From the Inside Looking Out
The Puzzled, wild-eyed gaze of modern gays
Let me toss a million-dollar word at you (in German, no less): gesamtkunstwerk. While the opera queens out there nod knowingly, let me now explain: The term, originally coined by Richard Wagner to refer to his own work, means "total art work," art that is completely immersive. While it's safe to say that he didn't have a lesbian craft-fiend high on smarts and feminist theory in mind, Wagner’s term definitely applies to Allyson Mitchell, whose Sasquatch Squat is on now at Thrush Holmes Empire in the north project space.
Mitchell mines about 40 years worth of feminist herstory and every stitch of faux fur and stretch of shag she can get her hands on to create her camp-inflected take on the lesbian in the wild: the aforementioned Sasquatch, the exemplar of feral female sexuality.
The lady's ambassadors line the entrance hall to the gallery: little pink fun-fur squirrels with swollen felt teats nestled gingerly in hanging macramé baskets that lead you like a processional to their queen, a flailing-armed, roaring Lady Sasquatch. This model is a deep amber brown with feathered hair, six or so pendulous breasts and scarlet velveteen vulva. She's flanked on all sides by an innumerable collection of wee hot-pink protectresses, a gaggle of ferrets, fawns and sundry forest creatures.
Consider that each of these faunae, what Mitchell calls "Sasquatch Familiars" are named after her friends (Aleesa for Aleesa Cohene and Christina for Christina Zeidler) and you begin to understand what Mitchell is getting at. This is her version of sisterhood, a lesbian community proper whose messy realities are both informed and ignored by the fun-house mirrors of popular media.
Mitchell's powers of artistic immersion are such that she transcends the kitsch nature of her materials and transforms the space completely. You get the feeling that you're watching an anthropological exposition: Here, like King Kong chained to the theatre stage, is the Lady Sasquatch, displayed for your consumption, fur matted and eyes wild, transplanted into this gallery that comes to denote civilization. Her belligerent posture becomes a gesture of trapped defensiveness. Now replace "Sasquatch" with "queer sexuality," and you realize that underneath the fun fur and the kitschy shag is a deeply personal, deeply informed, scathing critique of the relationship between queer politics and the media.
Frequent Xtra scribe Daryl Vocat's The Translator's Conundrum series,
on concurrent display in the gallery's south project space, is less overtly
furious than Mitchell's installation. But it is no less heartfelt or critical
in its stance toward the particular quandaries faced by one who doesn't feel
entirely at ease within the confines of mainstream culture.
Vocat's procession of finely crafted silkscreen prints cast the artist as translator, a conduit for his own culture, so it's no surprise that the work seems diaristic. Most of the prints cast Vocat himself in various poses, in the midst of (mostly banal) activities. The best of them articulate a peculiar kind of resigned angst. Take for example Wiping That Smile Right Off/When They Made You, in which a disembodied hand moulds a clay bust of the artist as a young man; or Hoping This Will Wash Off, where we see a tattoo of a family portrait with a dagger through it on a man's back. Here, embodied in the smiling face of the young queer boy and in the seemingly idyllic family photo, is the clash between nascent gay desire and the sometimes-stifling institutions of nuclear family (and all that represents in terms of idyllic normality). But these aren't violent images. You get the sense that the traumas are long past and timeworn, so there's a little more objectivity in his personal hindsight; ironic commentary has become a little more gentle.
My particular favourites take that wry commentary and engage more directly with the idea of cultural translation. In Gazing Into Liberation's Fuzzy Chest, a deadpan Vocat, wearing fuzzy teddy bear ears, stares down an equally tranquilized bear. Man comes face-to-face with his sexual identity, and the gulf between what is and what ought to be seems bizarrely distant.
My other favourite, Summary Of An Epiphany, is of a bathroom urinal, to the right of which is scrawled "I will love you at 8pm next Wednesday" (this is lifted from — and properly credited to — David Hockney, who himself cribbed it from a bathroom wall). This is, for my money, the thematic centrepiece of the show. Embedded in that graffito malapropism — the confusion between love and a quick fuck, the categorical certainty of love occurring at a specific date and time — is Vocat's thesis. Language, and our use of it, is a tangled knot of associations, some missed, some not. But somehow we muddle through, and occasionally it gives rise to moments of real beauty.
Sasquatch Squat and The Translator's Conundrum continue at Thrush Holmes Empire (1093 Queen St W) till Sun, Jul 1. There is a Pride reception on Thu, Jun 21 from 7pm to 9pm; call (416) 530-4747.