By Moira Hayes
Vulnerability of the self is created in how we choose to take up space. How do we present ourselves to others? What choices are we making to allow space for others? And more presently, what space are we holding for ourselves?
Soft Bodies was exhibited from March 11th through to April 4th at Wall Space Gallery in Ottawa. Marianne Burlew and Brianna Gluszak were paired together by the gallery’s curator, Tiffany April, to deliver an exhibition hinged on the idea of vulnerability.
Burlew is based in Ottawa. She draws from a background of video and sculpture to create her current work; emotionally driven pieces in a 3D modelling software. While her work is direct, the colourful imagery offers multiple interpretations for the viewer; striking questions about seriousness versus sarcasm. Burlew received her MFA from the University of Waterloo.
Gluszak is Ohio-based. They work in sculpture to create glasswork and textile rug hooking, addressing ideas of gender and body. Gluszak draws inspiration from cartoons and how viewing one another can become gendered. The varying scale of their work between the textile pieces and the glass work impose different connotations for the viewer. Gluszak has an MFA from The Ohio State University.
Marianne, you work with digital 3D modelling software, and working digitally makes things accessible. The feelings you point at in your work, patheticness or being a fool, are universal emotions. Can you speak to using digital software to express human emotions?
MB: My background is in sculpture and video. One of the biggest obstacles I was having was getting my work into a space due to budget, facilities, distance, and accessibility. In my current job at an engineering company, I weaseled my way into learning this modelling software.
I just fell in love with the software, and I saw it as an opportunity to make things that could reach a lot more people. You can make a print, put it on a screen, or put it on social media or different places a lot more easily.
I do feel hesitant in some ways to share work online publicly, just because it is easy to have your work taken. I’d love to have it on screens and more readily available on social media if I had a little bit more protection in that area.
I’ve also fallen in love with the print aspect of it. When it gets printed, there’s another transformation that’s amazing for me. That bright, vibrant, densely saturated paper with the colour, and how different parts of the work will be flat, and others will be three-dimensional is interesting to me.
Brianna, can you explain the process of composing the positions of your glass pieces? They kind of look like people playing Twister.
BG: I love that read. First off, I think one thing I do with the glass works, in particular, is that I’ll make a bunch of them. I don’t know which ones are going to go with which ones. So, it ends up being a process of almost creating a library of glass objects. I’ll have a period of making in the studio where I’ll be doing drawings, and then I’ll be going into the glass shop trying to make that original drawn form.
But the glass is like, “No, I don’t wanna be that form.” I’ll go back to drawing, I’ll draw the form it did become, and through that translation, we’ll build up a variety of different shapes and colours and textures and objects. And then I play with them in my studio, and I just see which ones fit together and which ones I like together.
And maybe I’m too much of an object oncologist where I’m like, okay, so this one wants to be with this one today, and this one wants to be with that one. They’ve sort of become personified in a lot of ways for me. I do see them as being a representation of gender and body.
Marianne, you face the unavoidable, uncanny imagery of worship in your pieces. But you derail that with a practiced absurdity. Can you discuss the process of choosing the keywords in your pieces?
MB: You’re right about worship. My family is Christian, but I didn’t grow up going to church. I’ve never read the Bible.
There’s a lot of Western influence in what I make and so I just try to play with it. I’m not necessarily trying to cite any kind of religion, but for this series, I was very interested in shrines or putting together devotional pieces where it’s almost more of a spiritual devotion where the piece sits as an architectural niche.
Sometimes there are other objects. Sometimes it’s just the glass itself creating these moments where you can sit with these things and meditate on them.
And for me, the word [aspect] of it seems essential. And choosing is hard to describe. It’s trying to capture things that are succinct and hard-hitting but don’t lean completely in one direction.
When I was making “pathetic,” I felt like it was harsh and I [thought] this might be too mean to just put pathetic in a window like that. You’re going to reflect that criticism of yourself. I feel like the colours were so nice then making it like that’s the twist, taking something so devastating and then trying to make it beautiful and fun.
I am interested in active looking and when a look becomes ingrained in gender.
Brianna, your rug work possesses an unavoidable gaze disguised as fun and playful. The sheer size of the work denotes power over the viewer, especially up close. Are you proposing a struggle between the work and the viewer? What did you aim to convey with the choice of scale? It feels like a staring contest between the viewer and this work.
BG: I think the scale has become kind of like a natural choice for that work. The rugs started during COVID when I got locked out of the studio, and was like, okay, let’s figure out a way to make things at home.
This particular series of rugs is about research that I’ve been doing on Tex Avery’s character Wolfy, from “Red Hot Riding Hood,” which is the first instance in cartooning where the eyes come out of a character’s head at the sight of a woman.
The version available on YouTube ends as Wolfy pulls Little Red Riding Hood off a stage after his eyes have shot out at her. But that’s not where the cartoon actually ends. From going into the cartoon archives, I found the other half of the cartoon.
Wolfy goes to grandma’s house and grandma oogle’s him back with AWOOGA eyes, and the wolf runs away. But what I thought was so interesting about the archive version versus the version that was available on YouTube is that role switch.
We always constantly think of the wolf’s eyes shooting out at Little Red Riding Hood, but we don’t really think about grandma. You know, how she sort of gets him back because she’s like, “oh, you’re sexy wolf. I’m gonna look at you that way.”
I am interested in active looking and when a look becomes ingrained in gender. When a look is perceived to be the male gaze or the female gaze and what things we like to note between that.
There is a conversation between the works about depth. Marianne’s work draws the viewer inward, holding space inside the pieces. Whereas Brianna’s work pushes into the viewer’s space, demanding room from the viewer. How do you find this lends to the overall idea of vulnerability in Soft Bodies?
BG: Some of the work stems from things that could be seen as vulnerable, but I am more interested in the opposite end of that word, and it being more explorative in an empowering way. Or in a way to have the viewer understand a different identity than they came in understanding.
For me, that kind of pushing out, and enveloping of the viewer, is about how to involve them in the work or have them gain a connection to it. The allowance of the viewer is to take as much or as little as they want of what I’m trying to get across.
And I do think that one of the interesting things about Marianne’s work is that you’re almost sucked into another world versus being present in this space.
MB: Brianna’s work is a lot more present in the space. Each piece is like its own body. And then mine is much more about an internal space or having space within them. But I think that push and pull can be great. I mean, vulnerability is just about rethinking or allowing yourself to be open to rethinking. I think Brianna’s talking about reaching into space being confrontational with the gaze and that engagement, whereas a lot of my inclination is to go smaller and deeper internally. I think the show has a good balance and a good variety to it because there are many different ways that you’re being reached out to, or you have to reach into.
And I don’t necessarily think we have to have done the same thing or have the same method to accomplish that. Vulnerability would just be like that shift of a boundary, right? Or that invitation to change your mind.