Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Big Picture 04

When Toronto playwright/director/actor Moynan King co-founded Hysteria: A Festival of Women last year, she figured the fortnight of films, music, performances and visual art would, like all new ventures, break even at best.

Instead, Hysteria turned out to be one of the biggest successes of King’s long career – playing to packed houses filled with women (and lots of men) hungry for art by and about women living the gamut of the female experience.

As no good deed goes unpunished, King was promptly asked to do the show again. The second volume of Hysteria is even larger than last year’s, making it the single largest festival of multi-disciplinary art by women in Canada. And this year, King has added more space for stationary visual art, partly in response to audience demand, and partly because she realized the first time around that women artists are still under-represented in mainstream galleries. Well, certain types of women artists.

“We do look for feminist and women-centred art,” King tells me in a rare moment of pre-festival calm, “which has become unfashionable lately. But, remember that we are a submission driven festival and something called “Hysteria: A Festival of Women” obviously draws women artists who are exploring women-centred subjects. Not that these artists are only doing that sort of work, but that this is a venue for them to present such work.”
So, what exactly is women-centred art?

“Hmm .. there’s no clear definition, but by “women-centred” I mean art that carries issues and ideas that are of interest to women – which are, of course, of interest to all humanity. ”

As galleries and artist-run centres increasingly turn away from so-called Identity Art - a style of art popularized in the last half of the last century that focused, often in a highly politicized fashion, on the personal experiences of minorities and the disenfranchised – in favour of banal minimalisms and detached conceptual art (much of which is largely content free, and thus critic proof), spaces for women artists who know that the feminist revolution is not over have shrunk to a handful of specialty venues, such as the Women’s Art Resource Centre or the leftist gallery A Space.

King sees Hysteria as a chance to bring some balance back to the gallery scene.
“Identity art is unfashionable because we supposedly live in a post feminist age, an age that is all about power through purchasing. As soon as you say “feminist”, it’s not a marketable concept, so the work gets set aside”

“But all anyone has to do is look around and she or he will know that we’re not living in an age when feminist issues are irrelevant – just look at the US election, where abortion and homosexual rights are major issues. But the marketing doctrine teaches that if you are really good, you’ll find a market, and therefore you don’t need a community. Artists, however, know that you need a community and, more important, your own power to make and present art work, to find an audience. “

Highlights from this year’s exhibition include Ingrid Jurik and Susan McElwain’s etchings of manhole covers from around the world, Juana Awad’s photo-constructions that look like a cross between fashion magazine layouts and personal scrapbooks, Pearl Van Geest’s lovely and luxurious “kiss paintings”, and the Edward Gorey-esque oddities of painter Stef Lenk.
The bumper crop, King explains, comes from the fact that Hysteria succeeds via networking between women artists and women-run companies. As she details how each artist arrived at Hysteria, a kind of cross-continental feminist geography unfolds.

“We got over 300 submissions this year, from every place imaginable, which is remarkable – and, to be blunt, we chose work we liked and that was the best of its kind. We also wanted art that strongly stated to the viewer that what they are seeing is art by women, women who are intelligent and inspiring.”

Inspiring to what end?

“There are no victims in Hysteria, only celebrants Anyone could argue that we don’t need a women’s festival. But what we do need is an active exchange of ideas in art to go on all the time – and in this case the primary exchange is between women.”

As the festival grows, King expects growing pains. The huge amount of work programmed for this year is stretching budgets and resources to paper thinness.

“Right now, we’re looking for new partners – especially visual arts organizations.”
But is there a danger of diluting the show’s core themes by expanding into the traditional gallery circuit?

“No,” King cheers, “there’s room for us to shift and change every year. All we want is to take over the city.”


Tien Chang’s paintings, like Chang himself, live in two worlds. Half traditional Chinese ink wash paintings and half Western abstraction, his works are remarkably fluid and succinct, given their cluttered bi-cultural inspirations.

Born in Taipei, Chang has lived exactly half his life in Toronto and half his life in Taiwan, but, apparently, all of his life perfecting his art. His latest exhibition, Essence of the Horse, is a gorgeous collection of ink and acrylic horse paintings that attempt to portray this metaphor-laden animal (a key creature in the Chinese Zodiac and the foremost beast in all of North America’s pioneer myths) from a double, two worlds perspective.

At times in these kinetic works - and one must speak of time in this context, as the paintings are full of movement and energy - the horses reference formalized liturgical practices in Chinese calligraphy painting, a practice defined by tradition and adherence to a complex code of brush strokes and blots, and yet in the same painting one finds hints of a more estranged and uncertain school of looking, of something borne from the West’s increasing distrust of representation.
Small wonder many of the works remind one of paintings by Francis Bacon, the master of alienation. That is, if Bacon had grown up with an ink stick in his hand (and a happier world view).

Although not part of the official Hysteria program, Andrea Ruth Gader’s textile discs resonate with feminine energy. Comprised of thousands of layers of burnt, folded, threaded and otherwise caressed fabric, each disc is embedded with the artist’s personal history (and sometimes body parts) - a history recorded, in classical feminist fashion, not in linear A to B lines but in interlocking, interdependent circles.

As mysterious as a mummy’s wrappings, Gader’s sculptures beg to be touched, to be read like growth rings on tree stumps or the bottoms of still ponds.

Hysteria: A Festival of Women
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre 12 Alexander Street
November 4-13

Tien Chang
Essence of the Horse
Fran Hill Gallery 230 Queen Street East
November 6 - 27

Andrea Ruth Gader
The Burston Gallery 1092 Queen Street West
November 4 - 28