MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
MARCH 8 – MARCH 27, 1996
RECEPTION: FRIDAY, MARCH 8, 1996 AT 8 PM
ARTIST TALK: SATURDAY, MARCH 9, 1996 AT 2 PM
LOCATION – STRIDE GALLERY
722, 11 AVE S.W, CALGARY, ALBERTA
The central theme in Gisele Amantea’s work is the importance of and commitment to family, as presented through the context of “home”. In REQUIESCAT, the artist will be revisiting her roots in Calgary in a video piece that follows her parents lives in this community. This exhibition will also mark the first presentation of Amantea’s work August the Sixteenth, 1984, consisting of four large, flocked panels inscribed with a story written by the artist Grace Rose Klatt, a piece purchased by the Canada Council Art Bank after its completion. REQUIESCAT marks Amantea’s first solo exhibition in Calgary.
GISELE AMANTEA has exhibited extensively in Canada and internationally and her work is included in numerous public and private collections in Canada. Since 1995, she has been a faculty member in the Studio Arts Program in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montréal. She currently teaches interdisciplinary approaches to art making and in the graduate program in Fibers.
TAXONOMIES OF DESIRE, SUBJECT MATTERS OF COMMON EXPERIENCE, IN GIESELE AMANTEA’S REQUISCAT
In REQUIESCAT, Gisele Amantea presents several related works; “Aporia” (1989), “August the Sixteenth, 1984” (1993/94), “Untitled” (1993) and “Untitled” (1996), which are two-dimensional, and a video installation, “and sorrow come near us no more” (1995). These works share a certain formal qualities and motifs, as well as characteristic conceptual and theoretical concerns. From “Aporia”, the earliest of these works, through to the most recent, Amantea responds to cultural codes and social mechanisms that produce identity and designate difference, thereby determining relations and the formation of desire. The refusal of colour, the gestural quality of cursive script, and the repeated use of black velvet flocking and decorative black roses are the dominant formal characteristics and motifs in REQUIESCAT, conceptually these works deftly encompass multiple concerns, including kitsch and commodity fetishism, sexual difference, narrative, and media such as still photography and motion pictures as artistic forms.
A central tenet of the works that comprise REQUIESCAT is the collapse of conventional distinctions between high art and cultural forms commonly identified as primitive or fold art, also referred t as kitsch, popular art or, more accurately, mass culture, with the advent of international high modernism, the latter types of cultural production were disparaged and devalued. Amantea refutes the moral high ground of absolutist claims about art by drawing on kitsch in her carefully detailed work. She goes further, disclosing and disrupting the way modernist codes and conventions marginalize or mute particular voices in favor of others. REQUIESCAT’s disclosures counter the anonymity and erasure of women’s experience, often associated with kitsch, by embodying their voices and thereby affirming their (his)stories.
The works in REQUIESCAT are composed nearly entirely of black and white elements. The exhibition is in fact almost devoid of colour, although some ambient colour does incidentally and rather poignantly appear when the spectator passes the mirrors in “Aporia”; other than that, the only colour is gold in the mirror frames. So resolutely black and white are all these works that they call to mind the experience of reading a book or looking at early black and white photography and film. In each work there is an aspect that functions like a souvenir photograph in which a moment is caught, captured and held still, as if by the tiny and momentous click of a shutter.
While deploying a variety of photomechanical transfer processes, Amantea counteracts any overall mechanical effect by using a cursive script to allude to the subjective gesture of writing: for example, words are sandblasted into mirrors, or they are outlined in relief on flocked linen panels. Such treatments produce text as a presence by emphasizing its material construction and, in the process, paradoxically signifying loss: the smooth reflective surface of the mirror is etched or eaten away; words appear where the white linen backing is left untouched, contrasts between black surfaces and the white inscription of works also, and again paradoxically, effect illusory movement: although they are static and affixed to the walls, in “August the Sixteenth, 1984” and “Untitled” (1993), a kind of flickering is produced, a shimmering play of light and shadow like a filmic image on a screen. Perhaps this suggestion of movement is triggered by the moving images on the video monitor of “and sorrow come near us no more”, positioned opposite the entrance to the gallery. As I enter the gallery, it is what I first see. “and sorrow come near us no more” is central to the exhibition. A video monitor, its images in black and white, its on a table covered with black cloth, the table is turn backed by a similar black drape. All this blackness suggests death; the form and symmetry of the arrangement says altar or shrine. A black lacquered armchair upholstered in flocked velvet is placed before the table, inviting the spectator to sit and take time, literally, to reposition oneself into the space of loss and mourning. The formality initially imposed by this work is daunting. I turn away from a demand that I am not yet willing to accord and move toward the other works in the gallery.
“Aporia” presents three mirrors framed with gold glowers, each mirror inscribed with small cursive script. Here too a glance cannot suffice: “Aporia” requests that I approach, attend carefully, pay close attention. To read the texts requires concentration and focus. This invitation to narrow my field of vision, I realize, is an aesthetic treatment meant to produce a kind of ephemerality: while engaged in the reading of any single text, the others necessarily recede or disappear from my field of vision and sometimes, momentarily, from my immediate perception. This movement in viewing the work makes me think of dreams and the memories associated with photographs and films.
Aporia – a lack of resolution, a false beginning, a doubtful approach
Roland Barthes’ observations on the semiosis of the photographic image illuminate some of the ways in which works in REQUIESCAT produce transience and respond to image culture. Barthes argues that as a signifier a photograph is not immediately or generally distinguishable from what it represents. Unlike other sorts of images, the photograph has something tautological about it: “it is as if the Photograph always carries its referent with itself, both affected by the same amorous or funereal immobility, at the very heart of the moving world: they are glued together.” (1) In its containment of dualisms (desire and its object) that we “can conceive but not perceive,” the photograph reifies and enforces a necessary but stifling funereal opposition: “no photograph without something or someone.” (2)
In this exhibition, Amantea’s work point to, emulate and mimic the semiosis of photography. Like Barthes’ Photograph, the works in REQUIESCAT emphasize the false dichotomies expressed in our culture as binary oppositions such as scientific/expressive, self/other, subject/object, love/death; however, they simultaneously enact and counter this regime of dualisms by producing another kind of fatality – an abandoning of the self (as it is defined by dualistic thought) to a chaos of sorts, a comparative formlessness. In REQUIESCAT, there is always some kind of absence or loss, a drawing near and a distancing, and a vacillation as the subject becomes the object.
Such commonalities among the works in the exhibition are effectively doubled and redoubled, again and again, by the references death, loss, absence and desire that are central to each of them. This effect is heightened, as with photographic images and books, by the requirement that the viewer approach them closely, intimately. Up close, their seductive surfaces offering both visual and tactile pleasure: I am tempted to touch them.
Doubling the tactile attraction of its materiality, the polished surfaces of “Aporia” ’s mirrors operate as scopic lures, inciting narcissistic pleasure by including my own image (my scopic identification), yet they throw off this pleasure by reflecting light. The small scale of the etched works, their deliberately sinuous curves, seem also to promise secret messages, intimate, perhaps confessional disclosures. These aspects draw me closer still.
Positioned now before “Aporia”, I face three identical oval mirrors. Each text hails me and beckons me to approach. I must choose among them. Approaching one, I see my image reflected on its surface. In order to read the text, I must abandon the vision of myself. This vacillation between a heightened awareness of myself as a viewing subject and simultaneously as an image, an object of the gaze, and the necessary abandonment of that awareness in the act of reading, replicates the problems of social relations, sexual differentiation and desire that animates this work. Although “Aporia” ’s trappings are feminine and familiar, their aesthetic treatment produces tension in the viewer.
“Aporia” is the earliest of the works in REQUIESCAT and the most modest in scale. The mirrors, framed by gold roses, are of the domestic and decorative sort, the kind usually placed in a bedroom, living room or hallway, positioned at eye level and just big enough to reflect the visage of the viewer. The roses decorating the edges are familiar: they to originate in the domestic realm. They resemble the confections that adorn cakes, especially those made for celebratory occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries. Yet here the oval frames of golden roses also recall the memorial wreaths made for funerals and other occasions marking not beginnings but endings.
The central mirror in “Aporia” bears a love poem on its surface, “The White Birds” by William Butler Yeats. Metaphors and conceits that reinforce the eroticism of unfulfilled desire occur and recur, evoking the passage of time and thereby alluding to mortality, certain death. The very structure of the poem articulates the lover’s longing, all the while denying his desire to stop time, transcend history. Seeking release from ordinary existence, he lings to be some place “where time would surely forget us, and sorrow come near us no more.”
We know that in romantic love the lover is the active, speaking, desiring subject and the beloved is the passive, mute, desirable object.We know that the lover in the poem is male, and the beloved is female. Freud, and before him all of Western culture, tells us that females do not and cannot desire. Women may only seek to be desirable. In the history of Western culture this configuration is central and fundamental, as it is here in Amantea’s “Aporia”.
This love poem is bracketed by two discursive texts: on the left, a definition of the term ‘ressentiment’ attributed to Max Scheler, as quoted by Donald Kuspit in his Artforum essay “Crowding the Picture – Notes on American Activist Art Today” (3); and on the right, an explanation of the anthropological term ‘muted group’ cited in Lisa Tickner’s “Images of Women and la peinture feminine.” (4)
Although Scheler’s definition of ‘ressentiment’ aspires to the objectivity and authority of scientific fact, its language is loaded. It describes the psychological state of “those who serve and are dominated…who fruitlessly resent the sting of authority.” It describes what would seem to be natural, necessary and irrefutable givens: those who are oppressed become dangerously resentful; they indulge in value delusions and corresponding value judgments. Although the term ‘ressentiment’ incorporates the word sentiment, it would seem at least initially to refer to the antithesis of bourgeois romantic sentiment. Yet, by referring to states of emotional distress caused by subjugation, ironically, ‘ressentiment’ might well describe the conditions of the beloved – she who has no voice, nor needs one, as she is (merely) the desired object. The text on the mirror to the right is similarly discursive. It too alludes to a social science, namely, anthropology, and here too the dynamics of dominance and subordination are explored. This text provides a quasi-scientific explanation of the instrumental nature of conventional social relations: the deafness of a dominant group produces mutedness, an inability to speak or perhaps be heard, in the subordinated group. This elision of the two possible but quite different meanings of the word “mute” – which can mean either speechlessness or the forceful or coercive silencing of expression – points to the problem of language and meaning in scientific discourse, a problem acknowledged here in the reference to French feminist thought that situates women “perched precariously in men’s discourse [where they] have to mimic male language in order to be heard.”
The three texts in “Aporia” constitute a discursive aporia, a false start or doubtful approach. Yet in conjunction they provide a conceptual point of departure by acknowledging the problems of relation and desire within the social conditions and political economies of sexual difference. These problems are also inherent in the complex semiosis of the (black) rose, the leitmotif of Amantea’s more recent works: “Untitled” (1993), “August the Sixteenth, 1984” (1993/93), “and sorrow come near us no more” (1995) and especially the vortex of roses that comprises “Untitled” (1996).
The rose is a maddening and elusive symbol. In Christian and particularly Catholic regimes it signifies the Madonna, the mother o god, and thus purity, spirituality, eternal love. In secular regimes it signals sexual passion, symbolizes female genitalia, and evokes the dangers of the femme fatale, who is the antithesis of the Madonna. The rose’s potential sentimentality is illustrated on greeting cards for all sorts of occasions: its ubiquity is evidence of its status as cliché. In its mutability, persistence and complexity, the rose might also signify chaos, an absence of order, a lack of essential form and thereby a release and a possible resolution. The rose’s potency persists. “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
“August the Sixteenth, 1984” incorporates two panels of text with white cursive script outlined by flocked black velvet surfaces; each panel has a white fabric border decorated with flocked black velvet roses. These elements are arranged to resemble the pages of a book, the decorated borders suggesting a diary. In an extended label Amantea attributes the text in this work to Grace Rose Holyer. The label copy also, and pointedly, acknowledges Holyer as an artist. In this instance, as in “Aporia”, Amantea is not the author of the text in the work: this work is multivocal. Like “Aporia”, with its diminutive, domestic trappings, “August the Sixteenth, 1984” privileges a woman’s story, defying certain interdictions of high art.
Grace Holyer is similarly defiant. She refuses the terms of identity prescribed by her gender which, for Holyer, have been made painfully concrete by her mother’s madness and her own psychiatric diagnosis and institutionalization. By aspiring to speak rather than accepting silence, Grace Holyer rejects the terms of patriarchal protection and claims her own subjectivity. She writes from an alcoholism centre where she is accompanying her husband. Pressed down by a dark cloud hovering over her, she has begun to wear black clothes. She is haunted by the refrain of a song remembered from childhood: “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through, my home is somewhere beyond the blue.” Although the song’s lyrics speak to her current situation at the alcoholism centre, and to her recent return husband, these words also echo the longing for transcendence expressed by the lover in “The White Birds.” But Holyer resists longing for “somewhere beyond the blue” In her case, the image of the white birds fails to sustain its transcendent promise: a pair of white birds on a wedding cake or greeting card, meant to signify pure spiritual or matrimonial love in this context becomes a banal, sentimental cliché that signals only nostalgic longing for a never-present ideal.
Holyer’s stay at the alcoholism centre is interrupted by her stepfather’s funeral. His death causes Holyer to reconsider her mother’s madness and her own “nervous breakdown.” Like the psychiatric definition of hysteria, the term “nervous breakdown” functions as a catch phrase fro distress experienced by women. The patriarchal narrative always tells us that women who refuse the terms of patriarchy’s alleged protection must choose between madness and death.
Even at its outset Holyer’s narrative makes evident her resistance to these options. In a reference that contains both death and desire, she begins by commemorating Elvis Presley’s death. Elvis is an icon of unbounded life and unrepressed sexuality. Like the image of the white birds, the cult of Elvis expresses a nostalgic longing for an imagined ideal, here a utopian moment combining youth’s abounding sexuality with bourgeois sentiment. Yet in “August the Sixteenth, 1984”, Holyer’s commemorative to Elvis radically disrupts the limits of patriarchy: she begins her story the prohibition of female sexual desire. Claiming the possibility of desire, Holyer also claims for herself the status of desiring subject. Driven by such narratives, Holyer’s story ends, as it must end, with a burial casket, a funeral and roses.
Throughout this text the material world is evoked by sensory details: the sound of a song or the phone ringing, the light and heat of a cigarette ember burning and the smell of its smoke, the physically confining space of a small sparse room, the tactile sensation of a gust of wind blowing dirt. The text is extensive, requiring more time than is usually accorded to an artwork in a public setting. Its length and the sensory details within it conspire to make me uncomfortably aware of myself, and of my Self, my interiority and exteriority, my private and public selves, my desires, is it holds me in place before it, captured for a time, as if in a photograph.
“Untitled” (1993) provides some release, some respite. I can apprehend it in a glance. Yet, when I move on, it stays with me: its ambiguity offers multiple, conflicting meanings. This works consists of a flocked black velvet tapestry-hung banner suspended beneath an entablature with a frieze of black velvet roses in relief. The form resembles a bookmark; the black velvet flocking suggests a bible marker. Again, white words appear on a black ground. This text, “Elvis Presley hovered over me,” undermines the elegant formality of the banner and heightens the sensuous materiality of its flocked surface. The words are familiar because they come from “August the Sixteenth, 1984”. Like the surrealist game of automatic writing, this text reveals the unconscious, the unspeakable – female sexual desire. Selected from Holyer’s narrative, this text is the subtext of her story. It recalls the surrealist’s belief in the revolutionary potential of the unconscious and sexuality by way of the female muse. But in surrealism sexual liberation is exclusively a masculinist project. The surrealist project is inverted here, as Elvis is the muse, the vehicle of ecstasy, the desired object. As such, Elvis the icon also and simultaneously signals defiance of the interdiction against female desire. In “Untitled” the religious fetishism of the Christ figure or the Madonna is displaced by Elvis, who stands in as both cultural icon and commodity fetish. Playing with the normative dualisms of our culture, “Untitled” ’s ironic juxtaposing of Catholic orthodoxy and commodity culture, religiosity and apostasy, the sacred and profane, is irreverent and humorous. It provides welcome comedic relief.
Although it seemed too demanding when first encountered, I am now prepared to engage with “and sorrow come near us no more,” a commemorative work produced since the almost concurrent deaths of Amantea’s parents. The moving images on the monitor bring the subject matter of this work to life. Unseen by the camera, Amantea interviews her mother and father. She poses questions to them individually, about their Italian immigrant parents, about their childhood and youth, their jobs, their first meeting, courtship and marriage, their family life, about the births and deaths, the pains and pleasures that constitute their life stories. Amantea gently interrogates her parents. As interlocutor, Amantea connects and combines their two stories into a third, her own. Here again, the artist it not the only author. Rather, she elicits unscripted oral histories, autobiographical narratives that disclose particular – sometimes congruent, sometimes dissonant – versions of shared lives, lives that are both ordinary and not ordinary, stories that are at once common and uncommon, familiar and unfamiliar. Both of Amantea’s parents demonstrate what Barthes refers to as “the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, on expressive, the other critical…a desperate resistance to an reductive system.” (5)
Amantea’s mother is revealed as a quietly unconventional woman, a proto-feminist who aspired to and achieved financial independence as a young woman and who savored the liberty and solitude made possible by her ability to earn a living. Before marriage and parenthood, she had made a full and rewarding life for herself, with a job she enjoyed and a comfortable identity. Indeed, she admits to resisting marriage. Even as she speaks she is ambivalent about marriage and motherhood: although she complies with church doctrine, her body language demonstrates some resentment of the requirements and constraints of marriage and Catholicism. In her discomfort, she is reserve. Possessing an understanding of life’s complexities, she will analyze but not easily reveal her own thoughts. Her strong sense of self has produced an individual who is independent and cerebral, clearly someone who expects to have agency within her chosen domestic realm.
Amantea’s father is emotive, expressive, demonstrative and affectionate. He allows the camera to come closer. He is more comfortable with the interview process and needs less prompting. His story entails a period of time as a young man when he was beleaguered by the difficulties of being a widowed father, but proud of his parenting. When he recalls the births (of his daughters) and the deaths (of a brother, wife and son), his eyes tear and his voice catches. Measuring his life in family events, this father, husband, son expresses respect and pleasurable regard for the women in his life: his mother, wives and daughters. Even his activities as a businessman are described as a family endeavor and the business bears the family name. He too is unconventional: he has refused the demeanor of a patriarch.
With “and sorrow come near us no more,” Gisele Amantea goes beyond the commemorative to produce a work in which she and her parents each may identify the desires of the self. Moreover, she keeps their stories alive and, avoiding the funeral in favor of life, achieves a kind of transformation – from effigy to aliveness – longed for but unachievable by the lover in “The White Birds.” In this respect, “and sorrow come near us no more” operates as a fetish in the original sense of the word. Eschewing the stasis of a funeral effigy, this piece, like other works in REQUIESCAT, offers the (female) spectator the opportunity to experience desire and intersubjective agency across sexual differentiation.
The female body is already fetishized, by art history, for example, end emphatically and instrumentally so within surrealism. Its fetishization by commodity culture in late capitalism is nothing new. The works in REQUIESCAT add to our understanding of fetishism by returning to its first meanings. In the original sense, a fetish is magical insofar as it is able to go beyond the ordinary, beyond the terms of common experience. Rather than the repression and substitution Freud cites as the consequences of fetishism, these works invoke the fetish’s original designation of performative properties, attributes of agency and meaning.
Gisele Amantea’s allusions to the paradigms o photography and film, to narrativity and mass culture, her use of decorative techniques and details, appropriated texts, cursive script and, recently, video, differentiate her work from what has been called high art. Although the subject matter, her choice of materials, the are not traditionally valued: these matters and materials are usually associated with the feminine or the domestic, with minor art or craft forms, with kitsch or alternative cultural practices, rather than with the masculinist projects of high art and the avant-garde.
In REQUIESCAT Amantea responds to the emergence of a feminist reception for art, in fact, to a heterogeneity of reception, by presenting or representing the forgotten pre-aesthetic elements, the subject matters of common experience, without aestheticizing them as formal laws of art which, as we know, entails their feminization or their eroticization – their othering. Her critique of this process opens into a questioning of many things: it does not fie identity but asks questions about it. Moreover, the idea of art addressing a female spectator rests on an acknowledgement of sexual difference as an ideological construct. It also opens into an interpretive process wherein women exist as interlocutors, interpreters and investigators in the production of socio-cultural meaning. Amantea’s work is evidence of a shift within feminist practices, moving from a disruption of male-centred vision – by representing its blind-spots and gaps- toward another kind of vision that recognizes and constructs other objects and subjects of vision as interdependent and dialogic, toward a vision that formulates the conditions of representability of another social subject based on shared social and cultural inscriptions.
REQUIESCAT tells a transgressive story. While the works share numerous elements, they converge around the historically muted narrative content of mothers’ daughters’ stories, their struggles for meaning and for the power that meaning and the sense of self – subject status – deliver. Truth of history and the history of truth are taken on, as are the negotiation for agency or power, and familial responsibility. Amantea proposes new taxonomies of desire, predicated on the undoing of dominant discourses, by displacing a seemingly unquestionable presupposition and bringing into view its repressive function as a historical truth or reality. This is a radical gesture – terrifying and exhilarating. In these operative and performative aspects, Gisele Amantea’s works in REQUIESCAT are invested with the potency of fetishes.
ANNETTE HURTIG is an Adjunct Curator to Kamloops Art Gallery.