Art Gallery of York University Review Writing Prize

what it feels like for a girl

The exhibit what it feels like for a girl at the AGYU brought together 5 female Toronto artists working in a variety of media. According to the press release, the intention was to give the artists free reign to "embody the spirit of [Madonna's] expression" rather than to create works that directly responded to her video of the same title. Sadly, in avoiding a narrow theme, the exhibit becomes another "here are women artists only showing together because they make art about being a woman" show with a few strong pieces that eclipse the others.  

       Peaches' music videos, Julie Voyce's prints and Fiona Smyth's mural all deal in different ways with the tension between the messy, organic human body and its desires and the veneer of rigid civility and feminine decorum that must contain it, which could have been a more salient theme for the show. Mounted on two of the four walls of the gallery's main space, Voyce's prints stood out as the show's highlight. They are both pretty and disturbing, playful and damaged at once, subtly exploring how the ugliness and chaos of a form can be confined and tamed by more geometric patterns. The majority resemble organic alien life-forms, all rendered in beautiful, layered colours. What disciplines these open and grotesque shapes are the rigid decorative patterns that collide with them. The organic forms resemble viscera and vegetation while the geometric forms resemble jewels and knit fabrics, the very devices that conventional femininity dictates will make one a girl. In Inside Structures what look to be intestines are bisected by steel support beams. Her prints are defiantly flat and antiquated-looking, with ornate blue lines printed as a decorative frame around each white rectangle. Voyce's theme is echoed by her choice of media. Print is an industrial, mechanical process and her slight mis-registration in certain pieces suggest the imperfect human hand rupturing through the system (like we see in Warhol's screenprints).  

Voyce's Mail-Out Core Project took this subject matter and form to a new level. In these works, she presents a large image which is a composite of several smaller prints. For example, an exquisite corpse, two large insects approaching two banana splits, and a human face are all divided into four separate prints mounted together. The smaller prints are confined to their place by unsettling white pins which conjure up images of beautiful deceased specimens mounted to the wall as decoration in a bourgeois study. Each piece is thus framed both by the pins and by the larger printed frame. These works are both fragmented and unified, they evoke the divided and contingent nature of our own identities, the way we must assemble the contradictory pieces of ourselves together into a whole to present to the world, whether it is in a state of cohesion or crisis. They are carnivalesque, and they contain childlike spelling errors and creepy renderings of a child's imaginary monsters. One set were printed on envelopes, suggesting the way the banal everyday can so easily be transformed into something uncanny.   

Smyth's large mural complemented Voyce's prints perfectly. The mural's most endearing attribute is its fluidity of media and forms: smudged white chalk marks are juxtaposed with bold painted colours (red predominates), all on a vast black background. Also, she is unafraid to work in vastly different scales, clashing immense figures with miniature ones. The effect is a dream world where colour and black & white, small and large, and private and public (or rather inside and outside) blend together. Her mural is an opus of feminine fluids: lactation and menstruation abound. One figure is branded with the designation "For You" which further emphasizes the chasm between femininity's messy interior and its prim public face.  

Peaches takes this theme a step further by contrasting the improper female body with inorganic prosthetic enhancements. In "Diddle my Skittle," we see Peaches enamoured with a pair of large ball bearings.   She rubs them over her red spandex-clad legs and caresses them gently. She then drops them into a pair of pantyhose (girl and boy drag united) and places them into her hot pants to prepare for a defiant strut down the street. While shot on the archaic and organic medium of Super-8 film, her stroking and striding is interrupted by digital (inorganic) video manipulation. This editing intervention reverses and freezes her at certain points, emphasizing specific gestures of self-eroticization and exhibitionism through repetition. Peaches' performance persona is the vulgar street trash, so it seems appropriate for her to perform the abject at the song's end: her prosthetic balls become detached and drop down either side of her crotch, falling to her knees! This scene, whether accidental or planned, resembles more a ridiculous defecation then a violent castration. Peaches' video for "Lovertits" cuts between her own ecstatic musical performance in front of a mirror and the antics of two ladies who enthusiastically make out with their low-rider bicycles. In both these videos an inanimate object enhances the pleasure of the female body, threatening the assumed need for inter-personal relationships (the two girls are much more interested in the bicycle then each other) while affirming the value of the grotesque public spectacle as political intervention.   

Karma Clarke-Davis's video struck me as amateurish and unsuccessful. Ideally the exhibit would consist of just the gallery's main space with Voyce and Smyth joined by Peaches' music videos instead of Louise Lillefeldt's performance documentation. Lillefeldt's performance documentation failed as an art object in itself and should have been confined to a corner, or perhaps the reception area, where most people do not give as much attention to the artwork because they are being watched by the attendant. For this reason, Peaches' karaoke piece – a bit of fun that allows you to pretend to be the sleaziest woman in rock – would have received more use had it been assigned to the more private bordello-like back room with complementary pillows for one's spectators.