Angela Grossmann: the Future Is Female
At Winsor Gallery until May 6
The Future Is Female is an unsettling exhibition. Vancouver painter Angela Grossmann took the show’s title from a button she found in a junk shop in the mid-1980s. Guest essayist Danielle Egan describes that long-ago button as both “a brazen declaration” and “an abandoned relic of second-wave feminism”.
Relic, indeed. Nearly four decades after women marched in the streets demanding equality, the political and economic landscape shows little sign of change. White men in grey suits still dominate the summits and boardrooms of the world’s prosperous nations, right-wing male politicians still want control over women’s bodies, and advertising still brainwashes girls and women with impossible images of “beauty”. Sigh.
In her mixed-media collages and oil paintings on paper and Mylar, Grossmann focuses on the female form to address what she tells Egan are the “very unpleasant ways” women are “being watched and objectified”. In the collages, particularly, she cuts, tears, and reassembles different photographic images of women, juxtaposing different notions of female beauty, past and present. Most of the images she employs are of the found variety, photocopied and enlarged in black and white before being worked into collage form and embellished with expressive streaks of paint. An example is Girl Leaning, in which a blond nude with face averted is augmented with a man’s forearm and a cut-out bit of frumpy cotton panty that serves as a kind of belt across her middle, exposing her naked bum and thighs. In Black, White and Blue, executed on a wonderful piece of wrinkled, stained, and torn paper, the politics of representation are folded into an image of a young woman walking barefoot on a beach.
The found images Grossmann employs range from photos of Greco-Roman statuary through what look like erotic postcards from the 1920s and girlie pix of the 1950s to more recent casual shots of young women in black bras and tight jeans. Almost all the women depicted here avert their faces or are shot from behind. As feminist critics have long observed, such poses disempower women, contributing to the sense that they are objects of the male gaze. (Most of the original found images Grossmann incorporates into her collages would have been shot by men.)
The most impressive work in the show is the collage The Future Is Female. Here, Grossmann has assembled a female figure from multiple parts, including a head with ’60s-style headband, a torso decked in ’50s-style white underwear, hips swaddled in jeans so tight the zipper is gaping at the top, striped pants, bobby socks, Mary Janes, and multiple, Shiva-like arms. This work, executed on an old piece of canvas awning, powerfully evokes the fractured business of constructing an identity in an age of image bombardment.
Grossmann’s quick oil sketches and more laboured oil paintings are a less successful take on the fraught subject of the female nude. She tells essayist Egan that she’s “really trying to say what wonderful, powerful, gorgeous, extraordinary sensual beings we are and that there are so many ways to be fantastic and glorious without having to compromise ourselves by shaving off all our pubic hair and binding ourselves into ridiculous clothes”. It seems as if the artist intends the work in the exhibition to be both celebratory and critical, but I’m not convinced that these two aspirations can be realized at the same time. By posing her female nudes, such as the sadly seductive woman with the childlike face in Blue Sheets, in ways men have been posing them for centuries, Grossmann seems to have unconsciously internalized their objectifying strategies. Most of these naked bodies do not feel glorious, just exposed. The exception is Blue Gloves, Red Hair, a towering nude who looks down upon us with an expression of quiet confidence and self-possession. We should all feel this good about ourselves.