July 2-13, 2019
The Untitled Space
By Chloe Hyman
Starting Tuesday, July 2nd, The Untitled Space in New York City will present a solo exhibition of interdisciplinary work by the artist Kat Toronto, a.k.a. Miss Meatface. The exhibition, curated by Indira Cesarine and named for the artist’s pseudonym, highlights the performance-based photography that Toronto is known for, as well as video and ceramic work and a limited edition of zines. On opening night, the artist signed zines and gave a talk about her practice.
Toronto chose her pseudonym as a way to process her hysterectomy, a traumatic procedure that alienated the artist from her body. The persona of Miss Meatface provided Toronto an outlet to explore her sexuality beyond what is typically expected of those who have ovaries. “I found myself stopping to think… about what the heck gender really was,” the artist recalls, “and why society historically placed so much emphasis on sculpting gender stereotypes.”
In her self-portraiture, Toronto stages erotic scenes that play with dominance and submission—games of power that mirror heterosexual power hierarchies—but her sexually ambiguous figures subvert societal standards of beauty, gender, and power. Their skin is replaced by latex which also serves to obscure their genitalia. Dressing in fetish-wear is a joyous process for Toronto, as it frees her from the restraints set on her physical body by a society obsessed with defining and policing gender.
Historically there has been a tension between liberation and objectification when it comes to fetish in art and cinema. Forniphilia bears semblance to the work of Allen Jones, who was also involved with the artistic design of ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ However, Toronto’s identity as a female artist, and her emotional relationship with the persona Miss Meatface, lend her work both agency and depth. There is a raw truthfulness to her photographs that Jones’s Barbie-proportioned fem-bots lack. It radiates from her pink flesh inked with tattoos, and from the realism of her tableaus. Though Toronto visualizes herself in Forniphilia as a submissive sexual object, she remains deeply human, and therefore claims pleasure for herself.
“I found myself stopping to think… about what the heck gender really was,” the artist recalls, “and why society historically placed so much emphasis on sculpting gender stereotypes.”
Central to the realism of the artist’s work is the accoutrement of each domestic space. In Forniphilia, a wall yellowed by an invisible light source, a hard-wood floor, and vintage furniture, paint a simple, albeit dated, interior. A beige lampshade transforms Toronto into a standing lamp, and she assumes the connotations of the room she is in, reading as a willing participant in a sexual game of dominance and submission.
In other photographs, Toronto constructs more overtly retro tableaus, but her utilization of natural lighting maintains their authenticity. These shots, with their unbalanced streams of light, recall old family photographs rather than slick Hollywood sets. In No Time for Tears, a bedside lamp shines so brightly its own form is nearly abstracted—a beacon of blindingly white light. In Parlour, the source of light comes from a window that is almost overexposed by the angle of the sun.
The settings of these works also have a lived-in quality that renders them deeply intimate. Toronto has decorated each space in a manner that recalls a specific time period, but never attempts to achieve Hollywood set design levels of polish. In No Time for Tears, a floral sheet peeks out from the corner of the frame, gently clashing with Miss Meatface’s cheetah-print dressing grown and the burnt-orange walls of her bedroom. Several tissues dot a green doily on her bedside table—an ironic detail given that her nose is obscured by a centimeter of latex. And finally, the strange landscape hanging above her bed follows the room’s color scheme almost too closely, adhering to a 1970s decorative trend that today would be considered tacky.
These elements minimize the work’s artificiality, and as a result, No Time For Tears never registers as a staged scene. Instead, Miss Meatface looks right at home smoking her cigarette on the bed. She is a person engaged in a sexual game rather than an artist’s model posed to elicit shock or titillation. Her agency and comfort enforce the work’s eroticism without subjecting Miss Meatface to voyeurism. Instead, the viewer is privy to a private moment in which Toronto is entirely in charge of her own pleasure.
The quality of tackiness that is present in Miss Meatface’s room décor and choice of dress is emblematic of a recurring theme in Toronto’s work—kitsch. The term ‘kitsch’ has historically been employed by the cultural elite as a foil for good taste. Twentieth-century avant-garde artists believed nostalgia and materialism were the greatest obstacles to their utopian goals, and designated any object they deemed sentimental or excessive, ‘kitsch.’ Politically motivated by the perceived need to eliminate kitsch mentality from society, male cultural critics adopted femaleness as a rhetorical device to demonize kitsch objects and champion avant-garde art. This practice led to the debasement of female artists/craftspeople and the women who collected their work.
Despite—and perhaps because of—the history of kitsch, Toronto loves the term. “I don’t happen to think of kitsch as being a dirty word,” she said. “I think it should be celebrated and revered.” She goes on to exalt the kitschy objects she admires, from “doilies, granny squares, and novelty teapots” to “vinyl furniture covers and crochet toilet roll covers.” There is an abundance of such objects in Parlour, which features an array of lace doilies draped over a crimson sofa and a number of whimsical figurines perched on a round table. The inclusion of such kitsch details lends Toronto’s photographs a sense of intimacy that communicates the artist’s comfort in these scenes.
In embracing kitsch, Toronto is part of a generation of artists—often women and/or LGBTQ+ —who are reclaiming a style once used to debase their identities. It’s hard to ignore the gendered history of the term when consuming the artist’s sexually-charged images. After all, she situates submissive figures within historical domestic spaces, which naturally suggests a link between sexual submission and gender hierarchies in the twentieth century. Considering this history is an element of experiencing Toronto’s work, but the artist’s assertion of her agency—communicated through her intimate tableaus—takes center stage.
The history of kitsch is also the history of porcelain, a material that has been connoted with both masculinity and femininity throughout history. Because it signaled wealth, power, and intellect, porcelain was gendered masculine in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries in Western Europe. Sensing the material’s political significance, French court women amassed their own collections, thus refashioning themselves as connoisseurs of court taste and key players in the trade. However, following the French Revolution, the material came to be associated with the materialistic whims of Marie Antoinette and thus fell out of fashion. It’s not surprising that nineteenth-century critics castigated porcelain as feminine, excessive and materialistic, as this rhetoric drew upon existing cultural norms that tied immorality and femininity.
This pattern repeated itself at the turn-of-the-century when many female artists crafted whimsical figurines and charming tableware from porcelain and other cheap substitutes. The masculine cultural elite regarded such goods with disdain, as their predecessors had in the courts of Britain and France.
Given the gendered history of porcelain, it is notable that Toronto has superimposed her photographs onto a number of ceramic plates. Meatmaid Plate is decorated with dainty pink flowers that encircle a photograph of Miss Meatface and her leashed latex pet. The work toys with dominance/submission and masculinity/femininity— themes that are common in Toronto’s practice—but it gains deeper significance by representing such themes on the surface of one of the most gendered materials in history. Sexuality, like porcelain, is marked by a history of power hierarchies that depend on a binary understanding of gender. By fusing the two, Toronto references the past in order to shed light on the present.
In addition to photographic and ceramic work, Miss Meatface will feature a limited-edition zine produced and signed by Toronto. The zine, entitled Prurient Apparitions, is printed on silk 170 paper and is sold within a hand-sewn slipcover. Asked about her motivation for incorporating zines into her practice, the artist cites her childhood exposure to the format. “As a child of the 90s zines were a huge part of my high school experience,” Toronto explains. “They were an amazingly cheap and effective way of getting the word out about subjects and interests that were important to us and helped to share information in a pre-internet world.” Although the internet has simplified methods of communication, fine art remains an elusive realm to many and collecting is not financially viable to all. Zines enable more people to collect Toronto’s work, and the portable format of the zine allows the artist’s work to travel with her new collectors and be seen by infinitely more curious viewers.
Prurient Apparitions is emblematic of Toronto’s other work, as it fuses vintage and fetish iconography on a single plane. But what makes this zine particularly intriguing is the seamless blend of contemporary fetish and Victorian iconography within its twenty-four pages. While anachronistic juxtaposition is at the heart of Toronto’s ceramic work, Prurient Apparitions succeeds in its unexpected harmony.
The page Tip Toe situates a polaroid shot of black latex bondage heels within an oval frame. The old-fashioned layout resembles an old scrapbook, with its burgeoning white flowers and the delicately-rendered garden scene peeking out from the top-left corner of the photograph. And yet, the contrast between the shiny black shoes and the frilly femininity of the flowers does not register as dichotomous. Perhaps this is because the artist senses the eroticism lurking beneath the flora in Victorian visual culture.
Toronto describes the Victorian Period as the epitome of sexual repression and rigid gender roles—and the plethora of Victorian pornography confirms this point. “It only seemed appropriate to place my images within Victorian album pages,” the artist says. “When you are flipping through the pages of the zine it feels like you are taking a naughty peek back into a secret Victorian photo album.”
She explains how the repressive atmosphere of the period can be felt in certain Victorian motifs, notably, the orchid. Toronto quotes John Ruskin, the lauded Victorian art critic, to elucidate the significance of the white flower. Ruskin, she says, frequently voiced his disdain for orchids due to their cultural eroticization. The presence of the white flower, therefore, imbues the pages of Prurient Apparitions with a strong sexual charge. Toronto goes on to say that the orchid is a metaphor for her own sexuality, which she feels is instinctive and deeply erotic but often fetishized and objectified by society. The artist and the orchid are similarly stigmatized due to their eroticism, which explains why Toronto’s fetishistic imagery blends so easily into the pages of a Victorian book.
Miss Meatface opens Tuesday, July 2 at The Untitled Space. Please note that the gallery will be closed for the holidays July 3-7, and will re-open on July 8. Miss Meatface will then be on view through the 13th.