Thursday, April 3, 2008

Artist Talk, April 5, 2008

At the opening of Tell Tale/Tall Tale I gave a talk about the series of mixed media paintings, titled Female Personae, which is featured in the show. The pieces in this series are in the Portfolio of my website at The gist of my remarks follows:

The artist statement and artist talk seem to have become necessary adjuncts to viewing art. In just a few centuries, Western artists have moved from making unsigned depictions of well known religious narratives to presenting personal cosmologies, using idiosyncratic visual vocabularies that need some context to be understood. I fabricate a corner of the world and ask you to buy into it, by looking at it, imagining your way into it, or by literally buying it and making it part of your world. Creation, and here I mean Creation with a capital C, is not finished. It is ongoing and I want to get my two cents in.

This show, Tell Tale/Tall Tale, is dominated by the series I just finished, called “Female Personae”, mixed media paintings (or perhaps sculptures) that use the forms of women’s clothing to explore the experience of being female. Ten or so years ago I imagined that the purpose of my work was to investigate what it means to be a woman in this time and place. However, I concluded that that was far too big a task, one that ran the risk of breaking my heart. So, I reoriented myself and took on something more straightforward, namely, what is it like to be a woman in this time and place?

That brought me straight to clothes. Many pieces in “Female Personae” are pretty objects made from sinister materials. Women love their clothes and their clothes injure them. I mean actual, not metaphorical, injury. Nor do we need to go to distant times and places to witness Isadora Duncan being killed by her trademark drapery, or a courtesan with bound feet, or a Victorian matron made faint by her strays. At this 21st century moment we can consider the underwire digging into flesh, the platforms you fall off of, the tight jeans that give you an infection. And still, I love my clothes. The piece “Out of Season” portrays that love--the way in which a dress can capture something about feminine love, the glow of a female kind of light. Pieces like “Strap/yoke/halter/hook” , which sports a skirt decorated with the names of menacing-sounding fashions or “Good Mornin' Little school Girl”, a sweet little sundress fabricated from escort and massage parlor ads, use rather blatant strategies to show the seductiveness of a persona that injures:

Last year I was planning a trip to Oaxaca with my friends Anne and Jon. At one of our planning sessions Anne and I got into a detailed discussion about pedicures--what kind to get, when to get it, how long it would last. Finally, Jon interrupted us, saying, “God I would be terrible at being a woman. I could not stand worrying about my toenails” Of course, he may have interrupted us because he was afraid we would move on to a detailed seminar on bikini waxing. Why do I tell you this story? It illustrates this important fact: to carry even a minimally appropriate feminine persona through the Western world is both labor intensive and anxiety producing. I am a feminist and an old, unrecovered hippie who has dropped approx. 75% of the female grooming demands I was raised with (for example, the injunction to never leave the house without wearing a “foundation garment”), but I still cannot contemplate wearing sandals if my toenails are funky.

The majority of women who are more or less normally socialized give meticulous, fastidious, sometimes obsessive attention to details of their appearance. The particular details a particular woman focuses on may be influenced by her ethnicity, class, politics, region, religion, race, or they may be quite idiosyncratic. What remains consistent is the pressure to maintain a very specific kind of persona, a persona that acts as a shield against criticism from other women, a prop for self image, an obsessive defense against anxiety, and, in some ways, at some times, an expression of primal and archetypal aspects of femininity. The presentation, for most women in most situations, is only secondarily concerned with sexual attraction, especially when it comes to those fastidious little details. Certainly this is true if the target of attraction is a man, as research tells us pretty clearly that most men don’t register the details of anyone’s appearance, including their own.

In the early 19th. century the French novelist Stendhal said “The fastidiousness of women is the result of that perilous situations in which they find themselves placed so early, and of the the necessity they are under of spending their lives among cruel and charming enemies:”

Chilling isn’t it? What is the heart of this “perilous situation” women find themselves in? In the West, Woman is cast as the chief exponent of the Flesh in a culture that has a severe mind/body problem. The problem is that, to the western mind, the body is both wonderful and terrible. This makes women both wonderful and terrible, in much the same way that her personae, her clothes, are both wonderful and terrible.

So, what are we to do, we women? One thing we can do is to try and show that we are able to control this troublesome flesh--that we don’t have too much of it, that what we have isn’t too hairy or too smelly or too crinkled.

Rita Hayworth, the screen siren of the ‘40’s whose iconic role was in the movie “Gilda”, famously, and pathetically said, “Men go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me.” In this comment she succinctly conveys the paradoxical dilemma presented by female personae--To the extent that you succeed in manufacturing the ideal feminine presentation, you will feel less accepted as an actual woman.

The ideal feminine persona is a shuck, a trick. If it were solely or primarily a shuck used by historically powerless people in order to manage more powerful people--those “cruel and charming enemies” Stendhal refers to--I would not have much problem with it. However, it is a shuck we women believe in ourselves. We enact it everyday, even if we see through it intellectually. We invest time, energy, resources, most importantly, feeling, in the pursuit of it.

Female personae are pretty things made of sinister materials. They are a feminine disguise that slowly and surely confuses both the wearer and the beholder as to the nature of the person within. Yet, the seductiveness of Feminine disguise remains largely impervious to this insight. That is the conundrum that my work in the series "Female personae" explores.

Tanya Wilkinson

Tanya Wilkinson