Owning Space: Material Girls

“What indeed,” I say. “I hate party lines, I hate ghettoes. Anyway, I’m too old to have invented it and you’re too young to understand it, so what’s the point of discussing it at all?”
“So it’s not a meaningful classification for you?” she says.
“I like it that women like my work. Why shouldn’t I?”
“Do men like your work?” she asks slyly. She’s been going through the back files, she’s seen some of those witch-and-succubus pieces.
“Which men?” I say. “Not everyone likes my work. It’s not because I’m a woman. If they don’t like a man’s work it’s not because he’s a man. They just don’t like it.” I am on dubious ground, and this enrages me. My voice is calm; the coffee seethes within me.
(Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye)

“We live in a time of the created image — if you do not create your own, someone will create if for you.” (David Neel)

Material Girls is a wide and complicated exhibition. A touring show (first installed at the Dunlop Gallery in Regina, literally in two differing locations), it’s appeared at several spaces since, and will manifest in other galleries after departing Rodman Hall. This incarnation, however, offers a unique interpretation of an exhibition that asserts to be about “women taking up space.” All the RH exhibition spaces are occupied by Girls, and the artists take up more space — literally, and symbolically, in narratives that argue / augment simultaneously — than in previous installations. I like to consider this “concrete analysis of [a] concrete situation” (Žižek, Repeating Lenin), and was a point RH Curator Marcie Bronson made at the opening. She further cited studies showing Niagara is one of the worst places for women in Canada (this resonated more “concretely” than Jennifer Matotek — one of MG’s three originating curators — making the obligatory, and perhaps easily dismissed as facile / trendy noises about Donald Trump, the same evening…as “we” in this region need to focus on excising Petrowski, not on Trump, in a “concrete” plan). Additionally, if you’re still following the comedy of ignorance and errors that is Brock’s “annulment” proceedings with Rodman Hall, the timing of this exhibition has an unpleasant, undeniable, relevance….

I referred to Matotek as an “originating” curator because MG has evolved as it inhabits different spaces. Bronson’s contribution to this realization (as well as other RH staff Matthew Tegel and Emma German) is intrinsic to any understanding of the show’s successes – and failures.

Before stepping into the four — I’d argue five, as the interstitial spaces like the front main hallway act as guideways, to several spaces — galleries, I proffer the statement from Matotek, Blair Fornwald and Wendy Peart, the curators of impetus here: “Material Girls is about women taking up space. This large-scale group exhibition brings together Canadian and international emerging, mid-career and senior female artists from across artistic disciplines and cultural backgrounds. Uniting these works is an exploration of material process and notions of excess as they relate to the feminized body, gendered space and capitalist desire. Sumptuous, decorative and visually overwhelming, the exhibition space becomes a horror vacui, a jubilant and visceral counterpoint to the standard conventions of the austere white cube.”

It’s a massive show, and several works dominate (Watt), while some irritate (Mack) and others barely register (Boyer). Many demand repeated visits. This is a fine adaptation of the original show to this wider space. When approaching a show as diverse as this, that either intentionally or incidentally is so disunited, it’s necessary to have respective landmarks in interaction. Three works are (my) anchors, in experiencing Material Girls: their holding a position of prominence (taking up space thoughtfully and with resonance) in this installation is a nod to RH’s team, as none of this was accidental, from my conversations with the staff, and this is a far better version than what I’ve experienced of this show elsewhere.

As you approach the massive back space, Meryl McMaster’s Meryl 1 and Meryl 2, from the Second Self Series, with their deep rich blacks and striking contrast of whites will visually “shout” at you from the powder blue wall the diptych rests upon, and pulls you into the larger space. Eye contact across a crowded room, if you will, can entice. I first encountered her work, which might be described as (self) portraiture that uses the subject as an intersection point of history and lived realities, in an exhibition on the Prairies where she concretely demonstrated the quote from David Neel I previously cited: “[I]f you do not create your own image, someone will create it for you.” McMaster’s work is the sole work in MG where a woman confronts the viewer eye-to-eye. It’s a self portrait (as much as any of McMaster’s works can be said to simply be self portraits. A previous work showed her head nearly decapitated in a tornado swirl of newspaper articles that all — too many —headlined stories of despair chronicling the ongoing tragedy of missing / murdered Indigenous women). This is the only work in the show that declares “here I am.”McMaster is not “taking up space” as much as “commanding space” or “owning space.” Or simply “being in space” without rejoinder or apology. It’s not accidental that it’s a younger generation of Indigenous artists (like Amy Malbeuf, who we’ll come to in a moment) who embodies this socio political statement. If you saw Daphne Odjig or Carl Beam’s works at the VISA gallery at MIWSFPA, and heard Sam Thomas’ curatorial talk about the blend of art and activism in their works, McMaster is standing on the shoulder of giants to see — and be seen — further. McMaster is a woman in charge of her representation.

In that same large back space is the second piece that frames MG for me: Deirdre Logue’s Velvet Crease is a quiet work (despite the odd moment of discordant audio that might fracture the viewers’ reverie, sitting in front of the shimmering, throbbing looping imagery). “With golden glitter and available light from an afternoon sunbeam” the scenes are rich, not so much Freudian as “plentitude, production and pleasure” (Logue’s artist statement). It’s a work that will mesmerize you, and may — or may not — shift as you recognize the intrinsic nature of the work, or that may simply offer a more conceptual and less aesthetic portal (if I may make such an allusion…). Velvet Crease is a work that, in the plethora of works in the lower space that sometimes clash with each other, and not always offer the space to breathe, overwhelming the considered / considering visitor, allows you a literal place to sit and be enraptured (the piece is installed in such a way as to be experienced as though it were the sole work in the gallery). Logue’s installation takes up space like nothing else in the show.

Crease also has a strong historical aspect: some of you are old enough to remember how early feminist activists privileged a consideration of the female body that was as personal as it was political, and when dropping the “c word” was a political act of reclamation, daring to break assumptions regarding the “deviant” nature of female anatomy. Read some Dworkin, then read some Paglia; and maybe here is where Matotek’s citing of Trump might have relevance, as we ask how a “pussy grabber” ended up POTUS…or, if I may assume my usual role of Diogenes, I’ll say that maybe he’s just the first admitted one…

Often, large exhibitions at RH negotiate a natural divide: the back “gallery cube” space, and the more immediate “domestic” rooms, that still bear the indexical history of the Rodmans. Bronson has used this space to challenge artists (Amy Friend, Donna Akrey). How these front spaces would work with a show that exists within a gendered framework was surely a question. For example, Logue’s video installation is perfect where it is in the back room, as visitors might realize that the alcove within which the tripart screens recline is itself a welcoming v shape, gently enclosing you like legs, pulling you in closely and warmly and hypnotically…In this light, the placement of Amy Malbeuf’s thecaribouisme/iamthecaribou, above the mantel in the “living” room (Hansen Gallery) of RH is considered, and offers a nuance to the work, and the installation, that (again) anchors a visitor to this bestrewn endeavour.

Not all spaces are interchangeable, as how and where an artist “takes up space” is as dependent on the site as the object or action. Akrey’s pieces from Also Also just wouldn’t work as well in a different room than RH’s front one, and less formally / more conceptually, Rebecca Belmore’s Blood on the Snow installation means so much more, echoing in a contemporary and historical way, in Saskatoon than it would in Toronto, where the racism is more…overt, like a blood stain on the snow.

Amy Malbeuf’s intimate work rests at approximate eye level, above the marbled mantel, and the room here is heavy with the weight of Canadian history (the “official” sanctioned narrative, like 1812, or the Welland Canal, or other more sanitized — oh, let’s say white washed, hmmm — stories that have been contested narratives this #Canada150). In light of that, having Malbeuf’s thecaribouisme/iamthecaribou on the lovely yellow walls offers it a powerful pride of place. It’s easy to imagine that this spot once held icons more aligned with “settler” history: perhaps the Queen, but we needn’t go that far back. A past exhibition in this room featured the Group of Seven from the RH collection: how the lands were always empty, just awaiting settlement, ripe for the plucking…like Columbus “finding” the “new world”, it’s less history than mythology, less fact than dogma. Her work is so tiny, but occupies much space, and fractures the space it fills.

Her “work explores the concept of translation from the physical to the immaterial. In thecaribouisme/iamthecaribou, a tuft of the artists own hair is displayed alongside that of a caribou….[embodying] a desire to create artworks that reflect the past and maintain the integrity of a traditional art form that was once unique to the northern regions.” (artist statement) This is the third of the linchpins of MG, for me, and they are spread through the space in a way that allows them to diffuse the sprawling installation.

Past incarnations of this show have layered or combined works – such as Alex Cu Unjieng’s entrancing wallpapers having pieces hung over them. Unjieng is the first artist as you enter building, with reddish vibrations in tandem with the cornices and patterns and colours of the house in situ, and is a powerful “greeting.” Further in, she has an entire wall — I couldn’t look at it too long, it literally seemed to churn and double — facing works by Ludlow, or Koenig or Belcourt. This is a hallway whose minimal amount of space, being something of an aside, became a spot where Bronson and I had an intense and excellent conversation about many conflicting aspects of the show – my favourite kind of argument where it gets deeper and wider, and like the Atwood quote I began with, takes you into contested and shifting grounds. That happened in direct relation to Unjieng’s I Know Very Well, But Still…(II). We were taking up her space, so to speak, or Unjieng was in that space with us, as real as our conversation. My point? A show about “women taking up space” needs to respect them with accordant space. I shudder to think of Marie Watts’ monolithic Skywalker/Skyscraper (Axis Mundi) not being installed — as it is at RH — with enough space for the four shadows to fall and stretch on the floor, without even grazing another work. Tricia Middleton’s installation of Ladder Buddies, Coffee Cup Legs, Weeds/Feu de Bois and Blanket and Smaller Friend is a weaker segment: but it fills a whole front room, in the “historic” space, and if taken as a singular work in that posh, chandeliered and corniced space, it becomes more. On repeated visits, my dislike of it has ebbed, and by the time you read this, I may have visited again and found the pale purple pink pastel waxy fingers protruding, almost hidden, behind a work, to be a delightful transgression of the “ladylike” room…Again, reeling in from a tangent: for a show that professes to be about “women taking up space”, this is the best of the several installments of it that I’ve seen, as it does — quoting Bronson again — take up the most space compared to other versions.

However, this show suffers from a fault that must be mentioned, as one of the upcoming Hot Talks at Rodman Hall will be Derek Knight, talking about some of the larger international art extravaganzas of the past summer: and an issue that’s been raised repeatedly around those show (especially Documenta) is if the curators are serving anyone other than themselves. The lack of panels or information about the artists, seemingly ignoring the intentions / ideas of the artists and why they’re in this “space”, undermines any claim that they “are taking up space.” This raises the issue of whether the space being taken is just opaque and inaccessible, like dead air (the insult of “taking up space”). When Amy Fung “curated” a show years ago focused upon contemporary Canadian female artists, several artists in that show — Tammi Campbell, Mary-Anne McTrowe — had works that were dismissed by visitors when a simple brief statement offering guidance, formally or conceptually, would have enhanced the experience and been more respectful / supportive of the artists. MG falls down on this front, regrettably. Sanaz Mazinani’s Together We Are offers enchanting details upon close examination, and these will radically shift the “space” she occupies: but if Bronson hadn’t suggested this to me, it all would have been missed…
I’d suggest, when visiting, to consider a tour, or engage some of the staff. Normally, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell eschews this layer of “explanation” (and the first person who says “mansplaining” has self – exiled from this conversation). RH has mounted a thoughtful (perhaps the best) presentation (or performance) of MG, and will provide a reward for your efforts.

Material Girls is on display until December 30: go repeatedly, be challenged by the work, and challenge it back. Invite it to take up space outside the gallery, as it should.