by Colette Tougas
From July 19, 2016, to February 19, 2017, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts mounted an exhibition titled She Photographs, described in the press release as a “feminine echo” of the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at the museum in autumn 2016. More than simply an echo, this presentation of works by thirty female photographers, most of them Canadian, painted a strong and true portrait of more than a generation of artists (born between 1936 and 1982) in terms of subjects, concerns, and styles. Organized by Diane Charbonneau, curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and photography at the MMFA, the selection of some seventy images was divided into sections that conferred coherence on the exhibition as a whole. I freely identified these sections as landscape, still life, environment, portrait, self-portrait, self-fiction, performance, documentary, seriality, daily life, identity, and the sublime.
The oldest work in the show was Suzy Lake’s A Genuine Simulation of… no. 2 (1974); this piece offers a good example of performance-related art of the early 1970s, in which the artwork was based on a simple, repetitive approach – the reiteration of a motif, a gesture, an idea. Here, the point of departure is a “plain” black-and-white self-portrait, which is reprinted and “made up” in five ways to create five completely different expressions. Lake’s self-portraits were installed alongside an untitled self-portrait by Kiki Smith (1996), in which the artist appears with her torso nude and her face covered with what looks a clay mask that is similar to Lake’s second portrait – which refers to the neutral mime’s mask. On the same wall was a work by Janeita Eyre, Red Like Meat (2002), a double self-portrait that is disturbing both for its carnival-like makeup and for the subject evoked: a link between meat and human flesh. Also in this section were Shari Hatt’s nine headless self-portraits, Breast Wishes (1996), which gradually reveal, in a performative and serial deployment similar to Lake’s, the result of breast surgery. The subtext shared by these works is the notion of feminine identity, questioned visually through the mask and self-transformation, through criteria both personal and societal.
Nearby, a large diptych by Geneviève Cadieux, Ruby (1993), juxtaposes an enlargement of bright-red cancer cells and a tight framing of a woman’s nude back and grey hair. Aside from the confrontation between abstract-looking and figurative images, between a potentially devastating visual beauty and the body of a subject who may be suffering from the disease, the link created by the parallel placement of the two pictures encourages a reflection on the illusion and precariousness of beauty…
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