Angela Grossmann’s Doll Hospital
By DANIELLE EGAN, APR. 2015
This girl is assembled from doll hair, faded, stained, yellow doll underwear and various body parts taken from vintage black and white photos of amateur erotica. She kneels on a white ottoman, arms contorted like a 1950s pin-up in the act of removing a bra, her lips inexpertly drawn with dark lipstick that stains her bared teeth. Her face mugs, too eager to please her audience, which is represented by looming shadows, or maybe it’s her reflection in a mirror. Her eyes seem to fix upon and chase after an arousing and mysterious, yet alien near-future. On the surrounding walls at Vancouver's Marion Scott Gallery, are 21 additional collages by artist Angela Grossmann, her new solo show “Models of Resistance,” all of which feature Grossmann’s collection of found material and reclaimed castoffs, including doll clothing, human hair, and vintage photos of dolls, puppets, erotica and war soldiers.
These assemblages, made from incongruous parts glued, taped and stitched together, might provide clues to that girl’s future: a clown-faced girl with a resigned expression, pendulous breasts, too many arms and an argyle-socked puppet leg; a fashionable waif propped up by puppet strings and big, grabby sausage hands; a topless woman with a doll’s head, giant breasts and anorexic arms, also fixed to puppet strings, nursing a porcelain baby doll; a bold, smirking woman with a prosthetic arm gripping an accordion file, an impressive tuft of pubic hair exposed, her stomach peppered with tack holes, from being pinned up on so many walls. These Barbie Doll-sized figures strike various poses, or are captured unaware in the midst of dressing up or down, all literally poised on thresholds—doorways, stairwells, stage curtains, disparate places. They seem to have such strange and exotic private lives, yet the puppet prosthetics and strings, the fragile doll clothing and the vintage photographic material combine to put them in a state of suspended animation, caught in space and time, fixed to the white gallery walls. Whose pleasure are they here to serve? And who’s holding the strings and the key to their release?
When I first start discussing “Models of Resistance” with Grossmann just prior to the show’s opening, she acknowledged that her decision to combine vintage erotica with puppet and doll parts for “Models of Resistance” has been decades in the making. But she’s been playing with paper dolls since she can remember. Born in London, the youngest of four children to card-carrying Communist artists—her mother a glamorous, political activist, her father a Holocaust orphan—her family immigrated to Canada in the early ‘70s, when Grossmann was a teen. While attending Emily Carr in the mid-1980s, she garnered early attention and acclaim for her lush, bold figurative paintings. In an era dominated by conceptual art, she cofounded a collective with four other student painters—Graham Gillmore, Derek Root, Attila Richard Lukacs—called “The Young Romantics,” a nod to the Romantic movement of the 19th century, an era dominated by Neoclassicism. (Grossmann’s collective also included self-described ‘fifth Beatle’ Doug Coupland.)
Grossmann’s capabilities as a figurative painter launched her international career and she moved from Vancouver to Paris where she was drawn to the flea markets, and vintage shops and started collecting vintage photographs, postcards, stamps and a hodgepodge of ephemera and objects bearing a strong and often haunting narrative, ranging from military pup tents, to the suitcases of war orphans, the insides of which she used as canvases for paintings. Like the magpie that collects discarded treasures for its nest, Grossmann increasingly began to incorporate her reclaimed materials into her figurative paintings. The driving theme of her works increasingly focused on cultural displacement, loss and transformative states, from the lost freedom of petty criminals (culled from a large collection of discarded prisoners’ files that she found in a thrift store, the mugshots of which she turned into elegantly dressed mixed media portraits), to the transition from childhood to puberty. In 2006, Grossmann was included among the top 100 artists of influence in an Art Newspaper poll of art school students at 11 schools in the UK, yet her mixed media figurations have relied less and less on paint as the uniting force, and more so on the visceral act of reassembling her reclaimed materials. Her collages bear the marks of the artist’s deft, bold hand with the calculated use of glue, tape, pins and string, and by the act of ripping, slicing, scraping and stitching together, all of which heightens the drama and tension, as if each of her figures has been surgically brought back to life.
Grossmann’s choice of puppet and doll parts provides loads of loaded material and they’re ideal ciphers to project her ideas about the transition from childhood to an uncertain future. It’s also ideal terrain for her to explore and advance her meditations on the human body, and specifically, the female form, starting with our earliest encounters with inanimate playthings that are adored, objectified for better and worse, and eventually discarded. By reclaiming them, alongside the also discarded vintage photographs, Grossmann provides her figures with an alternate life, and offers us an alternative to conventional artworld connoisseurship, and she also seems to reject the social contract to put away childish things, literally and figuratively redressing the body politic of the female form, in culture, in figurative art and in the intimate lives of women. But since Grossmann lives and works in my neighbourhood, I can go direct to the source to interrogate and fact check. The following is a compilation of interviews done before, during and soon after the opening of her show.
Danielle Egan: For “Models of Resistance” you chose to focus on your collection of found vintage black and white photos of amateur erotica from the 1940s and ‘50s. Tell me more about these photos and why you chose them for your new collages?
Angela Grossman: The women as far as I can gather, took off their clothes in grotty motel rooms—I assume for not much money; many have the look of desperation. They’re not commercial models, not classic models of beauty. I look for pictures where the flesh seems less in control, where the world unravels and goes wrong: a provocative picture of a woman revealing her flat chest, or unruly flesh spilling over a tight piece of elastic. They are far from erotic, but very endearing. I look for the humanity—the real person that shows through the mask. And you get a real sense that they are being told what to do, ‘Look this way or that.’ They are aiming to please. This is what makes them poignant; I find them heartbreaking. I look for these kind of photos constantly, but I find few. I figure I’m doing this stuff to give them a voice, a new picture to talk back to a shitty life.
DE: These women were initially exploited and commodified for private or semi-private consumption. It could be argued that you are exploiting them all over again by turning them into art objects to be looked at and scrutinized in the public domain.
AG: I’m trying to shatter the space between the public and private and also talk about gender as performance. But for me it goes much deeper than that. I felt like I owed these women something better than they had. Are we stealing something of them when we re-present them? Some cultures think we do. That if we steal something essential about them, then we can't actually claim them for ourselves. That's why I assemble new images. With my criminals [mixed media portraits of prisoner mugshots], I very much felt I was transgressing, so I devised methods to disguise them, which very much became part of an eccentric process that’s now just part of what I do and has resulted 25 years later with this work. It’s now so convoluted and personal to me. I never want to feel I’m using these photos in an unconscionable way. I’m trying to establish a road map for myself. I love all of my subjects and feel very connected to them. If I feel everything I’m doing is perfectly OK, I don’t think it’s exploitative. If I have a question about it, it’s usually because I feel it’s not quite right, it’s too specific. I can’t use them as a tool to open the can. If I’m not trying to be didactic in any way, that’s healthier for me.
DE: Tell me more about the process of making these images?
AG: I’m drawn to things that have been used as something else. I have to find them by chance. It has to be out of my hands in a way. I am possessed by my characters, by what I can create. I go to my studio and put up a sheet and conjure up somebody that I’ve never seen before. Everything in my studio becomes fair game: vintage photos of soldiers from the first and second wars, ribbon, scraps of canvas, hair. It becomes a drawing in a sense, using tools as a sort of pencil—tape, glue, a push-pin to scrape and scratch off parts I don’t like. The nature of collage is to find, dig, rip, tear, juxtapose and contrast with scale and tone.
The people in the vintage photos actually exist, so I have to rip them apart and put them back together to make something that’s mine. They have to be mine. I can’t make a picture of someone who already exists. I have to create them. I find that process much more intense than painting. They exhaust me. I’ll remember a texture or a leg that inspires me, or a gesture from something I found years ago and I’m always thinking, ‘There was that striped bit of paper that had a flower on it. Where is it?’ I’ll hunt for that material and I’m very obsessive. I won’t stop until I find it. It’s exhausting to conjure them up. But I don’t have a lot of choice. They’re directing me and telling me, ‘This isn’t good enough, it can’t be allowed.’ I’ll go on the hunt again. I’m always on the hunt. And I feel this [“Models of Resistance” project] was waiting to happen to me for a long time. I’m trying to empower these women again. They’re no longer compliant models in cheap motel rooms. They say, ‘I’m not afraid of my own flesh.’
DE: Your collages tend to mix up male and female body parts. But this is the first time you’ve used imagery and material from dolls and puppets, which are cyphers—ideal objects for us to project our ideas and also our fantasies. Dolls are the first objects that girls adore, nurture, covet, manipulate, role-play with, objectify and eventually abandon. Yet girls soon find themselves negotiating a similar real world dilemma as objects of desire, and objects of derision, which seems like a cruel paradox. Can you talk about your early encounters with dolls and also why you chose to include doll ephemera and puppet parts into “Models”?
AG: I do remember always wanting and loving dolls. I got as many as I could, mostly by skullduggery; there wasn't much money around. If I got a doll it was from my grandmother, but unfortunately they were the pudgy baby doll types rather than the Barbie type I lusted after. (I gave them all my dolls French names for some reason.) I grew up on a council estate in London, and it was the political headquarters for the Lefties in the neighborhood; people were constantly coming and going, holding meeting, planning demonstrations, painting posters; there was lots of singing of protest songs—I still know all the words. I was the youngest of four siblings—we pretty well brought ourselves up. I was arrested for the first time at six with my mother, who had chained herself to Buckingham Palace. I recall spending a lot of time marching, carrying signs with skulls on them, sleeping in tents. I remember the kitchen the best. My mum would often sit with her feet in the oven reading poetry (mostly Russian); there was always porridge though, and she made me laugh out loud daily.
I have an early traumatic doll memory that might help explain everything. We had a coal fire in the living room. I left my doll on top of the fire grate and went upstairs to help my mother make the beds. When we came downstairs my doll was a puddle, all that was left was a knob of blonde hair stuck in the grate. I was an over sensitive child prone to fainting from stress.
As an artist I’ve been moving towards using dolls for a long time. I have had lots of dolls in various degrees of decay in my studio for ages—mostly doll parts to be exact. I have a bag of vintage doll molds for heads. Besides all the reasons you mention, they have a lot of power. First they reference time and history, including the time they spent with a child, being handled, so materially, they are very potent. Some of the clothing is intricate, miniature haute couture, which is very much part of the appeal to children, as their first experience with fashion. And by extension how they might appear and appeal to others. It’s our first encounter with seeing a body through the eyes of others. We dress them and undress them to make them look the way we want ourselves to look and behave. It's said, ‘We are bodies and we have bodies’; playing with dolls would be an early understanding of the ‘We have bodies’ part. I got a lot of comments that this work is 'creepy'—well I'm not sure I agree. I think they are if anything, funny, in a good, charming, witty way. But maybe I have a dark sense of humor. I have seen people weep in front of my work, and that’s confusing because I live with them and they don’t seem tragic to me.
Sometimes I'm embarrassed by my own work. If I'm really embarrassed I know I'm on to something. But if I have the impulse, whose to stop me but me? I like psychological drama. My poet friend Miranda says that I put the neuroticism into eroticism. I do acknowledge that they come dangerously close to provocative. What is the provocation? I don't know. I'm not sure where exactly the danger lies, but a body that does not conform is an object of scorn or derision. Showing a body in an uncomfortable way leaves it open to condemnation. I needed to come to terms with the act of looking that is self-effacing or disruptive. Every moment of our lives, girls and women are always aware of being looked at, photographed or being captured somehow for future reference. I think that's where the discomfort lies. We’re often derisive and judgmental about they way others appear to us. The associations and prejudice based on style and codes of dress that we easily translate into character, class, education—heaps and heaps of socialization teach us these associations. We associate the way we look with who we are and it’s very codified. The puppet motif is about lack of control and the manipulation we are, or are not, in control of, or aware of.
DE: That helps explain why much of your work is concerned with coming-of-age themes. What was puberty like for you?
AG: I had large breasts at a young age and it was horrendous, very upsetting. I didn’t want to grow up because it didn’t seem like it’d be good. I was the baby of the family and I wanted to remain a baby. But suddenly, you stick out, you become ungainly, you feel unattractive, betrayed; something awful has happened to you and you’re going to have to deal with it forever. It’s a very fraught time. That’s when you’re the most vulnerable, you’re clutching at straws because of this new identity. Do I put on a sack so nobody will notice? Or do I accentuate it? What’s the right thing to do? You’re presented with all these questions, all these choices and you realize it’s life or death and there’s no one taking you aside telling you anything; no one wants to go near it really. That’s why role models are so important and if we don’t figure out the whole thing, how can we explain it to another generation? To me, the figures that I make speak to a whole lifetime of unease, hidden desires and self-recrimination. But I'm not dictating a way to be or not be.
DE: You’re drawn to lost and discarded object and your figurations mix up body parts, and include human hair, so it’s impossible to avoid linking your métier with your family link to the Holocaust. Did your father talk about what happened to his family during the Holocaust?
AG: He never talked about it at all, but it was more than made up for by my mother who never stopped talking about it. My father escaped to England [on a Kindertransport], but he lost everyone. My father's family owned a large shop on the main shopping street of Dusseldorf that specialized in fine bedding and linens. They were forced to sign it over to the Aryan manager before they were sent to the camps and murdered. Coincidentally the shop, now one of the most fashionable shops in Dusseldorf, just celebrated its 75th anniversary with grand aplomb. Trouble is, it had been 75 years since the store was signed over, but it’s actually 150 years old. The newspapers had a field day with that, basically calling them arseholes. It's all a bit horrid. I try to put that on the back burner. I don't think I want [my] victims and those victims mixed up.
DE: Doll and puppet parts could also be seen as props that objectify and distance us from the subjects. Many of your figures look like the walking wounded, and are in puppet harnesses, or the strings are dangling above, like a hangman’s noose. And they’re often poised on thresholds so that it seems as if they’ll be strangled by an unseen puppet master if they try to make a single move.
AG: But in this case, I am at the controls. I’m the puppet master. I’m willing to let them go.
DE: Oh, that changes everything! Now I understand that puppet strings aren’t representative of a sinister figure of authority and domination. You’ve provided an alternate view and a figurative and literal lightening of the load. These are your dolls. Your studio is a sort of doll hospital and the gallery is your dollhouse. You’ve invited us inside to share and play with them, under your watchful eye! Now I can see you peering down on them, holding the strings that allow them to dance and move. I get a sense of your enchantment and delight.
AG: Yes, that’s why I made of point of making them small, the size of a doll in a box.
DE: “Models” is also a glimpse into a sort of fantastical private life of inanimate objects. And it also seems to challenge the cultural obligation to ‘Put away childhood things.’ For the majority of people, this is a necessary function of growing up, and our culture tends to look down on, and even pathologize people that can’t or won’t do so. (I.e. ventriloquists, doll collectors, magicians.) But artists are permitted and even encouraged to spend their lives cultivating relationships with inanimate objects and imaginary friends.
AG: As an artist you spend so much time alone, to invent people isn’t unusual. Your characters stand in for things, for you, there’s no way you can rationalize the fact that the day goes by and your spent it entirely alone. It doesn’t make sense, but I love it. I’ll invent a family of sorts for myself. They have a life. You want them to have a life with people. You want them to be seen. You want people to engage with them, have a conversation about them. That interests me. Sometimes I say goodnight as I leave the studio. WM
Danielle Egan is a Vancouver-based writer and journalist whose work has been published in many titles, including New Scientist, Canadian Art, Joyland and The Journey Prize Stories. http://www.danielleegan.comview all articles from this author