MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
JUNE 9 – JUNE 24, 1995
RECEPTION: FRIDAY, JUNE 9, 1995 AT 8 PM
ARTIST TALK: SATURDAY, JUNE 10, 1995 AT 2 PM
An obsessive nature and an appreciation for the absurd in home décor, are evident in Pam Bulla’s collection of paste ware and plaster ornaments that date from the early 1950’s. Stylized versions of nature are presented in objects ranging from string balls to religious icons. Pam’s collection began in 1986 with the purchase of “Palomino Horse” in Leadville, Colorado. Since that time, and many adventures later, the collection has grown to include approximately 400 pieces that document a history of popular home décor. ON THE WALL OFF THE WALL will showcase Bulla’s ongoing collection of these items.
PAM BULLA was born in Omaha, Nebraska, where she attended school until the eleventh grade. She moved to Calgary in 1969 and graduated from Henry Wisewood High School in 1970. She briefly attended the University of Calgary before returning to the United States to complete her BFA in Ceramics at the University of Tulsa, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has lived in Calgary since 1979.
P. lay quietly in the darkened room, her upper torso ensconced in a tunnel lined with sensors. She was trying very hard to think of nothing—nothing at all—as she had been instructed, but this was difficult, if not impossible, to do. She pretended she was at the dentist. While lying in his chair, she would cultivate a state of non-being, of being beside of outside her body, which made it possible for her to endure his invasive probing of her mouth.
P. had answered an ad in the paper asking for volunteers for a PET—Positron Emission Tomography—study. By mapping the patterns of electrical activity generated in the brains of men and women, the scientific study hoped to isolate—and demonstrate—the essence of sexual difference. P. reported to an office hung with colourful charts on which the neuronal activity of previous subjects was recorded. Bold patterns of dancing torsos enclosed in repeating ovoids, which resembled Indonesian Ikat or tie-dyed batik, coded the data from the brains. The difference areas of the brain were marked with brilliant colour: fiery orange and red indicated zones of intense activity, while deep in the interior, Amazonian green, turquoise blue, and indigo violet registered primeval somnolence. Row upon row of these amoebic shapes covered the spare walls of the office like wallpaper, providing its only décor. P. had been shown file drawers containing additional examples, all neatly labeled and stored away. The researchers were most anxious to convey to her the seriousness of their purpose, the care which they would analyze the data, and the importance of her contribution to the production of scientific knowledge. All of which was reassuring, because otherwise, she might feel quite ridiculous lying here in the dark, surrounded by monitors, trying hard to think of nothing.
Of course, she wasn’t thinking of nothing. She was thinking about the collection of plasters she would soon be exhibiting at a local gallery. This thought troubled her. Consisting of some three hundred pieces acquired over nine years, her collection had heretofore been a private obsession, a game shared with a few intimate friends and displayed as her domestic décor. Most of it was now stored in brown file boxes, neatly labeled according to content, where it had lain since her last move. She laughed at the thought of how similar those boxes were to the researchers’ file drawers. Nestled in their protective cocoons, the plasters sometimes reminded her of internal organs—or wax replicas of organs, as she had seen in that strange museum in Florence. Perfectly smooth, glistening, and completely artificial.
When had it begun, this collection? Like most things, it had not begun at the beginning, but rather, in the middle. It was only in the middle that she realized the beginning had been a beginning at all, an event, an occurrence, which steered what came later towards a unity she was only able to grasp in hindsight. It was only after the middle she realized she was in fact making a collection, and she was able to remember her first acquisition (purchase being too crude a term). Shortly after their marriage, P. and E. had gone to Denver to visit her parents. It was November and very cold. They had decided to go to the mountains, to Leadville, which nestles high above the tree line in a wide-open valley. From the main street, she felt she could look out over the entire world. P. and E. had been very happy, and when they saw the golden palomino horse in an antique store, it seemed the perfect symbol of their happiness. A souvenir, a memento, a magical object that would bring forth sweet memories every time she stroked the golden flanks. What struck her now as she thought of that horse was not so much that it had chanced, but that she herself had changed so since then. The self she remembered buying that first piece seemed as remote from the self now remembering, that it could have been a sister, or a friend, telling her the story. Like a constellation in the night sky, the constancy of that golden horse marked her own itinerancy and change.
In its most basic form, collecting as a form of gathering that extends the boundaries of the self. Objects relations’ theory suggests that children collect their first objects in response to the intense loneliness they experience in being separated from their mother. Initial steps towards individuation precipitate a crisis, which they address by gathering objects around them. To the outsider, the objects are of no value, nor do they demonstrate any logical interrelation. And yet, for the child, they form a transitional zone of not-quite-self and not-quite-other, a sort of compensatory space that eases entry into the brutal reality of the world. The objects possess value on account of their malleability and willingness to receive the projections and transference of an infantile ego. The child’s mania for collecting is quickly disciplined: it is taught to organize, to research, and to present the heterogeneous objects as a collection. Adults are quick to disavow anything childish about their collecting. The first pleasure and meanings of objects are subordinated to the higher order of aesthetics and knowledge.
P. had delighted in the plasters as she encoursed in garage sales, flea markets, and second-hand stores. Bright red apple string holders, strawberries with cheeky grins, demure kittens and Carmen Miranda fruit clusters were added to her walls. Without forcing connections between them, she acquired more and more pieces. At first, she intended to limit herself to wall pieces; they required less room, and the restriction gave a clear direction to her browsing. But a 1920’s figurine of a languorous woman posed with two Borzois proved irresistible, and freestanding pieces opened all sorts of options. Ashtrays with cut glass liners, banks, light stands with hunting dogs, ducks, or exotic oriental figures began to pile up on all available horizontal surfaces. At some point, P. realized she was engaged in collecting.
In Museum, Objects, and Collections, Susan Pearce lists at least sixteen motivations for collecting: leisure, aesthetics, competition, risk, fantasy, a sense of community, prestige, domination, sensual gratification, sexual foreplay, desire to reframe objects, the pleasing rhythm of sameness and difference, ambition to achieve perfection, extending the self, reaffirming the body, producing gender identity, and achieving immortality. The list itself reveals its ideological and political perspective. P. could relate to a number of these motivations; the excitement generated by the hunt for new additions, the pleasure in discussing plaster with friends, arranging them in different configurations, and of imagining the lives of the original owners seemed innocent enough. A sense of ethics prevailed—new accessions had to be earned—searched out, patiently pursued. Simply buying an already existing collection in its totality hardly counted. The criteria and relationships of the original owner had to be severed, challenged, and rearranged if the new objects were to be integrated into her own preferred systems.
In a way, P. felt like the author of a detective story whose principle characters were her plasters. Arranging them was like setting out the plot and meanings evolved from relationships between pieces. Introducing or removing elements dramatically altered the logic of the story. P.’s categories were often arbitrary. They denoted subjects—fruit, flowers, animals, peoples of the world—or functions—bookend, thermometer, string ball holder or bank. Some recalled her Nebraska roots. The porous and shifting nature of these categories allowed her to script whole novels, which could only be read by those she chose, if at all.
As the price of plasters grew, the ethics of their collecting became corrupted. The labour of searching, sorting, and presenting was performed by shops whose owners often “jumped the queue” at garage sales, or who had unlimited resources with which to corner the market. Fashion inserted itself as a nasty arbiter in the transaction. P. was appalled to find herself giving in to the competitive urge. It became an addictive obsession to be the first in line at rummage sales, the first to capture the price, to possess. What began as a source of social contact and community, developed into ruthless competition and search for prestige. The motivation of sexual foreplay also gave her pause to consider: the mania to collect had reached a fevered pitch as she and E. were drifting apart. Energy that might have gone into the marriage was diverted into finding the ever-more-perfect or unusual exemplar, as if mute objects could form the very sentences she found herself incapable of uttering.
According to James Clifford, collecting presupposes a chronotope, a spatial and temporal configuration within which events, activities, and stories “take place” or “make sense”. Imaginary chronotypes underlie the museum’s projection of historical accuracy in its displays. In the case of plasters, our own memories are augmented by film and television depictions of the twentieth century. Overwhelmingly, plasters were directed towards female consumers. The companies that produced and marketed these decorative objects assumed their purchases lived lives of marginal importance. The plasters’ lack of authority—they are cheap, trivial, even ridiculous—mirrored the status of their owners. They played the feminine role of parody in relationship to the serious, authentic artifacts collected by museums. Women could be humoured, captivated for a dime by shiny paint that clung precariously to frangible forms. And yet, in the end, women won out. They wove narratives around these ornaments, which lent substance and drama to their lives. They mocked a system they recognized as disempowering. And they did so with verse, with camp irony, and with elaborate strategies of resistance. For the women who originally bought and collected chalkware, collecting was intrinsic to the construction of gender, but it was as much about identity, and like hobo signs scratched on back gates, it signaled an invisible network of community. P. responded to the optimism she saw flaunted by the more outrageous objects.
When object change from being valued for their use, their interest, or their aesthetic qualities to being valued for their position within a system, they shift in status from personal souvenirs to public collections. P. wasn’t altogether sure she liked this shift, which perhaps accounted for her reluctance to formally archive and record her purchases, as her training in museums had taught her to do. Susan Stewart calls souvenirs “magical objects”. Souvenirs survive through serendipity; their original context registers as the merest trace. They capture and surprise us in the present because they demand to be recognized and taken up by us, their viewers. In this sense, souvenirs are ideologically conservative. They promise to restore, if only in fantasy, an idealized vision of the past, an imaginary projection of childhood. In the shift from souvenir to collection, imagination and fantasy origins give way to classification, order, and authority. Internally consistent and self-referential, collections take their authority from public contexts. P. felt a certain sadness and apprehension as she noticed this transition beginning to steal her collection from her, even as it added to its size and importance. She thought that perhaps displaying the pieces in an art gallery might once again restore the social narrative and fantastical dimensions to her treasures.
A knock at the door drew her from her musings. Thirty minutes had elapsed, and the technician wheeled her out from under the measuring device. Several minutes later, in the office, she was shown a sheet covered with printouts of her brain’s energy dancing within egg like forms. The technician noted a zone of intense activity surrounding her posterior cingulate gyrus, a region of the brain that controls the complex expression of emotions. A larger-than-average area at the front of the limbic system indicated sporadic activity, but a t moderate, more consistent level. P. wondered what all the lambent patterns might mean. She wasn’t entirely convinced that such fragile and shifting signifiers could isolate sexual difference. It was with some apprehension that she watched the sheet be labeled and carefully stored away with the others in the drawers.
– Jaune Ivoire, May, 1995
JAUNE IVOIRE is a lay-about-town who makes infrequent appearances on the Calgary art scene.