value the brain & cut the priviledge
@ Gallery on Queen, Fredericton N.B.
Verdant | Exhibition featuring: Beth Biggs, Janice Wright Cheney, Linda Kelly and Sarah Maloney | @ Gallery on Queen, Fredericton, New Brunswick.
April 30, 2018 | by Danielle C. Hogan
Writing a feminist art review does not make any sense, I have tried and tried again. Art reviews are largely steeped in a capitalist system of power and white male privilege, promoting and propagating its own lineages and legacies. What does the state of art reviewing have to do with feminism? How do you enter a house that was built to exclude you? – Amy Fung, ‘How to review As a Feminist and Other Speculative Intents’ p.238 Desire Change
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. – Audre Lorde (1979)
Verdant, title of the new exhibition of works by Beth Biggs, Janice Wright Cheney, Linda Kelly, and Sarah Maloney means ‘green with growing plants’. Seemingly innocuous, it is a perfectly lovely title for a spring show. However, let us not forget that in fact, sinuous vegetation has also long been metaphors for women’s power and influence – their ‘disobedience’. Consider Eve and her apple from the story of Original Sin, our culture’s mythological fascination with ‘witches’ and their extensive knowledge of poisonous plants and herbs and (a standard in the repertoire of literature for young boys) Poison Ivy, Gotham’s main criminal from Batman series. Now, let’s talk “verdant” …
Lush greens, acidic yellows and warm browns permeate Linda Kelly’s carefully crafted images of common garden weeds and their roots. Each is a shoot and root system drawn or painted onto pages torn from vintage books and they are (put simply) exceptional. Kelly, in conversation with the exhibition’s co-curator Anne Koval, says about her piece Devil’s Paintbrush that she “admire(s) the weed’s tenacity”, which is an attribute that can by easily applied to the artist and educator herself. Kelly’s shoots are faithfully rendered yet it is the root systems that are really her subject. It is clear that it is they who most profoundly hold her attention and this subject – typically hidden from view – is what might challenge viewers to think more deeply about Kelly’s work. This spring, one hundred and fifty-one years post confederation, Indigenous educators like Nikki Sanchez (a PhD Student in Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria) are reminding settler colonials that we need educate ourselves about our roots. “Know enough about who you are to know how you got here”. This is the beginning of dismantling privilege and being aware of Canada’s colonial structure, and it is a frame of mind from which to think politically about Linda Kelly’s verdant works in this show.
Metalsmith Beth Biggs points out that she is creatively inspired to “explore the antagonistic relationship between life and death”. In Bigg’s hands, this predilection manifests itself in many exquisite forms including vessels and neckpieces. Her work Host(ess) is a scent bottle shaped as a rose and hosts a parasitic green aphid on top (the bottle’s stopper), the stem of which is sheathed in a sensuously shaped pearl. This piece of Bigg’s brings to mind the antonymic experience of reading Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (a novel by Patrick Süskind) the narrative of which, distilled-down, could be described as an examination of the intense and evocative feelings that attach themselves to scents. In 1986, the New York Times described that novel’s plot as “a meditation on the nature of death, desire and decay” and it is precisely this characterization that explains why Host(ess) brings this novel so firmly to mind. The pearl cupped stem of its blooming rose alone stirs a voyeuse-like feeling of titillation. Beth Brigg uses the traditional methods of chasing, repoussé and enameling in her metal works to tease out the curvilineal lines and organic emphasises that is popular in Art Nouveau inspired work, and which perfectly mirrors what she describes as “the desire of femininity” evident throughout in her practice.
“Sugar Magnolia blossom blooming’s | Head’s all empty and I do not care”. One glance at Sarah Maloney’s patinated bronze series First Flower will have music fans humming the opening lyrics to the Grateful Dead’s famous song Sugar Magnolia; the details of Maloney’s construction are so botanically faithful. And yet, still closer observation quickly reveals Maloney’s brazen “hell with gentile blossoms” sensibility, which radiates from the powerful bronze works. Sarah Maloney is an artist who has, for years, moved seamlessly back and forth between the mediums of textiles, wood and bronze creating the illusion that such fluidity might be ‘no big deal’. In fact, it’s a very big deal, especially given that she makes the work herself rather than contracting the construction out to different specialist (think American ‘Boy Wonder’, Jeff Koons); look closely and you will see spots where her fingerprints remain in the casting. In an essay from 2011, craft historian Sandra Alfoldy describes Maloney’s approach to her work as an “unapologetic celebration of femininity, domesticity, and the loaded symbol of sexualized flowers”. Verdant features a number of Maloney’s striking textile pieces, as well as many works in bronze the magnolia flower is a tough, hard, adaptable perennial and for these reasons has come to represent endurance and long life. Maloney’s pieces remind us that women are also resilient and adaptable, and her unflinching works in Verdant caution us not to forget, nor underestimate, this fact.
Janice Wright Cheney’s work Fera Moira means “wild fate” and references a “rewilding” or reclaiming of objects by Nature. The concept behind Wright Cheney’s work in Verdant was inspired by a story that includes a rundown spiral staircase found covered in sprouting fungi. In this piece Wright Cheney has placed an ornate, paisley dressed (‘civilized’ looking) dog in ‘wolf’s clothing’ howling at the base of a set of invisible stairs that are suggested by two newels (large vertical posts found at the base of a set of stairs). Last spring in Canadian Art, Sue Sinclair wrote about Wright Cheney’s piece Widow Walking (2012) that it seems to “be living out a gendered grief, culturally ascribed, one that seems more human than animal”, and she has achieved once again in Fera Moira. The addition of four vertical pillar pieces suggest a home: porch and front stairs. From each piece in this arrangement sprout impeccably hand-felted fungi, many featuring dyed lace on the undersides, a medium synonymous with Wright Cheney’s art practice. Arrange at the far end of the gallery in Verdant, Wright Cheney’s work reads like a ‘closing’ or a poem of sorts…
From Sylvia Plath’s poem, Mushrooms;
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
The artists in Verdant turn a deaf ear to all stale, patriarchal, ‘rules’ having to do with the division of gender spheres – male (public/social) vs. female (domestic/private) – including worrying about using any tools, materials and/or subjects that might be thus stigmatized. Beth Biggs, Janice Wright Cheney, Linda Kelly and Sarah Maloney remind us that reclamations may be quiet – may be slow – but that with reclamation comes power and responsibility; they will accept nothing less.
Verdant is on now at Gallery on Queen in Fredericton New Brunswick | 406 Rue Queen, Fredericton, NB E3B 1B6 | (506) 206 – 1904 | www.galleryonqueen.com
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“Leave your pain here and go out and do your magnificent things.”
After hearing a dancer talk about her struggles and thoughts of suicide, Aquilina told her:“Only the defendant [Nassar] would be better off if you were not here. Please stay with us. Stay with your family. Your children need you.”
Aquilina told gymnast Bailey Lorencen:“The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you…. Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her.’ Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength.”
Hope to see you out and about, creatively working for positive change!
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