When I see an Angela Grossmann collage, I think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her figures, like the monster, are constructed in secret, with an ambiguous mix of discarded materials vivisected, beheaded and forged together. The act of creation seems at once a fit of raw desperation and a calculating surgical procedure seaming together our past and present cultural fixations to hint at possible futures.
The new collages for Grossmann’s solo show “The Future is Female” at Winsor Gallery are, as always, assemblages of discarded material Grossmann has collected for the last few decades. Here, these disparate lost-and-found parts are reanimated into solitary female forms.
In some collages, women appear to be in the midst of rigging themselves into or stripping off feminine armour. In Black Bra, Blue Background, a pin-up glamorous blonde, her expression lost in thought, kneels with her arms awkwardly reaching behind her back. Maybe she’s hooking or unhooking her bra, but it looks like she’s struggling to release bound arms. Girl Leaning has bare breasts and a man’s hairy, muscular forearm reaching down below what looks like a bunched-up girdle, as if to clasp or unhook a garter belt to her black stockinged leg. Some females are completely nude, appearing sun-drenched, en plein air. Ancient Girl’s body is made from an image of an armless, headless Greco-Roman sculpture, but Grossmann has given her a head, of a modern girl with sunlit, windblown hair, her sideways gaze frowning at something nearby, or is she squinting from the sun? What’s going on here? Is she still immobile and vulnerable to some unseen threat or has she been given legs to flee and finally enjoy some privacy?
The majority of Grossmann’s figures, including the oil paintings, are turned away from the viewer, are seen from behind or walking away, so we can steal a glance or drink them in. Of course, here in the gallery, it’s our job to look, stare at and discuss these objects, yet Grossmann has purposely constructed her females at intimate moments or moments of unselfconsciousness, which heightens the push-pull between the observer and the observed.
It seems that at any moment, these girls and women will turn and spot me looking at them, so that we’ll all have to revert to our public personas and the moment will be lost.
“It’s very much about flesh and behaviour and the way women come to terms with being watched,” said Grossmann when I visited her studio a few months before the show opening. “That’s why I look for the moments that are fleeting, when we’re least aware of being looked at.
“But from a very young age, girls are looked at, scrutinized, captured on film, judged by cultural standards. How do we absorb and represent these standards and where did they come from? How do we form identity with all these codes of behaviour expected from us? There are certain gestures—that are so beautiful, so extraordinary, that have always been appealing. I’m not looking for something overtly erotic or titillating, but poignant, like a broken zipper or a hideous bra, the fashions we try on, the vulnerable moments without pretense.”
Grossmann acknowledged the mad scientist element to constructing her composites from found materials she’s archived for decades.
“I hunt and collect these images. I’m drawn to things that have been lost in a box full of crap. I guess you could say I find them and bring them back to life. I become obsessed by what I can conjure up. The act of digging for these materials and then ripping and tearing them apart and gluing them back together then scraping, painting and drawing on them to make something that’s mine.
“They have to become mine,” she continues. “I can’t make a picture of someone who already exists. There’s a moment that I know I’m after, a character that I’ve never seen before. They come out in a blue mess or a pink fluff. But it’s a loving operation. I’m not doing it to ridicule, to exploit, to be cruel. They’re in good hands. I’m trying to say that even when we’re trying to be something else, it’s what we’re not trying to be that’s actually so exquisite. We don’t know it at the time. We can’t know it. If we did, it wouldn’t be exquisite.”
The negotiation of public and private identity is tenuous and weighty—it’s heavy stuff being female, and it’s ideal Grossmann terrain. (The title of the show was inspired by a button she found at a flea market in the 1980s, as a young painter at Emily Carr, in a club of star painters featured in “The Young Romantics,” a 1985 Vancouver Art Gallery show.)
Yet Grossmann resists didacticism and these new figurations are more minimalist than many of her earlier works. I think the paring down of material and context allows an even greater sense of intimacy and meditation. There’s space here to breathe and daydream and celebrate the inner lives of girls and women, and Grossmann’s choice of material conveys a lightness of being and a vitality of strength and liberation that defies homogenous political constructs.
Of course, in the confines of the gallery, you have to think of art-world notions of value, rarity and especially beauty—a loaded word in the art world. There’s so much historic baggage around the female form, particularly in painting and sculpture; and now, perhaps more than ever, it’s such a luxury and a treat to look at well-executed figurative paintings.
The oil paintings in “The Future is Female” are done in shades of vibrant or fleshy pinks, blues and browns, executed on antique piano rolls, pages from old books about flowers and plain white paper. Many are elongated minimalist silhouettes, turned away from us, denying their faces, except for the woman in Blue Sheets who gazes at the viewer with intense, haunting dark eyes, her body a long, sinewy jumble of raw strokes, stabs, wipes and drips of flesh-toned paint. She seems to have materialized out of the blue mess to possess us, but you feel she’s already in the midst of metamorphosis, or dematerializing altogether.