Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Big Picture 53

To say that people have problematic relationships with their clothing is like saying Peter McKay knows a little bit about the pitfalls of social climbing (not to mention melodrama). The many ways in which we choose to cover ourselves are as fraught with psychological complications, and outright conflicts, as our food choices, with the added bonus that everyone can see the results.

We have clothes we wear for comfort, clothes that make us feel sexy, clothes for business, and clothes to disguise our business. And who doesn’t own a pair of “fat pants”, for those days when one feels bigger than life? Choosing what, or what not, to wear provokes as much distress as it does pleasure.

Given these conundrums, I’d love to see the inside of Teri Donovan’s closets. The Toronto multi-media artist’s gorgeous and deliciously creepy new exhibition, Skirts, explores the dark side of self-ornamentation via a series of grisly, yet oddly pretty mixed media works depicting a much-put-upon, bright red skirt.

Donovan’s innocent garment (are there any innocent garments?) gets the complete Francis Bacon bloody carcass treatment. Hung from meat hooks and trussed up tighter than a freshly shot deer, the skirt sometimes appears in bad need of rescuing, like one of the hapless, gored teens from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and at other times it appears perfectly in sync with it’s surroundings, as if it were meant to be strung up like a duck in a Chinatown butcher’s window. The fact that any of Donovan’s images of distressed skirts could easily be mistaken for a legitimate fashion advertisement is an uneasy reminder that fashion and horror film campaigns often look the same, because each rely on visual strategies designed to place the viewer in a passive position – which makes sense, as both industries are in the business of selling anxiety.

Donovan herself sees the skirts as metaphors for women’s choices, and reminds me that while the violence in her work is obvious, there is also a more contemplative element.

“My mother had some clothes that she saved from the late 40s and early 50s, a number of which were skirts, particularly one red skirt, which I kept. My mother came of age in a time when women’s identities were limited, and if you watch movies from that time, women were referred to as “skirts” - a skirt was an item that stood in for a woman, it was a metonym. So, the skirt in these works embodies that limitation, and also reminds women of the limitations we still carry today.”

“A woman’s identity tends to be read by what sort of clothes she wears, and women’s (and some men’s) fantasies are connected with fashion because women’s identities have been fused with fashion. Women are reluctant to entirely let go of that fusion, as far as we’ve come since feminism, and certain connotations continue to linger.”

And yet, I remind Donovan, the skirts in her work are undeniably beautiful. How, then, did she tackle the tension between the obvious attractiveness of the skirt and the skirt’s unattractive metonymic and symbolic history?

“Clothes from that era are gorgeous, without a doubt. But I didn’t really look at the clothes as objects in themselves. I think the fact that the skirt is still beautiful in the works is a reflection of how things still are – the skirts do look nice, but are also representatives of limitations. Women play with self representation in their clothing choices, because all women know that they can assume different identities with different clothes. Like all clothes, the skirt has that double function.”

“Part of my reason for doing this project was to find out if other women think about these things like I do. Do other women face their abundant choices today with the same dissatisfaction that I do?”

“There’s an idea that we should be happy now with all our choices, shut up and be satisfied, and there’s definitely pressure to feel satisfied, or at least appear satisfied. But what if the skirt doesn’t quite fit?”


Glass artist Stuart Reid must have been an alchemist in a previous life, if not a full-on witch, because his new series of chemically-treated glass panels on display at Material Matters is nothing short of magical.

Using staining techniques dating from 14th century Europe – silver nitrate washes, copper dips, cobalt infusions and golden acid etchings – Reid coaxes out rich and luxuriant hues that are actually embedded in the body of the glass, not merely lacquered on the surface. The difference, though subtle, is that the works appear to have been made in a single stroke, as if the colours, shapes and radiant splashes were there at the original firing of the panels.

The figure studies and texts that decorate the panels are literally eating their way into the hard liquid of the glass, albeit at a glacial pace. Subsequently, they quietly hum with life, especially when the sun pokes through the gallery’s large front windows and ups the kilowatts. Rich blood reds infect the fringes of the burnt gold, and the blue stains twinkle with royal purple.

But you don’t need to know anything about Dark Ages glass fabrication to appreciate all the pretty colours and dancing light (I barely understood the chemistry lesson myself, and Reid was there to walk me through it). Wait for a bright day and plunk yourself in front of the glowing spectacles. Reid’s crystallized incense is aromatherapy for the eyes.


Toronto is a lonely town. TTC patrons sit stoically on the subway like aristocrats being bustled to the guillotine, hands in their laps and eyes averted. Restaurants play loud music to prevent spontaneous inter-table conviviality, and nobody knows their neighbours.

Katharine Mulherin’s new installation at Fly Gallery (a store front window space for public art) is a simple but effective attempt to re-sensitize our numbed hearts. Mulherin’s long time neighbour, Johnny, passed away recently and Mulherin realized that even though she had lived beside him for years, she’d never gotten to know him. To reconcile herself to this cold fact, Mulherin has created a wallpaper printed with the obituary details of hundreds of real, deceased men named John – some famous, some forgotten.

As you read the long lists of dead Johns, and the small bits of information about their lives, the list becomes an incantation, a séance in print, and the anonymity of the late men becomes impossible to uphold - each forgotten John is fortified and made whole again by the presence of the others, by the simple fact that once a name is recorded, its bearer cannot disappear entirely.

Ancient Egyptians believed that carving a name into stone granted immortality to the bearer of the name. It’s worth a try.

Teri Donovan
Propeller Centre for the Arts 984 Queen St. West Until October 23

Stuart Reid
Torn Curtain/Tangled Lines
Material Matters 215 Spadina Avenue Until November 6

Katharine Mulherin
The Estate of the Late John Young
Fly Gallery 1172 Queen Street West (window space) Until November 10