Yesterday I got the best present in the mail. I received the page proofs of my book, Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes, and they are gorgeous.
I love what the designers at the University of Minnesota Press have done with the luscious botanical and garden images, including a wonderful mash-up of Mary Delany botanical illustrations for the chapter headings—a kind of collage of collages. In celebration of this next-to-last stage, I thought I’d share a short excerpt from the book’s conclusion. The conclusion is called “The Persistence of Lesbian Genres: A Circuit Garden,” and it’s a rapid tour through some of the 19th, 20th, and 21st century writers and artists working in the “sister arts” tradition of women’s landscape genres started by Mary Delany, the Duchess of Portland, Anna Seward and Sarah Pierce, the 18th-century figures I discuss in the main chapters of the book. Here’s part of my discussion of Toronto artist Allyson Mitchell, along with some yummy images of her iconic installation piece, The Ladies Sasquatch. One of the things I love about this part of the book is that I get to quote my friend and colleague Ann Cvetkovich, who first introduced me to Mitchell’s work and is one of its most astute and loving critics.
Oh, and by the way, if you want to pre-order my book (and get the footnotes to the quotations below, which I deleted in this blog format), go to: www.upress.umn.edu
“Mitchell’s series “The Ladies Sasquatch,” which the artist has been making since 2005, consists of female sasquatch figures on a heroic scale installed in a wilderness landscape feminized and domesticated through materials: the figures are rendered in fun fur, and the hills, rocks and trees they ramble are created from “found fabrics, needlepoint, rug hookings and carpet samples, to make rocks and hills and logs.”
Invoking the historical complexities of landscape politics in Canada, Mitchell acknowledges the provenance of this imagery in “Aboriginal tales about the Sasquatch, 'Wild Man of the Forest' or Big Foot (as he is referred to in the US)” which “have been appropriated by the white Canadian mainstream - arguably an expression of the racist fears around the "otherness" of native culture - and by default - nature in general.” The setting alludes both to a canonically pastoral “wild forest glen” and to “the bush,” that definitively Canadian location “outside what is formally understood as the city-state.” (Mitchell’s work also potentially puns on “the bush” as an affectionate term for women’s pubic hair.) As critic Ann Cvetkovich describes the work, Mitchell merges “Canadian wildlife myth with the tradition of feminist counterheroines,” taking “the stuffed animal of both natural history diorama and childhood toys” to a colossal scale. Averaging more than nine feet tall, the sculptures are fur-covered and feminine, with prominent vulvas and pubic hair, breasts and nipples, and underarm hair. “Lady Sasquatch is your dream girl,” reads the artist’s statement for a 2005 exhibition, “only bigger and hairier, and she may just eat you if you don’t watch out.” In a 2009 lecture, Mitchell said that she wants to engage viewers’ potential discomfort with women’s hairiness in these images of wild but somehow approachable female sexuality. The contrast in tone between the fun-fur fabric and long eyelashes of the figures, and their often menacing poses and great size, make them both alluring and repulsive, depending on the viewer’s relationship to female sexuality.
For the figure entitled “Oxana,” Mitchell draws especial attention to the figure’s buttocks and vulva--Cvetkovich calls the butt “especially important” in this work--by creating a highly-colored collage of fur reminiscent of a mandrill’s hind end. “You want nature? I'll give you nature!” One visual model Mitchell drew upon for creating Oxana’s butt is Georgia O’Keeffe. Mitchell alludes to O’Keeffe again in a mirrored red and pink rose in the hooked rug covering the base of the sculpture, just below the vulva. Mitchell says she is interested in how the figure’s haunches and vulva can be read as a flower, but also as anatomical--a key convention in the sister arts tradition.
Importantly, however, the figures are not exhibited alone. Rather, they are installed in relation to one another, “in a gathering, as though they’ve come together in some sort of clutch, or meeting, or who knows, maybe even a sacrifice.” In intentional contrast to the canonical Sasquatch myth, in which the creature is always pictured as male and alone, this is a community of powerful female figures gathering for their own mysterious purposes. The female bodies created here are specifically queer or lesbian bodies. For example, Maxie is “an homage” to Mitchell’s friend, the fat activist Max Airborne. The large back, small buttocks and short legs are meant to evoke a specific, recognizable type of woman’s body often seen among lesbians, which Mitchell calls “the refrigerator back.” In her evocation of female bodies rarely seen in canonical art history, Mitchell marries the myth of sasquatch wildness to “the mythology of lesbian culture…something like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, five thousand lesbians running around naked in the woods and all of the mythology surrounding that kind of a space.” Cvetkovich notices in the work “a queer erotics…one that lends itself to new worlds that enable different kinds of feelings.” Referring explicitly to both previous practitioners in the sister arts tradition and contemporary queer and lesbian communities, Mitchell calls Ladies Sasquatch “a lesbian feminist storybook garden.””