I fully pledge for the pleasure of the domestic
In response to Vanessa Brown and Anna Torma
I fully pledge for the pleasure of the domestic. Here’s an excerpt from a writing of someone who obsessively works to anchor experience onto banal, everyday objects:
A window in a wise veil and more garments shows that shadows are even […]
A feather is trimmed, it is trimmed by the light and the bug and the post, it is trimmed by little
leaning and by all sorts of mounted reserves and loud volumes. It is surely cohesive.
A SUBSTANCE IN A CUSHION
What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it.
[…] In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some
venturing in refusing to believe nonsense.
Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, published in 1914, is a short book of prose around mundane objects, told through a highly experimental use of language, fragmentation and cryptic logic. Even though meaning is abstruse and mystic in this modernist text, there is an apparent sensibility towards the quotidian. Objects are told through feelings. Objects are saturated with subjectivity. Impressions are delicious. Objects open to experience beyond the current instant of use (or gaze, or being near) are collaged together in unexpected ways. The everyday is caressed with tender domesticity and comfort of familiarity. Images and feelings are sutured together into a hectic collage, birthing a new texture to the everyday.
I found similar sensibilities arising in Brown’s steel sculptures, handled with surprising pliability and dexterity, that lure us into an intimate, quotidian experience of pleasure. Take for example, Late Night Break (2017), a small-scale still life of a wine bottle, stemmed glass, fruits and a lit cigarette, cut from a thin sheet of steel, painted in midnight hues. Ohr by the Garden Shed (2017), as part of her Charms series, collects steel cut-outs of a keyhole, green snake, puce goblet, yellow disk, vase, and a fish, lined up on a thin steel rod. Like charm bracelets that are personalized with various combinations of small charms, the steel cut-out pieces are modular, adhered to the rod by magnets. Both Charms and Brown’s sculpture bookmark an event or a moment through the abbreviated gesture of an image. Brown utilizes a method akin to cinematic jump cuts, giving conceptual distance between the titular word and steel content, triggering associations that are shaped by the textual layer, viewer’s own personal experiences, and the affective dimensions of soft steel. Here’s another excerpt from Stein: “A PETTICOAT/ A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.”
The recent work Late Night Trip to the Jeweller’s (2018) is a larger than life tableau of an event. A giant clock looms over the scene like the moon. Jumbled numbers, closed eyelids on the clock face, drooping hour and minute hands—the identity of time is dissolving. At this mysterious hour, two tulle nightgowns bearing delicate metal scraps and dried flowers emerge as the two main characters. Two pairs of earrings greet these nighttime visitors, looming larger than human bodies. Next to them, a large sheet of metal leans against the wall, etched with coded inscriptions. As the title denotes, the installation points to a dreamlike reality or to a real-like dream, filled with connotations of plot and ambiguous imagery.
In The Greenhouse, the love prosody between sturdy tulle and paper-thin metal continues. Unlike Brown’s other works, the surface of steel-cold herbage is left without paint. The reflective surface welcomes the purple drape-filtered light. The foliage is cut with delicate, astute technique that might fool us that this is as easy as cutting paper with scissors. Amongst the strange material balance, the mobile hangs in suspension, waiting for an itinerant moment of a gentle nudge. In this artificial garden, it remains still.
Most of Brown’s subject matter is decidedly quotidian, grounded in the very personal sphere of the home. The small sculptures are shaped from the vantage point of a confined, personal space: late night breaks, gardens, plants, still life’s all possess a quiet interiority. The steel passes through the touch of the artist’s hand, maintaining a close relationship with the scale of one’s body. The affective dimensions of soft steel, merged with the everyday encounters, produce a delicious kind of logic. It could be argued as beauty. The daily moments are given a sculptural form, through an attuned gaze that latches onto the pleasures found in the daily activities or in the contemplation of one’s surroundings. The works seem to abide by a subtle mandate that grounds pleasure to a widely accessible, easily encountered experience. Pleasure makes the quotidian walk the lines of the novel.
The sybaritic savouring of the personal space abides by a guiding principle: we demand pleasures of the home. Take Vancouver, where the artist lives and works, a city in a nefarious housing crisis. In a place where the basic pleasures of homemaking is an extravagance, the domestic, personal moments conveyed by Brown’s sculptures also feel luxurious. They evoke the privilege to have a comfortable space where one goes through breakups, be a plant mom and a gardener, endures fever dreams, takes midnight cigarette breaks. An entitlement to domestic bliss, as skeptical as this phrase sounds, is to be demanded in an economic model where (good) shelter is luxury. Take Virginia Woolf’s proposition for the one requirement for the ability of a woman to write and speak: a room of one’s own. Now this phrase rings true not only in the gendered divide of who gets the right to space and to speech, but also in the class divide.
While Woolf fought for women’s own creative space to be carved out of the very domestic space that is maintained through women’s labour, the craft tradition was driven by the desire to decorate that domestic space. The Hungary-born, New Brunswick-based artist Anna Torma is a librarian of the detritus of daily life. Through techniques such as embroidery, appliqué, quilting, drawing, collaging, and dyeing, Torma takes textiles, a material so thoroughly part of the everyday, and estranges them from ubiquity. Torma collects details from everyday life, such as doodles, her own children’s drawings, words, and scraps from other works, as well as various found textile fragments that circulate the domestic sphere. In Abandoned Details I – VII (2018), such shards of life are neatly organized into a grid. We see human figures, monsters, animals, plants, household objects, abstract blobs, limbs, and words. In this extensive collection, the crumbs of everyday are raised to mythological status.
Torma’s work honours women’s labour and craft that happened in the domestic sphere, outside of the canon of art history. While art history unfolded in the public sphere, women’s work took place in homes. Even commercial craft was a male arena whereas women’s embroidery remained domestic. Textile historian Mária Varjú-Ember traces the emergence of Hungarian embroidery to the Middle Ages. Early accounts are attributed to queens who maintained women’s embroidery workrooms in the courts or monasteries. In the meantime, textile work produced for commercial purposes were created by “professional” craftsmen. 17th century Hungary witnessed widespread domestic embroidery by noblewomen, who taught their family and friends, shared samples and skills, and collected patterns together. Even though women’s work stayed inside the home, it engendered a certain sociality that erupted out of the boundaries of the domestic realm. This European textile tradition fostered a communal space for production: “singing, chanting, telling stories, dancing, and playing games as they work, spinsters, weavers, and needle-workers were literally networkers as well. Spinning yarns, fabricating fictions, fashioning fashions…” A unique, decentralized form of knowledge dissemination occured through relationships and the sharing of space.
Such a lineage of women’s voices are literally layered in Torma’s monumental work Carpet of Many Hands (2012-18). Two sizeable quilts hang from the ceiling and drape onto the floor. Layers upon layers, we see both found and made textiles such as printed fabric, crocheted fragments, lace, appliqués, patches, and fragments of needlepoints. Like the scroll that preceded the codex (the bound book), the quilts are a document of stylizations, visual languages and quotations. Countless unnamed voices reverberate in these quilts, composing an ode to women’s labour; an ode to the kitsch drive towards home decoration. It is a sensibility of excess that stems from a vibrant attitude towards life—homemaking as essential to existing, homemaking coming before art, as a creative practice that is closer to skin. Quilts are often gifts exchanged between family members (sometimes as a gesture, regardless of skill-level — as I remember my grandmother who “quilted” two large red and yellow towels together into a blanket and gifted them to me when I was born). Between the fabric, needle, and thread exist many layers of knowledge, passed down between generations, with an undwindling love for the home and kin.
Lisa Robertson defines the poetics of the vernacular as that which begins in the home:
“[it is] the collectively accessible speech of the household and the street, distributed unilaterally rather than intentionally acquired via a disciplined pedagogy of grammar, and transformed in open bodily exchange. […] A vernacular is not structured according to a valuing hierarchy or an administration of history; it is improvised in tandem with the rhythmic needs and movements of a present-tense yet tradition-informed body among other bodies, each specific.”
Here, Robertson understands the vernacular speech as a form of expression that grows laterally within the home, among the network of family and friends. The two active ingredients are the casual setting in which language is modified, and the bodily relationships that allows this prolific propagation. The sensibility of the vernacular is quite akin to the way craft operates. Take the coven of women chatting, gossiping, singing, and sharing knowledge as they each held their needlework on their laps. The vocabulary of their craft was responsive to the multitude of voices, which grew and shifted organically, even though the work was still rooted in tradition and skill. A decentralized form of learning took place in the casual relationships between family members. Daily practice and informality mark both domestic craft and vernacular speech. Enabled by the very individuality, craft and vernacular speech both reinvent themselves daily through dialogue and relationships. Carpet of Many Hands nods to this vernacular expansiveness. It records the visual language of folk, craft, and kitsch that are embedded in daily life. Collected into a set of quilts, these pieces of ordinary textiles become a dictionary of the vernacular. I can almost hear the murmur of voices between all the layers in these two quilts. “Vernacular speech can only begin and never achieve closure.” The quilts’ linearity seems to nudge towards a continuum, as if the two textiles can continue forever.
Vernacular speech is defined by the motions of becoming untethered from tradition. Brown’s work with steel is concerned with the material’s tactility as well as its cultural meanings sowed by tradition. There is a heightened awareness in the gendered tradition of steel, in its implication in machinery and industry. On the other hand, the circulation of steel objects, like charms, jewelry, and other small trinkets, use matrilinear routes, passed down from mothers to daughters. Brown’s construction highlights pliability, softness, slightness, delicacy, dexterity. Steel circulates in our daily sphere, ubiquitously found in cars as well as pots and pans. Conflating machinery and personal objects, steel is riddled with contradictions. Brown brings both qualities to the fore, changing scale of her work from the corporeal to the monumental. There is always a bit of associative confusion that occurs when I look at Brown’s thinly cut steel. How soft is this hard material?
In the same way, Torma steps away from the decorative subject matter of embroidery in Pedagogical Charts I – II (2016), in which taxonomies and Enlightenment-based knowledge systems are put under scrutiny. With images and text, Torma spins off of encyclopedic charts to categorize her own embodied experiences and her own ways of knowing. Disciplines like anatomy, taxonomy, science, linguistics and grammar are articulated with needle and thread. Chart I transforms the sterile anatomical drawings and language to something very visceral and textural with fabric and embroidery. Puce bowels, numbered organs and latin anatomy terms fusing with floral and fauna, the scientific way of knowing a human body passes through the digestive tract of identity.
The namesakes of Brown’s and Torma’s exhibitions, The Witching Hour and Book of Abandoned Details conjure a place and an object. The place where light is extinguished and magic imbues, dangerous and formidable women roam. And there is a document that distills hundreds of unnamed voices and hands, those abandoned by history and its hierarchy but their work withstands today. A mythology is engendered. The feminine is soft but its sum is greater than the sum of its softness. Hard work is soft, soft work is hard.