusiasm and diligence have helped keep us on a productive and positive path. She managed to turn what I felt would be an arduous task into a joyful experience. I wish to thank Ihor Holubizky for his initial expression of interest and offer of a survey exhibition and for his unique sense of humour. A special thanks to Karen Mills for the support and energy she has directed to this project, and everyone at the Art Gallery of Hamilton who have been instrumental in helping to make this exhibition a reality. A very special thanks to Stan Bevington for his inspirational catalogue design. I wish to acknowledge the public and private collectors for generously loaning my works. This exhibition and tour was produced with the support of the City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council, along with support from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council.
My deepest expression of gratitude goes to my high school art instructor, Mr. Harvey Brockley. Without his early encouragement, I might have given in to others' persuasions. I wish to thank Karyn Allen Keenan for her early and continued support of my work. Special thanks to Christine Hawkes, formerly of the Sable-Castelli Gallery, for her continued support and to Jared Sable for his encouragement and friendship in the early years. I wish to thank the many people, too numerous to mention, who throughout the years have been an inspiration to my art / life. Special thanks to my family for their continued patience and support. Finally, special thanks to my parents for teaching me about the important things in life.
Text: © Liz Wylie and Barbara Astman. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©1997, 2019. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.