236 Pender St East,
07 Mar–06 Jul 2024
07 March, 2024
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11 May–05 June 1993
Curated by: Susan Shuppli
Carol Sawyer, Vessels, 1993. Courtesy of the Artist.
The Or Gallery concludes its spring program with an exhibition of new works by artist Carol Sawyer. She produced this body of work during an artist residency in the photography program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. VESSELS is in part, about the artist’s relationship to the medium of photography as a person both in front of, and behind the camera, It also provides us with a chance to think about the ways in which women are encouraged to worry obsessively about how they look, and to construct their identity and sense of self worth in terms of their appearance. In these photographs the artist’s own image is distorted and abstracted by the curved reflected surfaces and long exposure times. “There is a certain amount of pleasure in refusing to be fixed, or pinned by the camera’s gaze. There is also a certain amount of pleasure in controlling my own distortion, being both the depicted and the depictor.”
VESSELS will be Carol Sawyer’s first solo exhibition at an artist-run centre in Vancouver. The exhibition is accompanied by a brochure and a short essay by Kelly Wood.
Carol Sawyer: Vessels
Or Gallery May 11th to June 5th 1993
The materials and effects of glass, mirrors and reflective light constitute persistent allegory and metaphor in Carol Sawyer’s collage based photography. Here, a complex discussion on self-reflexive formalism is solicited by the work as Sawyer openly exposes her fetish for photographic materials, their inherent qualities and modes of representation. Evident as an exploration in the logic of materials, this closed system naturally leads the artwork to emulate its object of stUdy. In this work we discover an icon of photographic practice, the collages closely resembling the barrel configuration of a camera lens-with an image bouncing inside it. Fortunately, Sawyer has occupied, in, self portraiture, this strained position within, with twisted humour and familiar parable.
In the exhibition, eight black and white collage works are framed and displayed, under glass (of course) along the walls of the gallery. We find that ordinary household objects such as thermos glass, perfume bottles, Christmas ornaments, mercury glass vases and vials have been photographed individually against a standard field of black. The negatives were then cropped and collaged together with tape, the lines of which are still visible in the final paper prints. Sawyer’s deliberate collection of shaped glass and mirrored objects come together to form the basis of an ephemeral construction (the collage exists only as a negative; it is not a photograph of a collaged unit). In connecting the objects vertically, new objects are manifested. Enlarged to about ten times their actUal size, the forms are monolithic, polished and gleaming. They are seductive and beautifully executed: whites are crystalline pure; blacks are velvety and deep. These items can not only be described as phallic and/or vessel forms, but manifestations that are cunningly polysexual. The interesting addition here is that, because the composite items are so small and so reflective, the photographer (Sawyer), by virtue of the act of photographing, is clearly, if distortedly, seen at various points, as within or on the construction.
Playfully, her concoctions begin to take on the connotations of a funhouse carnival mirror’s undulating perspective. However, as viewers of the work, we are invited to see not ourselves, but rather, the contorted artist reflected back upon us. Her search for personal identity and sexuality have clearly become compromised by the so-called veracity of photography and the restrictive confines of popular representation; and thus she seeks escape through a bending or distortion of these realities. As the woman in a world of objects and objectification, she plays up a transformative fantasy wherein pleasure, or perhaps her only alternative, is derived in portraying herself as bent, as freak. In contrast to Lacan’s “mortifYing” mirror stage, wherein the image is the trap of imaginary capture; this is surely the other side of the mirror to recognize the sight of ourselves as we know we are not. (Lacan gets it right when he refers to it as a “stage”-one we’ve all walked on a few times). As he observes, “the armour of alienating identity” is a “narcissistic shield, with its nacreous covering on which is painted the world from which [the ego] is forever cut off” (Some Reflections on the Ego). Certainly though, we can read the forms symbolically in this context as swords or authorial sceptres, voluting in and out at the seams and crowned with “enchanted” spheroids-ready to defend against external forces.
Sawyer’s fantasies structure a discourse on female subjectivity while contrasting an impoverished public image in order to express hostility towards and sabotage women’s cultural confinement. With the conflation of a bold sexual sign and outrageous self portraiture, Sawyer insinuates, in ridiculous form, the imprisoned, sexually defined woman, inconceivable outside the phallic order. Although these scenarios sometimes verge upon a lone drama (to and for herself at the moment of creation); like the Janus personification in many of the works, she points to its possible double meaning for women. Interpreted elsewhere as a Vanity, preparing for the voyeur, she invites us to judge her, as a woman judges herself for others. Sawyer also appears as a Kali type destroyer, challenging conventional notions of beauty with many unshaved underarms. This is digressive camp, especially since it rests atop, or within, a voluptuously imagined sexual toy. Yet by almost all feminist accounts (as women struggle to reinvent themselves) the female artist is definitely on thin ice with regard to identity related explorations through representation. Suffice it to say, that if we are to accept Sawyer’s rather wry commentary, her conclusion suggests that female subjectivity and much of what we consider sexuality are still, like the proverbial genie in the bottle-waiting to get out.
Four-armed Vessel, 1992
1. Her choice of found objects have a history not unlike the artist’s own manufacturing. In the seventeenth century, European glass-makers produced what was then known as “watch balls” . They were glass spheres, lustered to resemble shining silver and capable of mirroring a whole room in miniature. Designed to hang in the middle of the room, they represented a emblem of good luck and were said to protect against the malign influence of witches. Consequently, their name became corrupted to “witchball” and they survive today as the reflective Christmas ornaments Sawyer has used in setting up her double entendre.
Kelly Wood is a Vancouver artist and writer whose montage photographic work explores the humorous aspects of gender politics. ~
Carol Sawyer is a Vancouver based artist who works in photographic mediums.