By Theresa Sapergia
Printed in Surfacing Journal, Summer 2005, Vol. 26, Issue 2
“Precisely because feminist body artists enact themselves in relation to the long-standing Western codes of female objectification, they
unhinge the gendered oppositions structuring conventional modes of art production and interpretation.” -Amelia Jones
Most people like paintings because they’re beautiful. In addition to aesthetics, however, painters often have rigorous conceptual motivations that are contiguous with other contemporary modes of production. As a painter I know this; I have big ideas. Aside from content and meaning, painting is fundamentally a material practice, a beautiful material practice. Something about paint moved about on a flat surface is lovely*. Loveliness is suspect. As a feminist painter I can understand how beauty and beauty’s academic cohort, mastery, are fraught and potentially dangerous. And then there’s that obstinate scopophilia/ male gaze problem. But I like beauty. Beauty fulfils a real need, provides real pleasure. The contemporary artworld has tended to reject beauty because of something to do with a tenent of Modernism. Or maybe it was before Modernism. In any case, beauty is suspect as are beautiful artists whose work deals with their own aesthetic relevance as objects.
An occurrence that took place this past April evinced for me the afore-mentioned relationship between beauty, painting and performance art. At eight different sites throughout Montreal, an artist sat in independent storefronts and embroidered a pattern onto detachable pieces of her dress. This removal revealed even more of the artist’s already exposed skin that had been previously marked with the red-brown stain of the henna plant. Despite the wall of glass between the artist in the store and the passer-by on the sidewalk, any observer who stopped long enough to really regard the labour would be met with eye contact and invited into conversation with the artist, Andrea Vander Kooij.
As an object, Andrea VanderKooij is beautiful. Her skin is beautiful, her carefully braided and pinned hair is beautiful, and her fastidious ministrations to the embroidery in her folded lap is beautiful. Even the dingy-grey late-winter Montreal sunlight seems to stream Vermeer-like onto the monochrome loveliness of VanderKooij’s most recent project: “effloressence”, a beautiful title…
During its two-week duration, you could experience “effloressence” from a sidewalk on St. Catherine’s Street or Boulevard St. Laurent. To stop on the sidewalk and look into a storefront, however, is to indicate to others that you have been stimulated by an object that necessitates time spent looking. This gesture locates your gaze and due to its public site, displays to others your own personal desire.
We don’t expect objects of our desire to look back.
When we interact with a painting, when we actively regard painting, we meet it in the space between its objecthood and ours. We see into it as material and see it as it is as surface(s). Painting, as I stated earlier, is persistently beautiful. It gives pleasure. Painting offers the viewer the narcissistic identification of her own desire as reflected by the desire of the artist.
Though clothed in a flesh-toned canvas dress apparatus and looking like the subject of a Holbein painting, the viewer cannot simply take VanderKooij as the passive model endemic in painting. Not only does the subject in this case look back at the viewer from the frame of her window, she’ll interact with her too. Her voice positions her as artist and undoes the model’s role as the framed, contained nude of Modernism.
And what would a subject-cum-object-cum-subject talk about? Well, what would you like to know? Perhaps you’re interested in the Jacobean Blackwork pattern that she’s carefully embroidering onto a removed panel of her dress? Perhaps you’re interested in the time this work takes or her durational tolerance to this quiet labour? What of the complicated, cross-cultural and transient methodology of body marking? Maybe you’re wondering why or how her munificent freckles ordered and arranged themselves into the same pattern you see surfacing on the skin of fabric between her fingers? Or did you think those were scars?
Whatever information you would solicit or would rise organically from your brief yet startlingly intimate and generous relationship with this artist, I’ve no doubt that you would have experienced a shift in perception. What appears to be a spectacle of servitude and femininity is actually an interruption of these very codes. The trope of the virtuous lacemaker and domestic labourer is subverted by the active and self-empowered artist who is making her own desires manifest.
By situating her visible production in sites of commerce, VanderKooij makes willfully visible the hidden role of the other’s labour in a late capitalist economy. By interrupting public/private divides, unsettling adornment/ disfiguration boundaries, VanderKooij positions the work of art as the site of the intersubjective negotiation between artist and spectator.
“Effloressence” looks back at a history of making things, a period of craftsmanship and antiquated market functioning. It makes visible a desire to reclaim a set of tools now alien to an artworld that fought itself for the right to appropriate the skills of external specialists. The vertiginous conflation of time is marked in the fading henna stain on (and in) the artist’s skin, in the sloughing off of that which is the very indicator of age, in the slow marking on fabric, and in the presence of conflicting histories. “Effloressence” offers us this pleasant enfolding, the pleasure of interface and the perseverance of beauty.
*Painting is not limited to, or necessarily represented by, these means.