Some of us from the meetings are having a group show, of women only. This is risky business, and we know it. Jody says we could get trashed, by the male art establishment. Their line these days is that great art transcends gender. Jody’s line is that art so far has been mostly men admiring one another. A woman artist can get admired by them only as a sideline, a sort of freaky exception. “Titless wonders,” says Jody.
We could get trashed by women as well, for singling ourselves out, putting ourselves forward. We could be called elitist. There are many pitfalls.
There are four of us in on the show. Carolyn, who has an angelic moon face framed in a Dutch cut with dark bangs, calls herself a fabric artist. Some of her pieces are patchwork quilts, in inventive designs. One has condoms stuffed with tampons (unused), glued onto it in the shapes of letters, spelling out WHAT IS LUV? Another is done in florals, with an appliquéd message:
Or else she makes wall hangings out of toilet paper twisted like rope, braided and woven with reels of outdated girlie movies, the kind that used to be called “art films.” “Used porn,” she says cheerfully. “Why not recycle it, eh?”
Jody does store mannequins, sawn apart, the pieces glued back together in disturbing poses. She, fixes them up with paint and collage and steel wool stuck on at appropriate places. One hangs from a meat hook, stuck through the solar plexus, another has trees and flowers painted all over her face like fine tattooing, with a delicacy I wouldn’t have suspected from Jody. Another has the heads of six or seven old dolls attached to her stomach. I recognize some of them: Sparkle Plenty, Betsy Wetsy, Barbara Ann Scott.
Zillah is blond and skimpy, like the frail flower girls of a few years back. She calls her pieces Lintscapes. They are made from the wads of feltlike fuzz that accumulate on drier filters and can be peeled off in sheets. I have admired these myself as I stuffed them into the wastebasket: their texture, their soft colours. Zillah has bought a number of towels in different shades and run them repeatedly through the dryer, to get shades of pink, of grey-green, of off-white, as well as the standard underneath-the-bed grey. These she has cut and shaped and glued carefully to a backing, to form multilayered compositions that resemble cloudscapes. I am entranced by them, and wish I had thought of this first. “It’s like making a soufflé,” Zillah says. “One breath of cold air and you’re dead in the water.”
Jody, who is more in charge than anyone, has gone through my paintings and chosen the ones for the show. She’s taken some of the still lifes, Wringer, Toaster, Deadly Nightshade, and Three Witches. Three Witches is the one of the three different sofas.
Apart from the still lifes, what I’m showing is mostly figurative, although there are a couple of constructions made from drinking straws and uncooked macaroni, and one called Silver Paper. I didn’t want to include these, but Jody liked them. “Domestic materials,” she said.
The Virgin Mary pieces are in the show, and all of the Mrs. Smeaths. I thought there were too many of her, but Jody wanted them. “It’s woman as anticheesecake,” she said. “Why should it always be young, beautiful women? It’s good to see the aging female body treated with compassion, for a change.” This, only in more high-flown language, is what she’s written in the catalogue.
The show is held in a small defunct supermarket, west on Bloor Street. It is to be converted to a hamburger heaven, shortly; but meanwhile it’s empty, and one of the women who knows a cousin of the wife of the developer who owns it has managed to persuade him to let us use it for two weeks. She told him that in the Renaissance the most famous dukes were known for their aesthetic taste and patronage of the arts, and this idea appealed to him. He doesn’t know it’s an all-woman show; just some artists, is what she told him. He says it’s okay with him as long as we don’t get the place dirty.
“What’s to get dirty?” says Carolyn, as we look around. She’s right, it’s dirty enough already. The produce counters and shelves have been torn up, there are patches ripped off the erstwhile linoleum tile flooring where the wide bare boards show through, lights dangle in wire cages; only some of them work. The checkout counters are still in place, though, and there are a few tattered signs drooping on the walls: SPECIAL 3/95¢. FRESH FROM CALIFORNIA. MEAT LIKE YOU LIKE IT.
“We can make this space work for us,” says Jody, striding around with her hands in her coverall pockets.
“How?” says Zillah.
“I didn’t take judo for nothing,” says Jody. “Let the momentum of the enemy carry him off balance.”
In practice this means that she appropriates the MEAT LIKE YOU LIKE IT sign and incorporates it into one of her constructions, an especially violent dismemberment in which the mannequin, dressed only in ropes and leather straps, has ended up with her head tucked upside-down under her arm.
“If you were a man you’d get stomped for that,” Carolyn tells her.
Jody smiles sweetly. “But I’m not one.”
We work for three days, arranging and rearranging. After we have the stuff in place, there are the rented trestle tables to be assembled for the bar, the hooch and eats to be bought. Hooch and eats are Jody’s words. We get Canadian wine in gallon jugs, Styrofoam cups to serve it in, pretzels and potato chips, hunks of cheddar cheese wrapped in plastic film, Ritz crackers. This is what we can afford; but also there’s an unspoken rule that the food has to be unwaveringly plebeian.
Our catalogue is a couple of mimeographed sheets stapled together at the top corner. This catalogue is supposed to be a collective effort, but in fact Jody has written most of it, because she has the knack.
Carolyn makes a banner, out of bedsheets dyed to look as if someone’s bled on them, to hang above the outside door:
F(OUR) FOR ALL.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” says Jon, who has dropped by, supposedly to pick me up, really to see. He is suspicious of my doings with women, although he will not demean himself by saying so. He does however refer to them as “the girls.”
“It’s a pun on free for all” I tell him, although I know he knows this. “Plus it encapsulates the word our.” Encapsulate is also one of Jody’s words.
He does not comment.
It’s the banner that attracts the newspapers: this kind of thing is new, it’s an event, and it promises disruption. One newspaper sends a photographer, in advance, who says, jokingly, “Come on, girls, burn a few bras for me,” while he’s taking our pictures.
“Pig,” says Carolyn in a low voice.
“Cool it,” says Jody. “They love it when you freak.”
Before the opening, I come to the gallery early. I pace around the show, up and down the former aisles, around the checkout counters where Jody’s sculptures pose like models on a runway, past the wall where Carolyn’s quilts yell defiance. This is strong work, I think. Stronger than mine. Even Zillah’s gauzy constructions appear to me to have a confidence and subtlety, an assurance, that my own paintings lack: in this context my pictures are too highly finished, too decorative, too merely pretty.
I have strayed off course, I have failed to make a statement. I am peripheral.
I drink some of the awful wine and then some more, and feel better; although I know that later I will feel worse. The stuff tastes like something you’d use to tenderize pot roast.
I stand against the wall, beside the door, hanging onto my Styrofoam cup. I’m standing here because it’s the exit. Also the entrance: people arrive, and then more people.
Many, most of these people are women. There are all kinds of them. They have long hair, long skirts, jeans and overalls, earrings, caps like construction workers‘, lavender shawls. Some of them are other painters, some just look like it. Carolyn and Jody and Zillah are here by now, and there are greetings called, squeezes of the arm, kisses on cheeks, shrieks of delight. They all seem to have more friends than I do, more close women friends. I’ve never really considered it before, this absence; I’ve assumed that other women were like me. They were, once. And now they are not.
There is Cordelia, of course. But I haven’t seen her for years.
Jon is not here yet, although he said he would come. We even got a baby-sitter so he could. I think maybe I will flirt with someone, someone inappropriate, just to see what could happen; but there aren’t many possibilities, because there aren’t many men. I make my way through the crowd with another Styrofoam cup of the dreadful red marinade, trying not to feel left out.
Right behind me a woman’s voice says, “Well, they certainly are different.” It’s the quintessential Toronto middle-class-matron put-down, the ultimate disapproval. It’s what they say about slums. It would not look good over the sofa, is what she means. I turn and look at her: a well-cut silver-grey suit, pearls, a suave scarf, expensive suede shoes. She’s convinced of her own legitimacy, her right to pronounce: I and my kind are here on sufferance.
“Elaine, I’d like you to meet my mother,” says Jody. The idea of this woman being Jody’s mother is breathtaking. “Mum, Elaine did the flower painting. The one you like?”
She means Deadly Nightshade. “Oh yes,” says Jody’s mother, smiling warmly. “You girls are all so gifted. I did like that one, the colours are lovely. But what are all those eyes doing in it?”
This is so much what my own mother would say that I am swept with longing. I want my mother to be here. She would dislike most of this, the cut-up mannequins especially; she wouldn’t understand it at all. But she would smile, and dredge up something nice to say. Very recently I would have derided such talents. Now I have need of them.
I get myself another cup of wine and a Ritz cracker with some cheese on it, and peer through the crowd for Jon, for anyone. What I see, over the heads, is Mrs. Smeath.
Mrs. Smeath is watching me. She lies on the sofa with her turbanlike Sunday hat on, the afghan wrapped around her. I have named this one Torontodalisque: Homage to Ingres, because of the pose, and the rubber plant like a fan behind her. She sits in front of a mirror with half of her face peeling off, like the villain in a horror comic I once read; this one is called Leprosy. She stands in front of her sink, her wicked paring knife in one hand, a half-peeled potato in the other. This one is called AN•EYE•FOR•AN•EYE.
Next to this is White Gift, which is in four panels. In the first one, Mrs. Smeath is wrapped up in white tissue paper like a can of Spam or a mummy, with just her head sticking out, her face wearing its closed half-smile. In the next three she’s progressively unwrapped: in her print dress and bib apron, in her back-of-the-catalogue Eaton’s flesh-coloured foundation garment—although I don’t expect she possessed one—and finally in her saggy-legged cotton underpants, her one large breast sectioned to show her heart. Her heart is the heart of a dying turtle: reptilian, dark-red, diseased. Across the bottom of this panel is stencilled: THE•KINGDOM•OF•GOD•IS•WITHIN•YOU.
It’s still a mystery to me, why I hate her so much.
I look away from Mrs. Smeath, and there is another Mrs. Smeath, only this one is moving. She’s just inside the door and heading toward me. She’s the same age as she was. It’s as if she’s stepped down off the wall, the walls: the same round raw potato face, the hulky big-boned frame, the glittering spectacles and hairpin crown. My gut clenches in fear; then there’s that rancid hate, flashing up in an instant.
But of course this can’t be Mrs. Smeath, who must be much older by now. And it isn’t. The hairpin crown was an optical illusion: it’s just hair, greying and cropped short. It’s Grace Smeath, charmless and righteous, in shapeless, ageless clothing, dun in colour; she is ringless and without ornament. By the way she stalks, rigid and quivering, lips pinched, the freckles standing out on her root-white skin like bug bites, I can see that this will not be transformed into a light social occasion by any weak-chinned smiling of mine.
I try anyway. “Is it Grace?” I say. Several nearby people have stopped in mid-word. This is not the sort of woman who usually frequents gallery openings, of any kind.
Grace clumps relentlessly forward. Her face is fatter than it used to be. I think of orthopedic shoes, lisle stockings, underwear laundered thin and grey, coal cellars. I am afraid of her. Not of anything she could do to me, but of her judgment. And here it comes.
“You are disgusting,” she says. “You are taking the Lord’s name in vain. Why do you want to hurt people?”
What is there to be said? I could claim that Mrs. Smeath is not Grace’s mother but a composition. I could mention the formal values, the careful use of colour. But White Gift is not a composition, it’s pictures of Mrs. Smeath, and indecent pictures at that. It’s washroom graffiti raised to a higher order.
Grace is staring past me at the wall: there are not just one or two foul pictures to be appalled by, there are many. Mrs. Smeath in metamorphosis, from frame to frame, naked, exposed and desecrated, along with the maroon velvet chesterfield, the sacred rubber plant, the angels of God. I have gone way too far.
Grace’s hands are fists, her fatted chin is trembling, her eyes are pink and watery, like a laboratory rabbit’s. Is that a tear? I am aghast, and deeply satisfied. She is making a spectacle of herself, at last, and I am in control.
But I look again, more closely: this woman is not Grace. She doesn’t even look like Grace. Grace is my age, she would not be this old. There’s a generic resemblance, that’s all. This woman is a stranger.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” says the woman who is not Grace. Her eyes narrow behind her glasses. She raises her fist, and I drop my glass of wine. Red splashes the wall and floor.
What she has in her clenched hand is a bottle of ink. With a shaky twist she unscrews the top, and I hold my breath, with fright but also curiosity: is it me she’ll throw it at? For throwing is clearly her intention. There are gasps around us, this is happening fast, Carolyn and Jody are pushing forward.
The woman who is not Grace hurls the ink, bottle and all, straight at White Gift. The bottle careens and thuds to the carpet, ink pours down over the skyscape, veiling Mrs. Smeath in Parker’s Washable Blue. The woman gives me a triumphant smile and turns, not stalking now but scurrying, heading for the door.
I have my hands over my mouth, as if to scream. Carolyn envelops me, hugging. She smells like a mother. “I’ll call the police,” she says.
“No,” I say. “It will come off.” And it probably will, because White Gift is varnished, and painted on wood. Maybe there won’t even be a dent. There are women gathering around me, the rustle of their feathers, a cooing. I am soothed and consoled, patted, cherished as if in shock. Maybe they mean it, maybe they like me after all. It’s so hard for me to tell, with women.
“Who was that?” they ask.
“Some religious nut case,” says Jody. “Some reactionary.”
I will be looked at, now, with respect: paintings that can get bottles of ink thrown at them, that can inspire such outraged violence, such uproar and display, must have an odd revolutionary power. I will seem audacious, and brave. Some dimension of heroism has been added to me.
FEATHERS FLY AT FEMINIST FRACAS, says the paper. The picture is of me cringing, hands over my mouth, Mrs. Smeath bare-naked and dripping with ink in the background. This is how I learn that women fighting is news. There’s something titillating about it, upended and comic, like men in evening gowns and high heels. Henfighting, it’s called.
The show itself attracts bad adjectives: “abrasive,” “aggressive” and “shrill.” It’s mostly Jody’s statues and Carolyn’s quilts that are called these things. Zillah’s lintscapes are termed “subjective,” “introverted” and “flimsy.” Compared with the rest of them, I get off easy: “naive surrealism with a twist of feminist lemon.”
Carolyn makes a bright yellow banner with the words “abrasive,” “aggressive” and “shrill” on it in red, arid hangs it outside the door. A great many people come.
Margaret Atwood, 1939. Cat’s Eye,1988. Chapter 62.
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart, September 1988. Image: First edition cover (Hardback). Design – M. Craaan, Illustration – Jamie Bennet.