I wasn’t planning to go to this exhibition, but as I had to walk past it to get to another on my list for the Capture Photography Festival, I decided to pop in and have a look at Angela Grossman’s work. I have seen some of Grossman’s mixed media work before and rather liked those pieces.
Her photography exhibition, though was rather strange. It consisted of collages consisting of vintage and fairly recent black and white photographs. The photographer herself featured in many of the collages, so the question begs to be asked “are these meant to be self-portraits?” The photos were mainly of women/men in various stages of undress, in rather provocative poses. I found some of them strangely erotic, yet at the same time rather off putting and vulgar.
Grossman has created in her photos genderless “personas”. The torso of the person in some of the photos is that of a female, while the arms and legs definitely that of a male. In some of the photos the photographer has pasted hair on the head of the subject, especially those where she appears as the subject. In others she has pasted hair on the upper thighs of the subject to represent public hair. Grungy Barbie doll knickers are strategically pasted in other photos. Quite a few photographs have strings attached to the subject, rather like one would find on a puppet, leaving me to think that this series is a bit of a manipulation in some way.
The gallery handout states that Grossman’s new works “plays in the assumption and persistence of gender identity in a postmodern world.” There is definitely a feel of an old fashioned peep show to this exhibition, yet at the same time the aged photographs make us question whether this “genderless society” has really only been with us for a short while. I think the “peep show” feel to this exhibition really makes one wonder what went on behind closed curtains in the bawdy houses of olden times.
Grossman’s subjects are neither feminine or overly masculine, just a disturbing mix of the two. John Berger (1972, p 46) states:
… a women’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.
The collages are definitely not portraits of women that men would want to turn their gaze on. Berger goes on to say (1972, p 47):
… men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
So has Grossman really achieved her “genderless empowerment”? Maybe. The subjects in the photos are the ‘gazers’ on the viewers. I got the impression that the viewers were the subjects and the photographs on the wall were really the viewers. The roles have been reversed. But then if we pay attention to Berger’s remarks above, we see that by turning the subjects in the photographs into the viewers, Grossman has really just reverted the subjects back into the “surveyed female”.
The gallery handout states that “the women on display” are ultimately transformed into “potent images of female empowerment”. Call me conservative, but I did not come away with that message. Instead it was more one of degradation that came across to me. I am not really into this type of sub-culture and definitely do not understand it.
Some of the works can be viewed on the Canadian Art review Angela Grossman Collages Female Empowerment.
Berger, John. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books
Grossman, Angela. Models of Resistance. Poïesis Contemporary, Vancouver.