Thursday, August 6, 2009

Allyson Mitchell: Ladies Sasquatch, REVIEWED by Noni Brynjolson

Do Sasquatches really exist? Are there actually ape-like beasts lurking in forests, occasionally sighted but always escaping scientific discovery? Or do they belong in the space of myth, folklore, religion, popular culture? Linda Nochlin asked “Why have there been no great women artists?” It could be said that Allyson Mitchell’s current exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery revolves around the question, “Why have there been no women Sasquatches?” Mitchell’s show features a cast of lesbian feminist monsters. Attractive, yet intimidating, their presence loudly declares an intrusion of different (scary, to some) voices into public discourse. 

To visit the Sasquatches, one has to pass by several different areas. In Canada on Canvas, one might spot numerous Masterworks by the Group of Seven. Next is Four Centuries of Silver, a beautiful show of gleaming, delicately crafted objects. Ladies Sasquatch is tucked away in a small corner gallery, much like a cave. The juxtaposition between the fine silver and the Sasquatch room is quite amusing - especially because the first thing that greets you is a pink, fuzzy, stuck-up Sasquatch bum. Mitchell was certainly aware of the way this placement would bring up questions surrounding gender, material, and craft-making - not to mention gallery politics and the clashing of histories and disciplines within a large institution such as the WAG.

Image Credit: Winnipeg Art Gallery, Installation view, 2009

The female monsters Mitchell creates are made of taxidermy fur, kitschy bathroom mats, afghans and other discarded domestic materials. They are simultaneously hideous and sexy; monstrous and feminine. They are also hand-built, crafted, embroidered and dressed up by Mitchell. Each one has a wig (arranged by Mitchell in “classic lesbian” styles), some have tattoos, and all unashamedly flaunt their furry sexual parts. The figures dominate the gallery space, appearing to be deeply engaged in conversation around a campfire which casts menacing shadows on the surrounding walls. 

The creatures were inspired by Mitchell’s vision of radical feminism. Mitchell, who has a PhD in women’s studies, coined the term Deep Lez to refer to her personal philosophy, which “acknowledge[s] the urgent need to develop inclusive liberatory feminisms while examining the strategic benefits of maintaining some components of a radical lesbian theory and practice.” Mitchell was inspired by visiting the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, an event completely organized and run by women. Watching them work together, free from a society in which many felt powerless and unaccepted, Mitchell was moved to create an homage to their strength and solidarity. 

At a discussion at the WAG that accompanied the exhibition, the existence of Sasquatches was brought up. Joining Mitchell were two Aborginal women: Lynnel Sinclair, a Sasquatch researcher, talked about the numerous sightings she had had in the Manitoba wilderness, while artist Melissa Wastasecoot discussed the role of the Sasquatch within Aboriginal spiritual traditions. The talk brought a new dimension to Mitchell’s work, one based on systems of knowledge, power and belief. While I will forever remain a skeptic about entities that lack convincing documentation (Sasquatches, God, Aliens, etc.), it was still intriguing to hear stories of Sasquatches placed within cultural and spiritual contexts.  

Both Sasquatches and lesbian feminists have eluded scientific classification - neither fit neatly into rational, western (historically masculine) systems of knowledge, but instead belong to different, and marginalized, discourses. Mitchell’s Sasquatches appeal to one’s sense of play. The inclusion of a soundtrack makes it seem like you are entering a bonfire party at a girl’s camp. But they are not toys, they have sharp teeth and an intimidating presence. You can enter their circle, but you’ll have to check your disbelief at the door if you want to join the conversation. 

-N.B. Winnipeg

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