ALLYSON MITCHELL LADIES SASQUATCH   

Curated by Carla Garnet

 

The McMaster Museum of Art is proud to be the first venue for this exhibition which will tour nationally to The Winnipeg Art Gallery, The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Peterborough.

 

This exhibition was generously supported by the Ontario Arts Council.

 

An exhibition catalogue including essays by Ann Cvetkovich, Carla Garnet, and Josie Mills is available through the above mentioned art galleries.

 

ALLYSON MITCHELL, THEORY AND PRACTICE, Essay by: Carla Garnet

 

Aboriginal folklore about the Sasquatch, 'Wild Man of the Forest' or Big Foot (as he is referred to in the US) has been appropriated by the white Canadian mainstream - arguably an expression of the racist fears around the "otherness" of native culture and - by default - nature in general. In traditional Western thought, the female body has been associated with similar phenomena: nature, chaos and irrationality, and the male with order and rationality. In this case, I want to know - with the thousands of sightings posted on websites, the multiple documentary films about the topic and the guest appearances of Big Foot on televisions shows, how come no one has ever seen a Lady Sasquatch?1    

 

In much the same spirit as Oppenheim’s small concave object covered with fur, Mitchell’s Sasquatches are laden with sexual and political connotations. Still working in a male-dominated art world, Mitchell, like her antecedent, mocks the prevailing "masculinity" of sculpture, which conventionally adopts a hard substance and vertical orientation that can be seen as almost absurdly self-referential. However, unlike Oppenheim’s domestic object, or Wittig’s theoretical Trojan horse, Mitchell fabricates the Ladies Sasquatch. 

 

Mitchell’s giants represent nature and do not exist apart from it. They newly constitute mythological feminist identity. Exhibited as a group, Allyson Mitchell’s giant Ladies Sasquatch are both a refusal and challenge, assembling to gather strength from society, shifting the hierarchy: a figurative attempt to create a utopian feminist community. Mitchell transfigures space, translating the idea of self through to larger-than-life form. Her Ladies Sasquatch are fully realized as larger-than-life subject representations, constituted to take up the struggle for self-rule; they are ferocious, with a desire for independence. They possess the temerity to insist that it’s possible to make a connection between the representation of visible forms and the experience of empowerment. 

 

Part teddy bear, part forest beast, Mitchell’s Ladies Sasquatch reveal themselves free from the construction of the male gaze. The mythical space that they inhabit is both created and populated by pure, unbridled feminine energy, and these women are not in service of the male-dominated city-state -- they live in the bush!

                                                                                                                                                            Carla Garnet,  2008

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Allyson Mitchell, Lady Sasquatch Artist Statement, 2002.

[2] This essay was written at the outset of the artist’s study of the Sasquatch. Since then, Mitchell has discovered that there are, in fact, rare sightings of lady Sasquatches. Since beginning this project in 2002, she has come to believe that lady Sasquatches - previously buried from view - are actually quite real, and has endeavored to make them manifest in the public’s imagination. The army that she desires now resides in the Ladies Sasquatch exhibition.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sarah Quinton, Close to You: Contemporary Textiles, Intimacy and Popular Culture, (Toronto: Textile    Museum of Canada; Halifax: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 2008), pp20.

[5] Allyson Mitchell, Artist Talk, Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto. January, 2008.

[6] Helena Reckitt and Peggy Phelan, Art and Feminism (New York: Phaidon, 2001), pp10-12

[7] Luce Irigirary, Speculum of the Other Woman, Gillian C Gill, trans. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp133.

[8] Griselda Pollock, Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories (London: Routledge, 1999), pp107.

[9] Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and other Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1992), pp79.  

[10] Montique Wittig, The Opoponax. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966. [L’Opoponax. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1964]

[11]Montique Wittig, Homo Sum, Feminist Issues 10, no. 1: 3-11 found in French Feminism Reader - by Kelly Oliver - Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. USA 2000.  pp144-151

[12] Monque Wittig, The Trojan Horse, Feminist Issues 4, no. 2 (1984): pp36–41.

[13]  Helen Cixous, Stigmata: Escaping Texts (London: Routledge, 1998), pp137.

[14]Susan Jenkins, in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, edited by Cornelia Butler.  (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007), pp292-293.

[15]Sally McKay, Allyson Mitchell: The Fluff Stands Alone, Canadian Art 21, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 46. pp13.

Allyson Mitchell’s Lady Sasquatch project is an ongoing exhibition which has taken various forms. The title works are towering and glamorous she-beasts, pelted in varying shades of fun fur and reaching heights of up to eleven feet. Taking up the legendary figure of the Sasquatch to both embody and demythologize women’s bodies as dark and unknowable spaces, Mitchell not only subverts the fundaments of painting and sculpture, she reframes gendered notions of inside and out. According to the artist, Lady Sasquatch is “your dream girl, only bigger and hairier!”2  

 

Mitchell’s dream girls are epic. Allyson Mitchell: The Ladies Sasquatch foregrounds six of these mythical she-beast sculptures, surrounded by a whole family of familiars – tiny mammals taxidermied in cotton candy pink fun fur. The beautifully-constructed and softly-furred females command attention by their sheer presence: six fierce, statuesque, evenly-matched babes all possessing gleaming glass eyes and other taxidermic parts including wet-looking black nostrils, pointed claws and pink tongues slipped between jaws revealing sharp white teeth. Fiercely animalistic, they look like they could easily take a swipe or a bite out of one another, but instead allude to secret Sapphic pleasures ahead.  

 

Viewers encounter the artist’s giantesses in a mythical forest glen, a twenty-first century installation where nature is remade as hospitable to these ferociously gendered figures who symbolize female brains, brawn and sexuality. Staged in a gathering, Mitchell’s figural works enact a modern yet primordial re-interpretation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, interrogating the social organization of mythological feminine power. The Ladies Sasquatch represent the paradoxical ideals of agency and enchantment, feminism and community in the art institution. As on the fabled isle of Lesbos, where women congregated to frolic, debate and write poetry, Mitchell’s mythical band of women gaily join forces to achieve social ends.

Mitchell’s fabrication process provides a model for the building of feminist communities - communities that allow strength to be seen as beauty, repeated and reproduced in the individual and group while in embrace of the natural. Working primarily with abandoned craft materials and found domestic objects, Mitchell links theory with practice in service of a utopian ideal. In a recent catalogue essay for the group exhibition Close to You: Contemporary Textiles, Intimacy and Popular Culture, Sarah Quinton itemizes Mitchell’s sculpting materials: “kitschy mass-produced textile accoutrements such as chenille bed spreads, sunset emblazoned long-pile (shag) rugs, hand-wrought afghan throws and every-colour-in-the-rainbow swatches of fun fur . . . inexpensively produced and cheap-to-buy forms of culturally loaded fabrics that are deeply embedded in lived experience.”3Both metaphorically and physically, Mitchell’s Ladies Sasquatch installation presents connections between material and history and between maker, work, and beholder. 

 

Her work attempts to resolve a series of tensions between politics and poetics and between content, scale, space and form.4  Folding the personal, the political and the relationship between image and identity into her sculptural figures, Mitchell creates a feminist theatre of theory and practice in concert. 

 

In Art and Feminism, Helena Reckitt discusses the ways in which feminists analyzed post-structuralism and Freudian psychoanalysis in order to address the social construction of identity and to open a discussion about how language genders culture.5 Mitchell’s project is important because the artist aims to author herself and her community imaginatively and symbolically in contrast to traditional signification, which historically represents woman as lack or as fantasy. According to Luce Irigaray, subjecting oneself to objectification – being the “female” image while claiming to identify oneself as a “masculine” subject - problematizes representations of subjectivity for women.6

  

Taking a decidedly third-wave feminist approach, Mitchell’s massive furry femmes are about anything but lack.  Her giantesses stand ten feet tall, fully furred and fully empowered. Their material expression extends to address Plato’s claim, later taken up by Freud, that the only art ever invented by women was the art of weaving. However the idea of woman defined negatively never enters the frame; Mitchell dispenses with the phallic economy altogether, endowing her mythical she-beasts with three or more sets of ripe nipples. Instead of showing us a vision of beauty invested in masculine pleasure, Mitchell stages a community interacting, fostering a reciprocal relationship between artist and viewer. 

 

Griselda Pollock deliberately misquotes Marx’s well-known formulation of historical materialism, from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), in order to underline the situation that women inherit: 

 

        Women make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.7  

Employing Marx’s notions of economy and Freudian drive theory, Monique Wittig picks at the paradoxical feminine position, applying a feminist lens to Marx’s materialist view of power relations. Wittig denaturalizes the notion of “class,” arguing against an essentialist view of gender difference as she examines the social structures that function to deny women subjectivity. 

 

Wittig links Marx with linguistics explaining that,  Sex, under the name of gender, permeates the whole body of language and forces every locutor, if she belongs to the oppressed sex, to proclaim it in her speech, that is, to appear in language under her proper physical form.8  

 

Representation of the mark of gender renders it a site of action. To be a lesbian is a refusal of the ‘role’ of woman, a refusal to belong to the men of one’s class. For Witting, lesbians are ‘runaways’; they alone escape the web of relations that constitute patriarchy, because they live outside its sexual rule. Mitchell’s Ladies Sasquatch – joyful and fierce representations of lesbian subjectivity and independence - are the visual embodiment of this refusal. Mitchell takes on social asymmetry by situating the Ladies Sasquatch in the bush, outside of what is formally understood as the city-state.

Mitchell’s Sasquatches incarnate Wittig’s tribe of lesbian warriors, described by the author in a series of dazzling prose poems entitled Les Guerilleres. Mitchell began making art after falling in love with a girl, a circumstance analogous to the character in Wittig’s first novel, L’Opoponax. 9 Likewise, Mitchell is attracted to Wittig’s subversive school of materialist lesbian feminism, a standpoint from which Wittig argues that since women exist only in relation to men, lesbians cannot be considered women, as their very existence circumvents this hierarchal arrangement of power. 

 

In her article, Homo Sum, Wittig traces the origins of social systems to Greek philosophy, in which the notion of being is normalized through its opposite and the negation of plurality.10 Flowing from this classical perspective, the dominance of one over another has become naturalized. Therefore to overcome, or overthrow, this order, both Wittig and Mitchell embrace the notion of neither one nor the other. For author and artist, lesbians represent the potential for true human diversity. Their very existence operates in the theatre of art and literature like a Trojan Horse. Wittig explains: 

 

Any important literary work is like the Trojan Horse at the time it is produced. Any work with a new form operates as war machine, because its design and it goal is to pulverize the old forms and formal conventions. It is always produced in hostile territory. And the stranger it appears, nonconforming, unassailable, the longer it will take for the Trojan Horse to be accepted.  Eventually it is adopted, even if slowly; it will eventually work like a mine. It will sap and blast out the ground where it was planted. 11

Mitchell is one of a small number of contemporary artists using craft as a largely unregulated site of protest. Crafting is understood as essential because it often plays a vital role in social and communal sphere. By linking the act of production and hand-making in the public realm to political expression, Mitchell’s work shows how art can foster political agency.

 

The association of textiles with feminist practice works to trouble the viewer’s expectations of massive sculpture. Instead of cold stone or metal, Mitchell very purposefully selects textured, tactile, tufted and woven fibers to create a sensorium that joyfully celebrates the radical politics of lesbian sexuality and community building, actively working to create a site of transformation, embodiment and power.  

In the realm of theatre, there is nothing to stop a woman from transfiguration. Writing about the transformative power of theatre, Helen Cixous rhapsodizes:

   

        For here, in this kingdom that stretches beyond oppositions and exclusions, it is well known, from having had the experience so often, that it’s the soul, that is it, the heart – and its moods - that makes the face, the voice, the inexplicable and complicated truth of a human creature.12

Mitchell takes up Cixous’ arguments about the potential of theatre and mythology to serve as theoretical engines with which to animate a narrative of feminine experience as a new recuperative narrative. Installed upon a stage in the round, the works perform for the viewer, initiating a reciprocal exchange of ideas. Implicated in the act of seeing and being seen, the spectator becomes part of the meaning of the work, which interrogates the gendering of space.

 

The plush works, convening with others of their kind, evoke folkloric experience. The affect of enchantment is enhanced by the artist’s inclusion of a faux teepee campfire that burns brightly between her twice life sized goddesses, who refer to both Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture, and Athena, goddess of wisdom, war, justice and the arts.

 

Mitchell’s furry feminist monsters playfully bring female myth and archetype into dialogue with a modern attempt to recuperate and revalue feminine experience. In this way, her works align themselves with Niki de Saint Phalle’s "Nana" sculptures, larger-than-life archetypal female figures, fashioned in papier mâché, and later in polyester, and brightly painted. Like de Saint Phalle, Mitchell focuses on female subjects, themes, and experiences, frequently incorporating references to her own life, myths and fairytales.

 

De Saint Phalle came onto the art scene in the late 1950s, at a time when the male-dominated modernist avant-garde reigned supreme. During the 1960s, as Minimalism came to prominence in institutional circles, de Saint Phalle embraced a maximalist and self-consciously feminine aesthetic, eschewing the white walls of the museum in favor of lush natural settings. 13 Like de Saint Phalle’s mythical women, Mitchell’s Lady Sasquatches are inseparable from the environments in which they are displayed; both artists highlight the reciprocal relationship between woman and nature. 

There is a distinctly literary spirit running through Mitchell’s oeuvre; drawing upon the same primordial sources as Cixous and de Saint Phalle, Mitchell repeatedly addresses the issue of her own gender, often in coded forms like mythology, dreams, associations, thoughts and play. Reminiscent of Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist object Déjeuner en fourrure (1936), Mitchell’s creations depend in large part on the tactile qualities of her materials: the charge delivered by fur. In a review of Mitchell’s The Fluff Stands Alone (2004), Sally McKay writes that she had to resist the temptation to rub her face on the art, an impulse that recalls Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s articulation of his desire to bury his face in his wife’s fur coats, a symbol for the powerful female sexuality that threatens the status quo.14 

 

Like Meret Oppenheim, Mitchell thematizes the overlap between nature and culture, man and woman, day and night, dream and reality. Oppenheim issued her challenge precisely by covering her object seamlessly in the precious fur and thus turning away the gaze from its 'naked' surface. Using fur, both artists launch not only a simple reversal of relations, but use the plush material they select as camouflage to ignite a double desire: for a glimpse of that which is hidden from view, and, above all, for a feel of that which is exhibited.  

The paradox uncovered is that while the explosive potential of both teacup and Sasquatch lies in their refusal to be subjected to this twofold desire, the sensual dimension of these objects cannot simply to be ignored. Both the teacup and the Sasquatch refer to the female form and its capacity for containment (and engulfment), while evoking a female yearning for sexual fulfillment.