Archive for March, 2012

Allyson Clay at Leo Kamen Gallery, 2005


(a shorter version of this was published as a review in Canadian Art, Winter, 2005)

The books were all on the shelves in no order, as if the maids had unpacked them and nobody had ever set them in some kind of reasonable sequence.  She wondered how long it would actually take to find the book she was looking for. Maybe it was a different kind of life their owners lived, where they had time to meander over the titles, divagate until the original reason for the search reappeared. The colour of a dust jacket, the thickness or height of a book, a vague memory that it had last been found on an upper or lower shelf would move their eyes over the whole collection.

How did the fish in the bowl know that the small pellet of food was not speck of dirt, a flake of paint from the ceiling, or a mouse dropping?

Several Ideas at Once, color photograph face-mounted on plexiglass, 66cm cm x 1.02m, 2005

The Books

Soon, people will be handling books the way that girls now take up knitting. A nostalgia for the made, stitched, cobbled, painted. Dog eared corners trace a certain history of a book having been read. A handwritten entry on the front page of a vintage copy of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”: “This book belongs to Caroline Cowstock Williams, 1939”, seems poignantly tactile. The dried fountain pen ink invokes a reader in a mannish tweed jacket and a wool skirt, stealing a few hours under a tree in homage to Virginia Woolf’s day at Oxbridge.

There is a care to the collection of books. An identity is bound up in the juxtaposition of titles: a history of a life of learning, a pattern of phases. “Yes, this was my Feminist period”, a shelf might say.

No one can talk about feminism these days without cringing or apologizing. We were all sober feminists in the late 80’s and well into the 90’s. But nothing really changed much, barring a few more women getting tenure. At public lectures, in the classroom, you now take the risk of being accused, yet again, of being the feminist wet blanket. In an era of exposed midriffs and visible thongs, why bring it up? Leena-Maija Rossi writes in the catalogue for the Nordic Pavilion for the 50th Venice Biennale (2003): “…the gender issue still arises more frequently in art discourses that deal with women than in those concerning the art world’s male practitioners. In many respects, men still seem to represent the non-gendered norm, and for them gender is rarely such a burning issue as it is for women.” Rossi notes that in the 1999 publication “Art at the Turn of the Millennium”, edited by Burkard Riemschneider and Uta Grosenik, of the 136 artists featured, only 25 percent are women. It is no surprise that the discourse around gender disappears.

Allyson Clay has thrown her books into the water. The act might register as hysterical, although the resulting abstraction is seductive, calm and painterly. The images all touch on tropes of abstract composition; diagonals, grids, repetitions of shape, biomorphic ambiguity. The dominant turquoise ground, a signature colour of modernist painting (Cezanne, Mattise, Diebenkorn), signifies a kind of chemical optimism. Titles mingle promiscuously in some images; others twirl alone in the radiating patterns of light on the surface of the pool. The choice of titles seems arbitrary. At least, they do not form a coherent bibliography. But they are books the artist says she wishes were still on her shelves. They have been sacrificed in what might seem an act of liberation.

Clay’s earlier practice systematically employed revisionism. Trained as a painter, and evolving through the critical discussions of modernism and its assumptions (patriarchal, Eurocentric, capitalistic), her early work cannibalized itself in what could be seen as a kind of self-hate. It distanced itself from the masculinity of the painting studio and the implications of bourgeois subjectivity in the mark of the hand. The term feminist painter had become an oxymoron.

Later, work literally divided itself between painting and photography. Questioning the author, the craft became a process of delegation, with commissioned surfaces and appropriated images. The ‘subjective’ voice then became a fictionalized text on the wall. Its final disembodiment came in the form of video. With no text or dialogue, the artist became simply a seeing eye.

Although the product of an engagement with theory and an intense dialogue within the feminist community, the work always had the feeling of a confessional. Its fictional subject put the viewer in the position of a complicit voyeur. It proposed a point view that was peripheral, surreptitious, and, because it had to be, transgressive. It was a woman’s point of view.

Allyson Clay’s new work might suggest that the steady progress of years of feminist research has been thrown out with the bath water. In “Garden”, a copy of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” has met the same fate as its author. The lone book sinks to the bottom of the stream, the disintegrating paper taking on the colour of dead leaves. Ophelia is floating down the river, again.

As an alternative to the powerless picturesque, Woolf proposed an androgynous voice. Imagining what Coleridge must have meant when he wrote about it, she wrote: “He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous: that it transmits emotion without impediments; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided”. She describes a voice that has ‘forgotten she is a woman’. In an ideal world, where the Guerilla Girls wouldn’t have to spell out the imbalanced statistics of gender, it would be a relief to not have to remember.

“Fountain” suggests such a euphoric amnesia. The Dewey Decimal system, flawed in any case, is a distant memory. The books are off the shelves and diving into the pool. Their shapes shift into abstractions from which only fragments of meaning can be discerned. We have to fish for our own beginnings, middles and ends. As photographic stills, the record of the books’ inevitable descent is arrested. The suspension of flight gives us the illusion that there may be time to glean what is necessary.

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Private Matters, Public Matters: Allyson Clay, Osman Bozkurt, Milutin Gubash

Strand on Volta Gallery, October 21 – November 6, 2005

Catalogue Essay by Lucy Hogg 

Some of us can remember getting on airplanes in 1960s, when everyone dressed up for the event of flying. In old photographs all the men seem to wear suits, and women’s hair is done. Telephone calls  were also less casual. There were fewer of them, and the minutes cost; party lines demanded decorum.

Public events also had more restraint. A death would have certain rituals, a laying out, a wake, a burial. Grieving had its own formality. Now it can be either very private, with a few comments over a plastic  box of ashes, or very public but still casual; an impromptu pile of flowers, stuffed toys and other sentimental mementos placed at an otherwise banal location (a telephone pole, a parking lot, a median strip) mark an accident or disappearance.

The public park was perhaps the first place where the boundaries of public and private started to blur, but a hundred years earlier. With the invention of the weekend, the “banlieue” of Monet’s boating parties -then newly accessible by suburban trains-  was a place where classes mixed. The mid 19th century was a defining moment of class mobility, as the expanding petite bourgeoisie tried on the attitudes of the leisure class. Domesticated life of all kinds was spilling outside, to the dismay and fascination of contemporary commentators.

In Public Matters, Private Matters, the video works of Allyson Clay, Osman Bozkurt, and Milutin Gubash try to make sense of the blurring of public and private space in the 21st century.

Using a minimalist technique and a static lens, Allyson Clay’s Imaginary Standard Distance: Day/ Night provides a video surveillance of a public telephone booth in Paris. People are observed as they move in and out of a transparent glass structure divided into three telephone stations. They wait, they talk, they get impatient, they adapt to the space inside and outside of the booth while they carry on intimate or transactional conversations. It is a study of private gesture in public space. A man is engaged in what appears to be long, contentious monologue. A younger man shifts his weight from side to side, sorting out social arrangements while his girlfriend looks on, tossing her long blond hair back in boredom. A businesswoman waits impatiently, staring at the fully occupied  booths, as though her glare  could, encourage the occupants to finish their calls.

Originally filmed in 1997,  the video documents what will soon become a redundant structure, as cell phones become  ubiquitous. The body  language is moving out of the phone booth and out onto the streets.  Conversation is no longer contained by the soundproof glass. A person can either have a wire attached to their  head, or be off their medication. We are just now developing etiquette to manage the problem. Quiet cars on trains, warnings at the cinema, signage in restaurants requesting restraint are our inadequate attempts to manage the collapse of the private into the public realm.

Osman Bozkurt’s Auto-Park uses a documentary style to comment on human resilience and a dysfunctional urban infrastructure in Istanbul. Various locals are interviewed about their use of median strips as parks. Grassy areas at the interstices of intercity and commercial traffic in various outskirts of Istanbul are used by family groups picnicking, youth playing sports, unemployed people socializing. The spaces become unlikely sites of contemplation, rest and recreation for their habitues, providing escape from their cramped apartments and the tedium of unskilled labour.

The first frames of the video construct a pastoral of softly waving trees: children running through the grass, women bent over their tatting, men having a smoke. It resembles the idyll found in Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. But the audio gives the game away, and then the frame expands to reveal a stream of large freight trucks and commuter traffic, disturbingly close.

The interviewees, often recent arrivals from the rural areas of eastern Anatolia, have an amazing optimism and resistance as they speak of the advantages the spaces bring. Their sense of pride and ownership is countered by wistful pleas for simple things like garbage bins, toilet facilities and safer passages across the highways. Officially forbidden, the use of the parks is not acknowledged by a city that offers no alternatives for an under-housed working poor.  Gaps in fences show that the sudden  intrusion of a ton  of hurtling metal is a constant threat to the peoples’ fragile  serenity.

Milutin Gubash’s  Near  and Far uses a more filmic approach. Gubash creates dramatic scenarios based on odd incidents he found reported in the Calgary newspapers, usually involving an abject or banal death. He restages the events with himself as the victim, and his parents as witnesses. His dramatic vignettes act as weird  memorials for anonymous people whose fate would otherwise barely register. Wearing a generic black suit that seems to anticipate his funeral, the victim seems to be perpetually re-enacting his demise. His parents make pilgrimages to a series of sites where the crimes have taken place: an abandoned drive-in theatre, a quiet riverside, a local city park. His parents take the tour dressed in the casual well pressed  clothes of retirees, equipped with a camera, folding chairs, a radio to pass the time.

Nobody is overwrought or particularly perturbed. The parents could just as easily be tourists visiting the Eiffel  tower. The play acting is a cover for the real drama of the difficulty of acknowledging, between family members, mortality and disappointment. In one scene the victim hides guiltily in the bushes, as his parents try to whistle him out. In another he returns  from the dead, rising up from the water,  his  wet  impassive  gaze suggesting it was their fault. Finally addressing them in an angry soliloquy, he asks them to name his dilemma. It’s the end, they say, smiling.

What these works all depict is a transitional space where you are neither here nor there. It is the  new  suburbs of the mind, where  people of today’s compressed urban space create a fiction of  privacy. Callers imagine they are in a private zone when they  place their cellular calls, however much their private  selves are unwittingly on display. The people in the park don’t acknowledge the  incessant traffic, that ironic frame to their bucolic idyll, in the  same way that their government doesn’t acknowledge them. And strange re-enactments of anonymous tragedy in public places becomes a private forum for the conversations a family might never have.