Circularity of (un)knowing: An exploration of embodied knowledge in untitled spaces
By Dana Snow
Circularity of (un)knowing: An exploration of embodied knowledge in untitled spaces ran from July 30th to August 16th at Mayten’s Projects, a tight gallery space in the bustling Niagara and King intersection of downtown Toronto. Opening weekend gallery goers mingled with Caribana attendees, a kaleidoscope of colour decorating the sidewalks of otherwise nondescript gray buildings. The exhibition faced an unexpected early close, leaving the particular heartbreak of losing precarious space in an expensive city that impacts emerging artists.
In Circularity of (un)knowing: An exploration of embodied knowledge in untitled spaces artists Claire Heidinger, mihyun maria kim, Natia Lemay, Par Nair, and Hau Pham refigure absence, cropping and abstracting women’s figures to relay an intimate sense of recognition. Featuring IBPOC women artists, the exhibition avoids the pitfalls of homogenizing “otherness.” Self-curated by participating artists, the exhibition acts as a call-in. What strength does refusal hold in an age of hypervisibility? I don’t have the answers to this question, but I keep revisiting the works to see if I can catch a glimpse of them between the obfuscations of the artists’ hands.
Claire Heidinger’s Pomelo is the first work to invite me into the gallery. Hanging directly beside the didactic text, the work appears as an offering into the gallery space. Waxy green leaves and bright yellow reds glimmer through the oil paint, settling into an ambiguous space between consumable and ornament. This becomes a familiar theme throughout the displayed works, echoing throughout Jade Celadon Peanuts, and Ginger with Red Patterning.
Jade Celadon Peanuts commemorates a casual moment of the artists’ grandfather snacking and monumentalizes a shared experience of ancestral migration. A ceramic ginger root, adorned with delicate floral stippling calms the senses in the same way a ginger tea might in Ginger with Red Patterning. A more insidious connection emerges in Miss Chinese Toronto Pageant. A large-scale oil painting commemorating “Miss Silken Hair,” the work renders the winner in a celebrity glow. Her smile is a dazzling white; her freshly manicured nails atop long slender fingers posed around a bouquet and glass award. The unforgiving crop of the painting right below the subject’s eyes leads me to a clumsy first reading: she too, is to be consumed. And this is the strength of the curation and the work itself. Heidinger works on the assumptions of a colonial gaze and holds back from a one-dimensional reading. Flora, the subject, displays a “hybridized connection to ‘homeland’ in North America” in her bilingual sash, golden dress, and winner’s stance.
In her essay Inscriptions of Truth to Size, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speaks to the impulse for anonymity when staging one’s ‘origins’: “You can’t have a true fit, just the approximate size, a hand me down for others who must stage the same collective origin as yourself.”¹ By rendering her subjects as complicated aesthetic symbols, Heidinger pushes the discomfort of the objectifying gaze, both daring and denying viewers to replace any of her works’ subjects with their sign.
Hau Pham’s and Heidinger’s works speak to one another in their conceptual approach to aesthetic veneer, placed in opposition to one another in the gallery space. In a conversation with the artist, I learn that her approach to painting is informed by her approach to makeup. “The most successful thing oil paint and makeup do is to make something beautiful.” In It’s hard work being the Best, Pham captures the opulence of Buddha in a golden statue lusciously rendered in veneered brushstrokes and surrounded by orchids. Unbeknownst to the viewer, the statue has been likely spray-painted to convey this opulence. Pham begins a painting from candid shots, “they’re not always good photos,” she laughs. Using paint as a beautifying substance, the artist opens a conversation around the value of beauty standards, and the joy, labour, and entrapping of femmes to imbue that value in themselves.
Compelled by her own experience and friendships with South East Asian and East Asian women, she documents items that offer a “false liberation” to the treatment of an individual. Online as a tween, Pham felt the influence of beauty vloggers like Bubzbeauty, and felt the trappings of choice feminism. She captures this viscerally in Trapping a younger version of Myself, a found object sculpture consisting of hundred-dollar bills, a loaded vape, and a set of thick false eyelashes. Each object stands in for an element of the Buddhist philosophy: “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Lashes weigh down lids, vapes keep mouths busy, and cash makes it easier to ignore weighty issues. In Fall of the French (manicure) Pham tediously renders the classic French mani in its tongue-in-cheek decay. Pham’s work places the gloss of beauty as a point of interest while denying the viewer a visible entry to the works’ true underbellies. Pham’s practice uses elements of beauty to draw the viewer in and then has them sit with feelings of what they may wish to cover up.
miyhun maria kim’s works use casting as a method of translation and obfuscation. Through the gallery entrance, one meets with your tongue goes your memory. These are hydrocal casts of faces with peacefully closed eyes, set atop hand-stitched cushions, mimicking traditional Korean headdresses. kim creates distance from the values of “duty, honour and performance” by rendering the faces in low contrast. The laborious process of creating the cushions points to the time spent processing these values.
Casting is a material method that echoes throughout many of kim’s works, from The Language of Man, a bronze cast of a bare foot pressed against a bare shoulder, installed with an Onngi and scratch paper, to 달과 말 the moon and words, a quiet and commanding installation near the gallery’s exit consisting of thirteen beeswax casts of German versions of the Korean moon jar, set atop hanji (traditional Korean mulberry paper). The artist took inspiration from their various situations in multiple geographic regions for this work, drawing from “perpetual outsider experience as a Korean diaspora.” Using a translated recognition of the moon jar in a Liepzig flea market, kim cast the form in Canadian beeswax, locating their work in three regions simultaneously. Ink and hanji amplify the experience of translation, using abstractions of texts in Chinese characters, further muddying questions of formation. By using cast as translation, the artist creates new material connections to a sense of place. 화병 Squeezed hearts features wrenching ceramics seated on bamboo cushions. The viewer can see the impact of the artist’s hands constricting the clay in the process of making. The works read as the same size as human hearts. Hwa-Byung (anger disease) is an illness that affects the heart as a result of “suppress[ing] anger resulting from family conflict, so as not to jeopardize harmonious family or social relationships.” By exemplifying this internal anger in an object, kim cements the language of translation in their work.
Par Nair’s Letters of Haunting consists of two sarees whispering to one another in the slight breeze, separated by a mound of turmeric. The works are hand embroidered, a meditation on homesickness at the height of the pandemic. Embroidery, Nair told me in a previous conversation, is an inherited skill. The work puts us in touch with the maternal labour that came before us. The artists’ mother feels present in the gallery – whether it be her smeared, reworked face and translated face in her passport photos in a mother series, or her sarees, longing for her body and hanging at a monumental scale. At the show, Par let me know exactly how precarious the installation was. One fan was blowing the wrong way and the gorgeous golden spice would leave marks on the sarees. I am left with an insight on grief from a dear friend: “Sometimes, it’s not that the person is out of your life. Sometimes it’s that you know they are there, and you can’t hold them.”
Always but never dreaming exits the viewer from the gallery with the first real presence of a full figure. Swathed in creamy brushstrokes of black, the work unveils the figure of the artist through a half-eclipsed face, forearms, and foot lounging outside the covers of an overstuffed chesterfield. As one shifts around the work, the details of dream catchers, hanging coats, and weave of the blanket make themselves apparent. Lemay begins each artwork as a surface, feeling for a moment in her life where she felt constrained in the same way the surface is. The colour field works act as a literal positionality – the artist describes later to me that each work speaks to feeling confined in a space at a developmental moment in her life. As a child, she couldn’t speak to why intersections such as Blackness, Indigeneity, and girlhood had an impact on the way she was seen, but she could feel why. Blackness functions as a language of ambivalence in the works.
In Visibly Invisible, a little girl looks toward the edge of the circular panel, body language tense and alert, with the beads in her hair gleaming out a fire engine red. Lemay iterates to me: “Beads and braids are a Black thing, but they’re also an Indigenous thing. Why do we read them in one way, versus the other? If you are looking at the painting and seeing it as a Black person, you’re not really seeing it.” In her seminal essay Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity Lorraine O’Grady suggests a “both: and” ism to approaching critical subjectivity in European-Western theory – meaning that a subject can step away from the essentializing binds of defining what subjecthood can be, take what works for them, and expand.² Lemay’s paintings “poke the bear” in experiential storytelling, demanding the viewer describe what they see, and let them sit with the assumptions they make on gender, race, and life experience.
Circularity of (un)knowing: An exploration of embodied knowledge in untitled spaces is a necessary unveiling. The works demand patience, challenging viewers’ preconceived notions of beauty, consumption, presence, and visibility. Acts of obscuring figures become porous markers for recognition. Those who are looking may find themselves in the spaces left unknown.
¹Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Inscriptions of Truth to Size. Catalogue essay, Dunlop Art Gallery, 1990.
²Lorraine O’Grady. Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity. AfterImage 20. No. 1 (Summer 1992).