Ace Art Inc., 2nd Floor, 290 McDermot Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Critical Distance

Into the Body Feminine
A response to the exhibition by Donna Jones

I look at Nancy Litchfield Hutchison’s paintings of women and water; and feel their sensuous environment of night and fluid. I imagine night air soft against skin, water forming itself to the edges of bodies. The figures, such as the woman in Night Swimmer, are painted in colours so light in contrast to the dense blackness that surrounds them, that they seem to glow like phosphorescent sea creatures on a midnight seashore. I imagine them swimming, as in Front Glide, effortlessly through their bottomless and visually impenetrable pools, as if water, not land, is their natural home.

These paintings are included in Hutchison’s solo exhibition at Ace Art entitled Into the Body Dark. The exhibition is comprised of oil paintings and three groups of drawings. The images of the mostly large-scale paintings seem to have evolved from the drawings which are of plants and/or human bodies in water. It is the combination of these natural elements which evoke most powerfully the metaphoric and symbolic elements of the work and which, provoke thoughts about the construction of femininity as it is embodied within this work. Hutchison employs darkness, water and female figures as primary symbols, and as metaphors. The night conceals, closes in, to create a world of reduced dimensions. The darkness isolates the figure from whatever lies outside the immediate locale. In her singularity, the woman may concentrate on the task at hand, her investigation of herself through the medium of water. Hutchison’s poems, such as “Night Swimmer … the story I’ve been trying to tell”1, provide information concerning the underlying content of the works. In Night Swimmer, the enigmatic space of night and water are imbued with transformative powers as body and spirit are renewed in the fluid of the mother’s womb. The womb of the mother, water, and the dark of night thus become analogous.

Women and water have acquired, over time, a natural sort of relationship connecting fecundity and mystery to similar associations with water. For instance, in her essay “Stabat Mater”, French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls the community of women “a community of dolphins.”2. She makes further reference to women and water: “The languages of the great formerly matriarchal civilizations, take refuge in tones to recover an underwater, transverbal communication between bodies.” This connection of woman, water, and non-verbal language suggests women have an ability to communicate in non-verbal codes through a medium which is not air, through which communication is literally felt. It is a form of language which exists outside the spoken verbal language transmitted through air, the language of terra firma.

The alignment of woman with water affiliates woman with nature, a reference which is, first, an association with the essential biological definition of female; and which, second, evokes the discourse of nature/culture dichotomy presented through semiotic theory. Within the context of semiotics and linguistics the feminine has been related to nature while the masculine has related to culture, and language. This structure reiterates Freudian theories defining masculine and feminine as opposites which construct femininity only in relation to the construction of masculinity.

“Woman is defined [or "derived," as Stephen Health terms it] as the difference from man, judged against his determining maleness. This definition of woman as not male, as “other,” consists in the renunciation of feminine specificity … Defined as negative through the terms of sexual polarity, woman functions as a category against which masculine privilege attains presence.”3

Within the terms of this construction woman holds the lesser position, existing outside the constructs of masculine/patriarchal power. Aligned as she is with water and nature, Hutchison’s woman resides within this structure of polarities. She does not challenge or transgress those notions of femininity.

In order to achieve what might be referred to as a less symmetrical arrangement of gender definition, and to subvert rigid notions and descriptions of gender identity, it may be more useful to investigate all genders as “other,” as if all exist outside traditional definitions of masculinity, and thus, femininity.

“There is … nothing in my view nothing about femaleness that is waiting to be expressed; there is, on the other hand, a good deal about the diverse experiences of women that is being expressed and still needs to be expressed … Gender is what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure, but if this continuous act is mistaken for a natural or linguistic given, power is relinquished to expand the cultural field bodily through subversive performances of various kinds.”4

Notes: [1] The text of this poem did not appear in the exhibition. However its content is similar to the texts in the drawings.

[2] Kristeva, Julia “Stabat Mater” The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press. (1986) p 182
[3] Linker, Kate. “Representation and Sexuality” Parachute. Fall. No 32. (1983) p 16 [4] Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” Performing Feminisims: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. (1992) p 282

Donna Jones is an artist and arts administrator living in Winnipeg. She is presently completing her Master of Fine Arts from Vermont College.

Related people
   Nancy Litchfield-Hutchison - Artist

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The CCCA Canadian Art Database: Chronologies