“Blueprints”, group show at Centre 3

Centre 3 for Print and Media Arts

blueprints

My installation The Disobedient Dollhouse will be featured in the curated group show Blueprints at Hamilton’s  Centre 3 for Print and Media Arts. This exhibition will also screen my two recent animated videos Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery and Domestikia, Chapter 3, La Petite Mort. Show runs from January 17 – March 1, 2014. The opening reception will take place Friday, February 14 at 7 – 10 p.m.

Giant insects swarm the Art Gallery of Peterborough!

Quick and dirty snapshot of the installation in-progress.

My installation The Disobedient Dollhouse will pay a visit to the Art Gallery of Peterborough, starting this month. This exhibition will also screen my 2-minute stop-motion animation Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery. Exhibition runs from November 9 – January 6, 2013. The opening reception will take place Friday November 16, 7 – 9 pm. Visit the web site of the AGP for details and/or directions.

Backyard: a fearonrevell project

I have created a site-specific sculpture for the upcoming group exhibition Backyard, curated by Elizabeth Fearon. The concept for the show is simple and clever: site-specific work in the backyard of her own home. There’s an impressive roster of participants, so it promises to be a good show. Here’s all the details:

My site-specific installation for the group exhibition “Backyard.” Jennifer Linton, “Lawn Shadows”, 2012, wood, paint, copper pipe, electrical tape.

Backyard: a fearonrevell project

Site-specific installations will be created for our backyard by:

Myfanwy Ashmore
Mark Connery
Marie de Sousa
Elizabeth Fearon
Michelle Johnson
Jennifer Linton
Tanya Read
Rupen
Fiona Smyth
Julie Voyce
Natalie Majaba Waldburger

The show will run from the 4th of Aug. (Opening reception: 2-6pm) until the 26th of August. The backyard will be open to the public from 1 to 6, Wednesday through Sunday.

Location: 85 Carlaw Ave. Toronto

For more information call 416 654 3232

The art of Hannah Wilke: ‘Feminist Narcissism’ and the reclamation of the erotic body.

I wrote the following essay on American visual artist Hannah Wilke for an art history class in graduate school. I include the full text and images, excluding citations. If you’re a student who discovers this via search engine, then I have every confidence in your research abilities to track down the scholarly sources. Wilke was a seminal Second Wave feminist artist whose work has received renewed interest from scholars since her death in 1993.

The politics of inclusion that shaped feminist discourse in the 1960s and 1970s spawned a legacy of body-based performance art, much of which was associated with women artists who used their own face as a subject of continual exploration. The self- imaging of women artists such as the provocative American artist Hannah Wilke was frequently attacked and dismissed by art critics as being indulgent exercises in narcissism that only served to reinforce the objectification of the female body. The charge of narcissism leveled on Wilke and her work may have been warranted, however, this should not be considered as a pejorative. Rather, the narcissism of Wilke can be viewed as a shrewd feminist tactic of self-objectification aimed at reclaiming the eroticized female body from the exclusive domain of male sexual desire. The ‘self-love’ of narcissism is a necessary component to this reclaiming of the body and the assertion of a female erotic will as being distinct from that of the male artist. Wilke wielded her narcissistic self-love as a powerful tool of critique, defiantly placing her own image into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated art institution.

The term “narcissism” derives from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful but arrogant youth who cruelly spurned the love of his admirers. For his cruelty, he was cursed by the goddess Nemesis and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. The doomed Narcissus pined away for his unattainable lover – the image of his own self – and literally died as a result of his amorous longing.

Sigmund Freud bestowed the name of this mythic Greek youth upon his psychoanalytic theory of narcissism, a theory that describes normal personality development. According to Freud, the self-love of narcissism is a normal complement to the development of a healthy ego. Whereas a certain amount of narcissism is desirable, an excess of self-love is considered dysfunctional and indicative of pathology. This latter definition of narcissism, the one of pathological self-absorption, has cast our current understanding of narcissism in a negative light and reinforced the use of the term as a pejorative.

The psychoanalytic theories of Freud suggest that negative or pathological narcissism is a specifically female perversion. Art critic Amelia Jones writes that “[d]rawing loosely on Freud’s definitions – which connect narcissism to both a stage of development and to a form of homosexual neurosis – narcissism has come in everyday parlance to mean simply a kind of “self-love” epitomized through woman’s obsession with her own appearance.” Hence, the charges of narcissism leveled on Hannah Wilke were attempts by the critics to summarily dismiss her work as mere manifestations of a woman’s obsessive self-love and infer, according to Jones, that Wilke’s art was not “successfully feminist.”

Critics such as Amelia Jones and Joanna Frueh have championed Wilke and proposed, through their respective writings, a new and positive view of narcissism as a legitimately feminist, subversive tactic in the making of art. In her catalogue essay entitled “Intra-Venus and Hannah Wilke’s Feminist Narcissism”, Jones contextualized Wilke’s work within the framework of her “radical narcissism” and argued that the use of her own image throughout her art is far from the conventional or passively ‘feminine’ depiction of women as seen in advertising and other forms of mass media. Joanna Frueh, in her essay that accompanied the 1989 Wilke retrospective in Missouri, equated Wilke’s “positive narcissism” with a form of feminist self-exploration and an assertion of a female erotic will. Both Frueh and Jones cogently argue for a “positive narcissism” that expunges itself of the negative connotations of Freudian psychoanalytic theory and, in contrast, actively and unapologetically engages in self-love. Wilke enacts an aggressive form of narcissistic self-imaging that defiantly solicits the patriarchal gaze which she then, as Jones writes, “graft[s] onto and into her body/self, taking hold of it and reflecting it back to expose and exacerbate its reciprocity.”

Fig. #1. Hannah Wilke. "S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication". Mixed media (artist's multiple). 1974-75.

Wilke’s active solicitation of the “male gaze” as a method of feminist critique is best exemplified in her photographic series entitled S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication (figs. 1-2), a series which had been originally produced as a box-set artist’s multiple for the 1975 exhibition “Artists Make Toys” at the Clocktower in New York. Wilke commissioned a commercial photographer to capture her semi-nude self-portraits in which she adopts the exaggerated postures of the celebrity and fashion industries. In one such photograph, a sunglass-wearing Wilke clutches her Mickey Mouse toy tight to her partly naked torso as she gazes off-camera at an imaginary paparazzi. She assumed the role of the celebrity art “star” suggested by the witty wordplay of her title S.O.S. Starification Object Series. As with many of Wilke’s titles – for she was fond of linguistic games and frequently engaged in puns – there is a double meaning to be found in the titular pun “starification.” Wilke dotted her own skin with several tiny vaginal sculptures that she had shaped from chewing gum. These small sculptures decorated her body in a manner recalling the practice of ritual scarification employed by certain African cultures as a means of beautification. Given the presence of the vaginal “scars” in combination with the sexy, glamourous black and white photographs of Wilke, it is not difficult to locate the artist’s critical stance on the occasionally painful regimens Western women inflict upon themselves in their conformity to accepted conventions of beauty. Wilke willfully submitted her own body to this ritualized, albeit pretend, self-abuse in order to address this “tyranny of Venus” which, as Susan Brownmiller writes in Femininity, “…a woman feels whenever she criticizes her appearance for not conforming to prevailing erotic standards.” The fact that Wilke herself was, by these same erotic standards, a beautiful and sexually desirable woman does not confuse her aim of critique but rather serves to strengthen her commentary on women’s roles and gender stereotypes. Her overstated, sultry expressions and postures of sexual display invite scrutiny. Wilke was keenly aware of her status as a celebrity art-star as well as a beautiful, eroticized object of desire and she capitalized on both with the S.O.S. Starification Object Series. The original dissemination of this photographic series in a packaged box set, complete with sticks of chewing gum, preformed gum vaginas and phalluses, and the semi-nude artist self- portraits, simultaneously commented on both the artist-celebrity as a commodity as well as the erotic consumption of the female body. Cleverly, Wilke underscored the erotic self-objectification of her image in the extended title for this box set multiple: S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication. We are reminded that this is an adult game, and Wilke’s use of the word mastication in reference to chewing (gum) is likely a pun on masturbation, a suggestion that locates her eroticized self-portraits on the parameters of pornography.

Fig. #2. Hannah Wilke. "S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication". Detail. Mixed media (artist's multiple). 1974-75.

Assimilating the visual language of the objectified female body, Wilke employed her own eroticized body as a metaphorical mirror that she then held up to reflect back the sexual projections of male desire. This act of reflection enabled Wilke to sever her passive (and traditionally female) receptiveness of this male projection and assert her own erotic will. In her collection of essays entitled Erotic Faculties, Joanna Freuh used the phrase “autoerotic autonomy” in reference to Wilke’s images and suggested that her “…self-exhibition may demonstrate the positive narcissism – self- love – that masculinist eros has all but erased.” The empty vessel that is the celebrity or the fashion model – devoid of a personal will as she functions as a receptacle for our projected desires – has been adopted and systematically absorbed by Wilke’s exaggerated poses. For her part, Wilke then engaged her narcissistic self-love as a means to fill these empty vessels with her aggressive sexuality. The sites of female erotic pleasure, namely the mouth and the vagina, are conjured in her chewing gum sculptures while, at the same moment, they hint at the violent aggression of the folkloric vagina dentata.

The consciously sexualized self-objectification of Wilke and the use of her own body as a “professional currency” often elicited harsh criticism from the ranks of feminism, an ideology to which she actively subscribed. Lucy Lippard, the champion of 1970s feminist art, famously wrote that Wilke’s “confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level.” Art critics Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman dismiss Wilke’s self-portraits: “In objectifying herself as she does, in assuming the conventions associated with a stripper, …Wilke…does not make her own position clear…It seems her work ends up by reinforcing what it intends to subvert…” The tense political climate and rapid social change of America during the decades of the 1960s and 70s fueled a radical activism amongst Second Wave feminists. The urgency felt by these activists to affect social change in relation to gender equality frequently generated a feminism that was fervent, even orthodox, in its ideology. This strict orthodoxy was shaped by anti- essentialism – a philosophical stance that rejected the representation of the female body as it was believed too imbued with a history of objectification by male artists – and therefore unable and unwilling to accommodate the sexualized body-based art of Hannah Wilke. The negative reception of Wilke by critics like Lippard, Barry and Flitterman may have been prompted by an adherence to this strict orthodoxy. The complex and ambiguous views of the body and female sexuality that Wilke presented, at times even contradictory to the aims of feminism, generated rancor in this inflexible climate of anti-essentialism.

In her 1978 interview “Artist Hannah Wilke Talks with Ernst” the artist unapologetically spoke of the “ethics of ambiguity” that characterized both her work and life. She addressed, in her honest and unmediated manner, the conflicted views of a woman who, though conscious of feminism, still felt concerned with her appearance and desirability to men. Rather than deny this impulse, Wilke embraced her feminine narcissism and brandished it as a weapon. Such a bold act of defiance and deliberate provocation against the anti-essentialist feminism that dominated the 1960s and 70s later established Wilke as the “…spiritual parent to postfeminist artists such as Tracey Emin…” and anticipated the self-imaging of Janine Antoni and Cindy Sherman.

Fig. #3. Film still from Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Fuses’, 1965.

Wilke was not the only woman artist of her generation to use her own body in a consciously sexualized manner, nor was she the only artist to engage with narcissism as a feminist tactic. Carolee Schneeman’s canonical 1965 Fuses (fig. 3), a film that included photographic footage of the artist having sex with her then-partner James Tenny, was greeted with outrage from the feminist audience who, as film theorist Shana MacDonald writes, “…[were] uncertain how to incorporate the sexualized, erotic and self-produced image provided by Schneemann” Similar to the harsh criticisms leveled on the photographs of Wilke, the erotic self-portraiture of Schneemann’s Fuses was frequently attacked as being “obscene and narcissistic.” According to MacDonald, it was her sexually graphic imagery – imagery that feminist theorists found indistinguishable from the objectified female image being resisted – that caused Schneemann to be misunderstood by her peers and ultimately marginalized.

As the coquettish semi-nudes of Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series made reference to imagery generated for pornographic use, so too does Schneemann’s Fuses address pornography in order to critique its traditional objectification of women. The repeated, non-linear narrative of Fuses interrupts the pornographic convention that the film necessarily terminate in the obligatory “cum shot” of male ejaculation. The sexuality communicated by Schneemann’s film is highly subjective and anchored in the banal reality of the everyday, including shots of the artist’s cat and the domestic surroundings of her home. The subjectivity of Fuses was further heightened by the literal mark of the artist, evidenced in Schneemann’s use of hand-processing techniques such as collage, painting and scratching directly onto the celluloid. Her infusion of a personal subjectivity performed as a feminist resistance against the sexual- objectification of the female body as seen in conventional pornography. By simultaneously inhabiting the roles of both the image and the image-maker, she positioned herself “not as sex object, but as willed and erotic subject, commanding her own image.” Schneemann’s urge to see her own sexualized image is a manifestation of self-love and the hypothesized “positive narcissism” of Jones and Freuh. As Narcissus romantically yearned for his own image, Schneemann desires to view her own erotic image, not reflected in a pool of water, but projected larger-than-life on the theatre screen. This act is a bold assertion of her narcissism and erotic will.

Fig. #4. Video still from Hannah Wilke’s ‘Gestures’, 1974.

At first glance Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series, much like Schneemann’s Fuses, appeared to reinforce the visual language of the objectified female body. The sultry eyes, seductively parted lips and naked breasts of Wilke read as cultural signifiers of female sexual invitation and availability. Lippard may have been correct in her observation that Wilke played both the “feminist and flirt” but her assessment that this polarity stemmed from her confusion over these two roles was essentially wrong. Wilke’s narcissistic self-imaging was not, as Elizabeth Hess charged, an impulse to “…wallow in cultural obsessions with the female body,” but a pointed feminist critique of these same obsessions. In contrast to fashion models and pin-up girls, who passively offer their flesh to be inscribed by male desire, Wilke interrupted this erotic exchange by the presence of her chewing gum “scar” sculptures. Recalling the artistic intervention of Schneemann’s hand-processing techniques in Fuses, Wilke’s sculptures mark the otherwise unblemished surface of her skin and disrupt the easy consumption of her body as an erotic object. She declared the canvas of her skin as the terrain of her own erotic expression, and marked it accordingly. Whereas the youth Narcissus failed to possess his own beloved self-image, Schneemann and Wilke are too shrewd in the deployment of their narcissism to suffer this same fate.
Women artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Schneemann and Wilke, often engaged in the feminist project of reclaiming the female body from previous male privilege. Centuries of depiction by exclusively male artists had rendered the female nude a dehumanized, neutral object. Wilke and her feminist contemporaries sought to rectify this situation by seizing creative control over one’s own body. Performative works such as Wilke’s 1974 Gestures (fig. 4) – a video that featured the artist sculpting her flesh – enact this reclamation by proposing the artist’s own body as an artistic medium.

The thirty-minute black-and-white video Gestures showcases Wilke, her head and shoulders tightly framed, performing a series of repeated, often exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. These gestures are often absurd and comical in nature, while others verge on sexual seduction. A silent Wilke gently pulls and kneads her own face, manipulating her youthful, elastic skin much like the soft, putty-like material of her chewing gum sculptures. Saundra Goldman observed that Gestures “…signaled [Wilke’s] transition from sculpture to performance,” and there is a cyclical component to this transition: the soft, pliable chewing gum that Wilke employed to approximate flesh was now being mimicked by the artist’s own skin.

Fig. #5. Hannah Wilke. ‘I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver, 1977-78.

The reclamation of the female body from the privileged control by male artists was the primary motivation behind Wilke’s photographic diptych entitled I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver (fig. 5). Wilke’s strong objection was directly aimed at the father of the avant-garde, Marcel Duchamp. While the box set of S.O.S. Starification Object Series offered a critical view of consumerism, the fashion industry and pornography, and Gestures a declaration of control over one’s own body, the faux book jacket of I OBJECT was a direct response to Duchamp’s static rape victim of his infamous diorama Etant donnès (fig. 6). In her 1988 conversation with Joanna Freuh, Wilke stated: “I find Etant donnès repulsive, which is perhaps its message. She has a distorted vagina.” The pun contained in the title I OBJECT, with the play on the word “object” as both noun and verb, laid the foundation for the critical feminist dialogue Wilke embarked upon with this heavy-weight of art history.

Fig. #6. Marcel Duchamp. ‘Etant donnès’. View of installation (left) and detail (right). 1946-66.

The sculptural diorama Etant donnès confronts the viewer with a rustic wooden door, riddled with small holes. A light source shines through these holes, enticing the viewer to peek through and witness a scene hitherto concealed. A pastoral, natural landscape is suddenly revealed, in the foreground of which an alarmingly pale, naked female torso lies inert amongst a bramble of dried twigs and leaves. Her legs are splayed open to reveal her strangely misshapen vagina. The exposed nakedness of the woman, her corpse-like stillness and her derelict location amongst the bramble imply violation and victimhood. As if in a final gesture of violence, Duchamp has chosen to frame the woman’s image within the peepholes of the door in such a manner as to visually decapitate her. The mechanism of display – namely the peepholes through which the scene is revealed – forces the viewer to assume the role of voyeur, further compounding the violation of the woman.

Wilke’s I OBJECT functions as both homage and a critical response to Duchamp: she believed that “to honor Duchamp is to oppose him.” Taken while on a family vacation in Spain, the glossy colour photographs of Wilke show the artist, fully nude, lying atop some discarded clothing on a large, craggy rock. One of the photographs that comprise this diptych approximates the pose of Duchamp’s female torso, with Wilke’s body foreshortened in the camera lens so that her pubic region dominates the picture plane. In stark contrast to the deathly paleness of the woman in Etant donnès, Wilke appears whole-limbed, healthy and tanned. The clothing upon which she lies may have been voluntarily shed in a moment of spontaneous sexual activity, or simply in the act of sunbathing. A bottle of suntan lotion that lies nearby seems to support the latter. The second photograph of the diptych shows Wilke staring upwards at the camera, and directly at the viewer, her face partly concealed by a rocky outcropping. A small but satisfied smile adorns her face. The superimposed text reads “I OBJECT: Memoirs of a Sugargiver” across the upper left portion of the image and then “Hannah Wilke” on the lower left, in close juxtaposition to her smiling face. The presence of her written name paired with her direct, outward gaze reads like a radical declaration of personhood, as if to say I am Hannah Wilke, and here is my body. The feminist gesture of “positive narcissism” comes strongly into play in this particular context. Wilke’s feminist response to the faceless victim of Etant donnès is a bold affirmation of both her personhood and her female sexuality.

As previously mentioned, the close association of women to narcissism partly derives from a loose interpretation of Freudian theory that linked a “woman’s obsession with her own appearance” with a form of psychoanalytic pathology. This association is highly relevant in the critical reception of a work of art; a crucial factor to consider is the gender of the artist. Lucy Lippard, the same art critic who, ironically, dismissed Wilke for being a “feminist and flirt”, denounced the gender divide that existed between the reception of body-based performance work created by male artists against similar work produced by women. “She is a narcissist,” Lippard wrote of women artists, “and Vito Acconci with his less romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.” The crucial distinction between the narcissism of Vito Acconci and Hannah Wilke – for as Rosalind Krauss effectively argues in her essay “Video: the Aesthetics of Narcissism”, Acconci was most assuredly a narcissist – lies in the feminist agenda that fuelled the narcissism of Wilke.

Fig. #7. Video still from Vito Acconci's ‘Undertone’, 1972.

Vito Acconci’s performance-based work often contains ambiguous narratives that frequently wander into the territory of the absurd and contradictory. Much like his contemporary Hannah Wilke, Acconci primarily used his own body as an artistic medium. In his 1972 video entitled Undertone (fig. 7), Acconci is as conspicuously aware of performing as Wilke was of posing in her multitudinous self-images. Undertone begins with Acconci seating himself at a table, the opposite end of which extends in the direction of the camera. This arrangement immediately implicates the camera/viewer into the scene. Acconci closes his eyes, placing his hands on his thighs, and repeatedly mumbles an awkwardly confessional sexual fantasy involving an imagined woman who lurks beneath the table: I want to believe there’s a girl here under the table…who’s resting her hands on my knees…she’s resting her forearms on my thighs…slowly, slowly rubbing my thighs… After several repetitions of this fantasy, Acconci suddenly pauses, straightens his body and stares directly out at the camera/viewer. His hands, now resting on the table top, are clasped together in a pleading gesture while he repeatedly intones: I need you to be sitting there…facing me…because I have to have someone to talk to…so I know there’s someone there to address this to… Acconci proceeds to again close his eyes and place his hands beneath the table. Resuming his mumbled confession, he contradicts his original narrative by stating: I want to believe there’s no one under the table…I want to believe…it’s me that’s rubbing my thighs… The video concludes with a final plea to the viewer to witness the revelation of his fantasy.

Comparable to the revealing titles of Wilke, the layered meanings behind Acconci’s title Undertone provides an important clue to its interpretation. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word undertone as an “underlying quality; undercurrent of feeling.” The underlying theme of Acconci’s video is not found in his repeated sexual fantasy of the imaginary woman under the table – a fiction that his monologue later negates – but rather in his urgent plea directed at the viewer. Acconci compels the viewer to witness his confessional fantasy and thus, by acting in this capacity, participate. A necessary reciprocity exists between Acconci’s performance and the viewer’s reception of this fictitious fantasy. A fruitful comparison can be drawn between Acconci’s Undertone and Wilke’s Gestures video. The performance of Acconci is validated by an exchange with the viewer in the same manner as the poses of Wilke require an onlooker. Equally, both artists achieve a form of sexual power through their performative actions. The crucial difference lies in gender. Even as the awkward disclosure of the fantasy ostensibly renders him vulnerable, Acconci nonetheless seizes sexual control. He punctuates the revelation of his fantasy by a vigorous and masturbatory rubbing of his own thighs, a gesture that creates an uncomfortable tension in the viewer who has been manoeuvred into the place of the voyeur. His repeated pleas to the viewer to witness recall the dynamic of the sexual exhibitionist who requires an onlooker to fulfill his perversion. Acconci enacts his narcissism by forcing his passive-aggressive sexuality upon the viewer.

In the video Gestures, Wilke systematically performs the postures of female display. She seductively rubs her finger across her upper lip. With the practiced smile of a fashion model, she repeatedly tosses her long hair in simulation of a shampoo commercial. Isolated from their usual context of seduction or advertising, these gestures appear absurd – which is entirely Wilke’s point. By repeatedly and methodically performing these gestures, she empties them of meaning. As a young, desirable woman Wilke understands that sexual display is the currency of her power. As a feminist, she acknowledges that these same gestures reduce her to a mere sex object. There is an implicit solicitation of the viewer to witness Wilke’s repetitive actions in much the same manner as Acconci’s Undertone requests participation with his narrative. Their respective sexual power – Wilke as the female sex object and Acconci as the male sexual exhibitionist – require the gaze of the viewer to activate this power exchange.

The deliberate self-objectification of Hannah Wilke seems, in the context of contemporary art practice, very prescient indeed. A consummate agitator and provocateur, her legacy of complex and eroticized body-based art anticipated the work of numerous future women artists whose creative point-of-departure was their own visage. While her work may have been devalued by feminist critics of her generation, a renewed interest from the ranks of feminist scholarship has emerged since her untimely death from lymphoma in 1993. Wilke and her feminist colleague Carolee Schneemann, who worked similarly with erotic self-portraiture, shrewdly engaged with the self-love of positive narcissism to reclaim the erotic female body from the objectification of the male gaze. Fully comfortable within her own skin and embracing all of her very human contradictions – as an artist, a feminist and a woman – she skillfully commanded her own image, both in front of and behind the camera.

The Gothic House; an excerpt

The following text is an excerpt from my Master’s thesis written, in part, on the topic of the Gothic aesthetic. I felt that this chapter of the paper might be of particular interest to those that read this blog. The “Disobedient Dollhouse” project to which I make reference was the visual art component of my MFA thesis. To view images from this project, click on the Gallery page located above the header of this blog. Enjoy.

“It was an evil house from the beginning – a house that was born bad.”
— The character of Dr. John Markway from Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting

I confess to being an avid fan of gothic horror films and ghost stories, a confession that may not seem overly surprising given the content of my work both past and present. The castles and aristocratic manors that I mentioned earlier as being critical to the formation of my ‘house of dreams’ arise from these sources (fig. #2). The heightened theatricality of a medieval cathedral, castle or historic manor has been incorporated into my oneiric house and translated into its endless doors and dark, secret passageways. The term ‘gothic’ that I use to specify a certain subgenre of horror fiction refers not to the tribes of ancient Germanic people from whom the name originally derived, nor is it related to the medieval art that also bears this name. Instead, the term derives from a chiefly British literary genre of the 18th and 19th centuries, originating with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel entitled, appropriately enough, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Gothic literature combined elements of both horror and romanticism and its themes typically involve death, ghosts, the supernatural, transgression, patriarchy and the female heroine. Much like the staged interior of a dollhouse, the Gothic novel reflected a similar tendency towards the staged and theatrical. Gilda Williams, editor of the contemporary art anthology The Gothic, described ‘Gothic’ as “a studied, adopted stance,” that is “cultured, sensual and affected”, a description that concisely captures the Gothic’s propensity for dramatic hyperbole.

Fig. #2. Film still from Robert Wise’s 1963 The Haunting.

A central motif to the Gothic narrative is the house, especially one haunted by ghosts – both literal and metaphoric – and the disturbing family secret that has been shut away in an underground crypt, a dark attic, or behind hidden doors. Beginning with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the genre has maintained a continual fascination with architecture. Perched on a hilltop overlooking a grey and perpetually soggy landscape, the dilapidated old aristocratic manor provided the Gothic narrative with its characteristic atmosphere of gloom and foreboding. Not merely a setting for the narrative to unfold, the Gothic house was frequently cast as a character itself, imbued with an uncanny – and often malevolent – sentience. This notion of a sentient house that is, by virtue of some inexplicable phenomenon arising from its very construction, a conscious being, is best exemplified by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher in which the titular house claims the lives of the family that dwell within it. In Poe’s short story, the character of Roderick Usher believes that his family home is sentient through some mysterious combination of masonry and vegetation, and that the illness which plague both he and his sister Madeline have been caused by this house. Poe’s use of adjectives such as “eye-like” to describe the windows belonging to the House of Usher bestow an anthropomorphic quality to the structure, a quality which further underscores the notion of a sentient house:

“I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down – but with a shudder even more thrilling than before – upon the remodelled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.”

In the dramatic conclusion, the moral and spiritual decay of the Usher family physically manifests in the destruction of the house itself – the building literally splits in two and sinks into the surrounding landscape.

Fig. #3. Jennifer Linton. Detail from the Disobedient Dollhouse, 2009-10, mixed media.

The structural features belonging to my Disobedient Dollhouse, while not as malevolent as those of the House of Usher, share some of the qualities of anthropomorphism and otherworldliness with its literary antecedent. Reminiscent of the “eye-like” windows of Poe’s creation, the windows featured on all of my exterior-facing walls are comprised of a stylized stained-glass pomegranate design that closely resembles the slit-shaped eye of a cat. These “cat’s eye” windows – all of them grouped in pairs – are most clearly evident from the brick exterior of the dollhouse, where they stare out, unblinking, at the viewer. Additionally, a repeating pattern of disembodied eyes gaze outward from the wallpaper of the kitchen (fig. #3), suggesting that the house itself bears witness to the strange events that are unfolding within. Upstairs on the wallpaper in the nursery, a legion of tiny, open mouths appear to silently scream in a gesture that mimics the endless squawking of the bird-children that inhabit this room. Much like the sentient house of Poe’s story, these anthropomorphic elements propose a house possessed of consciousness – one that not only contains supernatural events, but may also be the generator of them. The desired effect I aim to achieve is a disquieting exchange between the Dollhouse and the viewer, as the walls of the dollhouse uncannily return their gaze.

The crowning glory of any Gothic house is, of course, the attic. Similar to its close relative the cellar, the attic is a mysterious and seldom-used room where items – both material and psychological – are stowed away. The attic located within Bachelard’s oneiric house is a place of light and rationality, whereas he characterizes his cellar as the “dark entity of the house” that “partakes of subterranean forces” of the irrational, unconscious mind. In an inversion of Bachelard’s house, the attic that tops my Dollhouse is a shadowy place that offers a single window through which the dark interior may be viewed. Following the convention of most contemporary dollhouses, a cellar room is not represented in my Dollhouse, although the small cupboard door beneath the stairs – through which vine-like tentacles emerge from darkness – seem to hint at the “subterranean forces” present in Bachelard’s cellar. Peering through the attic window, the viewer encounters a snake-tentacled monster with a single, gigantic eye returning their gaze (fig. #4). This strange Cyclops is positioned slightly off-centre and is thus partially obscured by the outer wall, the bars of window frame, and the darkness within. The very purposeful positioning of this creature follows the time-tested horror film adage that “a monster you can’t see is scarier than one you can”, granting the viewer only enough information to understand that something sinister lurks within this space.

Fig. #4. Jennifer Linton. Detail from the Disobedient Dollhouse, 2009-10, mixed media.

The attic is the only enclosed room within my Dollhouse, allowing a very limited access to its interior. As such, it is the most private and mysterious of all the rooms. If I imagine myself descending from the attic onto the second story of my Dollhouse, where the nursery and the bedroom are located, the level of privacy compared to the attic decreases. While a bedroom is generally considered a very private and intimate space, the contents of my bedroom are fully on display, thus negating privacy. One of the crucial features of a dollhouse is the lack of complete enclosure of the miniature, thereby admitting access to its interior. This access facilitates play in a children’s dollhouse, and allows for display in the dollhouse designed for adults. Whereas the ground floor and second story of my Dollhouse adopt this convention of display, the enclosed attic rejects it. Whatever monsters and dark, troubling secrets hide within its shadowy corners, the attic will not reveal too readily. In this regard, the attic is the most “disobedient” of all the rooms.

The dusty and cobwebbed attic, dark and infrequently visited, provides the optimal place in which to discard the disused, unwanted, and the surplus. It can supply storage space for the cherished items of the past, no longer in use, as well as a hiding place for family secrets and other psychologically troubling material. The attic is a quintessentially ‘gothic’ space, where suppressed secrets threaten to rise up like a vengeful ghost. Given that my Disobedient Dollhouse is a Victorian-themed dollhouse, it is not difficult to imagine all of the wild, violent passions forbidden by that era’s strict social codes might be banished into the hidden corners of this room.

Concealed family secrets that slowly reveal themselves, threatening to unravel the apparent order of the household and causing a “…forced reckoning with a long buried piece of family history” is a classically Gothic trope. Like the ‘sentient house’, whose malevolence has assumed solid form within the structure of the house itself, the Gothic ‘family secret’ often physically manifests as an individual, or a ghost. In Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, the ghost of Madeline Usher rises from the family crypt – after having been interred there whilst still alive – and claims her deadly vengeance upon her brother Roderick. In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, the violently insane Bertha Mason has been imprisoned in the attic of Thornfield Hall, literally bound by chains and guarded. Described as a “beast”, a “wild animal”, a “monster”, and likened to “the foul German spectre – the vampire”, the insane first wife of Edward Rochester represents the darkest and most dangerous of family secrets.

Literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their study of women writers entitled Madwoman in the Attic, draw a provocative parallel between the characters of Jane and Bertha in Brontë’s classic novel. They suggest that Bertha represents the “truest and darkest double” of Jane, embodying all of the wild, destructive passions that the genteel Jane consciously rejects. She can be likened to the wild, tangled vines that grow spontaneously from the chairs and bedposts in my Dollhouse, or the snakes that magically slither out from the folds of the bed sheet. Forced to dwell in the shadows of the attic for years, she reemerges into the light with an unchecked fury. The wild randomness of her actions, much like my snakes and vines, disrupt the social niceties occurring elsewhere in the house, serving as a forceful reminder that hidden secrets will inevitably “see the light of day”, and that the repressed will always return.

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The Disobedient Dollhouse; or, indulging in a bit of self-promotion.

Some thumbnails of my artwork. Actually, I’m just testing out this ‘insert gallery’ feature on WordPress. Works pretty good.

The dollhouse is a toy fondly remembered from my childhood. Countless hours were spent fastidiously arranging the miniature furniture in its rooms. These rooms provided the setting for the domestic scenes myself and my playmates would enact with our dolls — scenes that mimicked the day-to-day household routines of our mothers. This form of play amongst young girls was not only an imitation of the maternal role as we observed it, but, presumably, constituted a type of practice for our future lives as women. Now, as an adult, feminist, artist and mother, I revisit the dollhouse. The idealized view of domesticity that informed my childhood dollhouse is reconfigured by my adult self as a place much more complex, even contradictory, in nature. In stark contrast to the innocuous role-playing of childhood — when one could ‘play Mommy’ — as an actual parent, the actions I take have real life consequences. This simple fact can, at times, be the cause of anxiety. Additionally, while the household provides a peaceful refuge from the hectic pace of the outside world, the daily negotiations between career aspirations and familial responsibilities simultaneously render the house a site of friction and conflict. An exploration of the conflicts that arise from these competing interests was, in part, the impetus behind my installation project entitled The Disobedient Dollhouse.

Contemporary dollhouses are decidedly not contemporary in their motifs, with the historic splendor of wealthy Victorian homes being the most frequently represented style amongst current dollhouse enthusiasts. In The Disobedient Dollhouse, I recreated the highly-detailed interiors of a Victorian-style dollhouse, self-consciously aware of the storybook view of domesticity they often conjure. While a trace of nostalgia is detectible in my project, a tension also exists in the work that simultaneously disrupts the easy consumption of these same nostalgic images. A tactic of subversion has been employed as a means of rebellion against the construction a sentimentalized view of domesticity. For instance, although the conventional Victorian domestic scene of a woman playing piano has been dutifully rendered, the woman depicted is a hybrid creature with the head of a bird. A chair located in the same room as the bird-headed woman mysteriously sprouts twisted floral vines that snake up the back wall. Gigantic insects infiltrate the room and swarm across the ornate damask wallpaper like a strange, inexplicable virus. These hybrid monsters, giant insects and fantastic vegetal growths disturb the inherent sentimentality of nostalgia and propose a dark, secret world that churns just beneath the veneer of domestic perfection.

Most of the elements within my dollhouse are hand-drawn and printed lithographs which have been cut out, folded and glued. The wallpaper was created digitally and printed on matte inkjet paper. For more images from this project, visit my web site.