Angela Grossmann's Models of Resistance upends erotica

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      Angela Grossmann: Models of Resistance
      At the Marion Scott Gallery until Saturday, April 25. A Capture Photography Festival presentation

      A woman bends forward, loosening her underwear, smiling provocatively and—what?—her torso transforms into a man’s striped bathing trunks and muscular thighs.

      Angela Grossmann’s recent works continue her creative practice of improvising new imagery out of found photographs. In the past, she has employed collage and photo-transfer techniques, along with expressive gestures in paint or charcoal, to explore a range of themes. Many of these involve the social construction of identity and the exercise of power.

      Whether her putative subject is orphaned children or incarcerated criminals, she brings a strong emotive element to her examination of the human condition.

      In Models of Resistance, her exhibition of small, mixed-media works on paper, Grossmann considers the nature of erotica and the ways in which gendered identity is created, communicated, and understood. As in the past, she uses vintage imagery to address contemporary themes and conditions. Instead of trolling the Internet for titillating images (a perhaps too-repugnant task), Grossmann deploys comparatively modest black-and-white photos of women sourced from vintage erotica, much of it appearing to originate in the 1920s through the 1960s. These she cuts or tears apart and recombines, sometimes adding messy swirls of doll hair and stained articles of doll clothing.

      Perspective and proportion are often jumbled up, and male and female body parts may be weirdly juxtaposed. Humour and grotesquerie constantly undermine the original intent of the “erotic” photos.

      In Ginger, for instance, a woman’s face, neck, and shoulders are conjoined with a boy’s torso, ragged knee-length pants, and lower legs, onto which Grossmann has drawn argyle socks and saddle shoes. Playful depictions of a hobo’s cup, a satchel, and a wobbly hook for a hand further confuse and confound our reading of this figure.

      In Ruffles, a man’s face, adorned with clown makeup and bracketed by a tiny hat and a large collar, tops an off-kilter assortment of female arms, breasts, hips, thighs, garters, and panties, the latter garnished with unruly strands of (actual) black hair. Again, confusion and confoundment.

      A number of Grossmann’s works pose the disjointed beings as if they were puppets, attached to vertical lines that extend upward, out of the picture frame. In Stairs, puppet strings are connected with a doll-like head that droops limply forward, over female shoulders and a male torso and lower body, the midsection clothed in old-fashioned men’s swim trunks.

      Baby Doll, one of the most unsettling images here, deploys what looks like a Depression-era photo of a naked woman with thin arms and large breasts, pretending to nurse a baby doll. The puppet strings attached to the woman’s ungainly body and bowed head further amplify the already distressing found image, posing questions of power and control.

      In her curatorial essay, Lynn Ruscheinsky writes that Grossmann’s new works address the idea of gender as performance, an idea especially apparent in clown makeup, wiglike hair, costume play, and curtained or stage-set-like backdrops. Gender is presented as a fluid condition and its expression as an ongoing and improvisational theatrical act. Also evident here is a thwarting of the voyeuristic impulse, an undermining of ownership by any single gaze or sexual orientation. Ruscheinsky extols Grossmann’s series as contravening the objectification of the female body, presenting instead “potent images of female empowerment”.

      This assertion of empowerment holds true for works in which the collaged-together women wear cheeky or cheery facial expressions and employ confident gestures, seeming to enjoy the burlesque ways they present themselves. Sorrow and helplessness, however, also prevail in Models of Resistance, especially in works where women’s drooping heads and fragmented bodies are attached to strings, awaiting animation by an unseen puppeteer.

      In such images, power resides beyond their control, in the hands of those who have long been accustomed to exercising it.