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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