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I Fall to Pieces: Angela Grossmann’s Models of Resistance.

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

"Ginger" Collage 18" x 24"

Traditional poetry is built from a density of language that defies any immediate or linear interpretation. I will never forget the moment I first realized that a poem is not meant to be understood right away. What liberation! What a deep welcoming breath! I could luxuriate, come upon a saliency, a momentary key that would open up a trajectory, ride that for a while and then climb onto another.

The same applies to visual art. There must be a compounding and, especially in art that proclaims resistance, a vigilant surfacing of contradictions that have the abrasiveness to rub normalized expectations raw. There is no art without intrigue and there is no intrigue without density, cultural fodder to get our sensorial teeth into. And teeth are one of the many possible entry points through which one can begin to plumb the depths of Angela Grossmann’s Models of Resistance.

However, if one follows the path of the Twenty-First Century’s chronically short attention span of a two second glance per work of art, one may wonder: “What resistance?” We have to probe, allow ourselves to be tripped up and scratched by the chops and jolts of these irreverent little collages. The center will not hold because there is no center. Models of Resistance forbids stability and closure: each piece is an unruly slice that literally falls apart in front of our eyes.

"Black Hat" Collage 18" x 24"

These photo-based collages simultaneously reside within and defy the mythology of photography as a transparent representation of ‘the real.’ Despite the art world’s decades of subverting photography’s claim to objectivity, photography remains a key player in the maintenance of the dominant ideology. Being the most ubiquitous of visual signs, photographic images interpolate individuals in order to re-perpetuate what, in Luis Althusser's words, is “a process that escapes them.”[1]

By mixing the found photographs of real women with images of puppets, dolls, anonymous found photos of ordinary things, doll’s clothes, human hair, tape, glue, tar, and bits of fluff, Grossmann not only complicates the whole notion of the photograph as existing in a state of one-dimensional mimesis, she also, ironically, engorges the ‘photograph’ with vestiges from the material world that the work resists. The unassuming surfaces are brought to life as psychic topographies; the collages become the complexity of the women’s lived bodies. Such over-determined constructs give voice to the narratives that reside beneath the plane of their own representation. Paradoxically, by exacerbating the photograph’s absolute construct, Models of Resistance resists by being real.

Grossmann explained to me:

I use found anonymous photos from the 40s and 50s. I am very particular about the images. I find very few I want to use. They are mostly women in grotty motel rooms who take their clothes off for not much payment…. I cut these images up sometimes using very little of the original. I may only want a snippet, a stocking top or a bit of flesh protruding from a knicker elastic.

In “Trousers,” an androgynous arm grows out of a female forearm and has undone her fly. Decidedly feminine arms coquette with one hand on her hip while the other runs its fingers through her hair. However, the fingers of the possibly masculine-sleeved arm are tapered and, thereby, are not stereotypical signs of male aggression: through their feminine refinement, the possibility of drag presents itself. Who is taking off the trousers? Whose body is whose? Which gender is which? Within these complications of material shards, “Trousers” enacts a messy binary as it overlaps gender and smudges the boundary.

"Trousers" Collage 18" x 24"

Grossmann's reconstruction of the women in the photographs are a fusion of their past lives with her present one. Even though she defines her collages as ‘fiction’ and gives the women ‘alternate lives,’ she told me how she becomes “possessed by her characters” and, in the process of their creation, they take over her own life. As so eloquently expressed through Yan Martel’s rhetorical question, “that’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?” [2], artists select from the messy mass of the real and build shapes and narratives that become acute utterances. In the realm of the human psyche and of art, fiction is non-fiction and subjectivity, truth.

However, the penetrating truths generated through art are a threat to a society that maintains its hierarchy through the steadfast maintenance of distraction and deception. Roland Barthes sagely tells us that “[s]ociety … mistrusts meaning: it wants meaning but it wants this meaning to be surrounded by noise … which will make it less acute.” [3] In building her Models of Resistance, Grossmann cuts from the hodge-podge of the everyday and then dissects her selective incisions; through the fragmentation of lived bodies, her relentless paring of the quotidian forge truths that rupture normalized expectations of gender.

Grossmann told me how, in correspondence with her selection process, when she finds a photograph of a woman that particularly resonates, she will use that image more than once. These material cohesions become arteries that pump both resonance and disparity and, in so doing, deepen the subtle contradictions that constitute the life of the work.

"Plaid Skirt" Collage 18" x 24"

There is a mutual haunting between the composite women who share the same parts. In “Ruffles” and “Hands,” the artist employs a rough and ready plastic surgery by tearing from and suturing back her favorite bits to create her perfect imperfections. The two models share the same face. “Ruffles’ ” eyebrows are sardonically raised, her head tilted in insolent defiance; “Hands” shares the clown on the bottom half of her face, but Grossmann’s replacement of the top with another woman’s gaze casts a whisper of glazed escapism. The other eyes in “Hands” deaden the haughty irreverence of “Ruffles.” Taken together, this doppelganger clown is a buffoon, with the esteemed impudence of the court jester and the sadness of Pierrot. Moreover, “Hands’” face doubles again as half cheeky/ half indifferent and is reminiscent of the jester’s black and white face paint. Nevertheless, despite the artist’s playful allusion to binaric stasis, these halves are an irreducible mess that defy any linear interpretation.

"Sandals" Collage 18" x 24"

Even though Grossmann’s oeuvre focuses predominately on gender, she told me that any politic in the work is far from pre-meditated. When I asked her if she is a political artist, she replied, “I have always resisted any absolute intention or direction.” Nevertheless, she continued to explain how, being brought up “in the wool of Marxists,” she always comes at things from the political left and that “everything is fed through that perspective.” Grossmann’s politic is simultaneously subliminal and central; so much so that, for her, it is not even something she considers. Her politic just is.

Grossmann’s creative praxis is instinctual. She related to me how, at the outset, "I have a tone for the body of work but I don't go with any pre-designed notion of how it should or can look. I figure each one out in the process of making it. I rip and tear and add/ subtract until something begins to emerge. I am mostly working blind, going on instinct."

She enters the work without the potential restrictions of a set political agenda. However, the preconceived ‘tone,’ albeit originally nebulous, initiates the aesthetic and conceptual timbre of the work. By aggressively ripping and tearing into the materiality of the photographs, the artist rips and tears into matters of the past and, in the words of Judith Butler, these matters are packed with ‘gender trouble.’

Underwear Collage 18" x 24"

In Models of Resistance, the vintage photographs chosen are images taken by and constructed for the male gaze. Evidence of his power dominates within the confines of his re-perpetuation of the objectified female in Western Culture. In “Trousers,” for example, the shadow of the photographer is projected onto and backgrounds ‘his’ subject. An essence of woman as spectacle is pushed to its limit: the voyeur is super-imposed onto the object of his fetish and, thereby, exposed, the dance of subject and object forever captured within its frame. His objects, as under-privileged women, are easy prey for sexual exploitation within their patriarchal entrapments. And yet, one can see that their hearts aren’t quite in it and the slippage between act and desire creates the heartbreaking images that Grossmann is obsessively attracted to. These amateur, unpolished performances are tawdry exhibitions of enforced helplessness. Within a history of gender politics, such scrappy attempts at fulfilling the sexualized ideals of the male gaze—along with the artist’s critical and empathic tearing—flesh out internalized sexism. These women are there; they are cooperating; they are sadly willing. The artist is here; she is not cooperating; she feels between the cracks.

"Curtain" Collage 18" x 24"

There is an intimacy when encountering the women in these images. We know her and, even though the photographed subjects hail from the past, each photographed woman remains disturbingly present. The bent-over woman in “Curtain” is a mass of penetrable flesh: faceless, a limp arm dangling, hand peeling her own discarded panties off the floor. The woman of “Sandals” obligingly hoists her skirt, reduced to legs and shoes, her head hung in long-suffering accommodation. The woman in “Swing” seems to be stripping her own body of its skin. All are images that are hard-wired into our cultural experiences of women who reside in the underbelly of our society. Their over-eager smiles, drooping heads and morgue-like stares can be naively dismissed as ‘things of the past’; nevertheless, Grossmann's re-constructions work to expose the denial of their continuation in the present.

"Swing" Collage 18" x 24"

Through the production of Models of Resistance, Grossman told me how her studio can be likened to a laboratory. In her fury of inspiration, “everything in the studio becomes fair game as I find, dig, rip, tear, juxtapose and contrast with scale and tone.” “Bunny” and “Ginger” recall the sutured composition of Victor Frankenstein’s monster; however, where the doomed doctor did his damndest to polish and conceal, Grossmann’s irreverent incisions inflame the wounds. “Bunny’s” head has been thwacked on top of ‘her’ shoulders, the gash of capitation perpetually kept open by warped paper; the leg stepping furtively through the crack in the wall is and is not of the body it propels; puppet strings tug on bunny ears at the same time as evoking the electrical wires used to jolt life into Mary Shelley’s tortured man/beast.

The slapping together of “Hands” impertinently defies any notion of harmony as areola- bruised breasts dangle gruesomely from beneath their own chest. “Hands” and “Ginger” share raggedy, shorn pant-legs that look like hand-me-downs from Oliver Twist as “Ginger” and “Sweater” have been given the same decomposed hand that could be derived from the dregs of Frankenstein’s charnel house. Where Victor’s monster is horrifyingly unintentional, Grossmann’s models are triumphant horrors, the audacity of their conglomerations slapping the face of Western Culture’s Twenty-First Century’s sanitized real. With a monster-making twist, Grossman pulls past convulsions to the surface and pastes them onto the momento mori of her subjects in order to resurrect the monstrous lives lived. Her models’ bodies become psychic landscapes—feminist dystopias of the flesh.

"Sweater" Collage 18" x 24"

Grossman’s art was founded upon the stage. While attending art school, she worked at a nearby theatre as a background painter. The sets for the productions were discarded after use and swiftly re-claimed and hauled over to The Emily Carr College of Art by the burgeoning scavenger. Not only did this birth Grossman’s penchant for appropriation, it also positioned the young artist within the realm of performance, theatre and the unraveling potentiality of dramaturgy and the (un)real.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes posits the origin of photography in theatre and depicts the photographic act as a process of masking. One’s self-conscious posturing in order to represent oneself as ‘oneself’ exerts a reflexivity that consistently informs and confirms both the social subject and the ideology that they are a product of. While enacting cultural masks, one is in a perpetual state of ‘re’ wherein cultural representations are maintained through their repetition. Indeed, the photograph gives us both confirmation of and consolation for what we think we are or what we have been conditioned to want to know we are.

Photography has the power to both enact and arrest the condensed purity of the mask. The subject is under pressure to represent ‘themselves’; this representation becomes an object for both re-perpetuation and, in the grasp of the artist/ witness, deconstruction. As the artist appropriates, humble photographs are able to transcend the very banal that is their source and become evidence of the value systems of a society. Like fiction’s ‘twisting of reality in order to bring out its essence,’ the posed photograph is a split second snatched from the incessant babble of the everyday: photographs are gasps, distilled silences, that shout out what we are.

"Back" Collage 18" x 24"

Models of Resistance bombards with a panoply of masks. There is the (non) mask of objectified female body parts as in “Back” and “Bum”; the mask of defeat and absence with the slumped doll heads in “Hat,” “Pencil Skirt,” and “Stairs”; the mask of downcast compliance in “Sandals”; an agonizing mask of “Please God, get me the hell out of here” in “Gloves”; the mask of “Please love me” in “Underwear”; the hardened mask of ‘”C’mon, I dare you” shared by “Lace-ups,” and “Plaid Skirt”; a mask of cheek and defiance in “Ruffles”; and “Sweater’s” sneer of nausea and hate. These performances, as artifacts, provide a cross-section of female experience in patriarchy.

Grossmann’s models are doubly masked: first in their originary photographic moment and then again in the artist’s re-masking where she brings them into her present and, in her words: “makes them mine.” She told me how she is primarily interested in the past because there is “a poignancy when you look back. These people had had a story. The story had already been told.” In making the images ‘mine,’ the artist stretches a narrative between their past and her present and, through this dialogue, weaves a temporal tapestry.

Even though Models of Resistance are photo-based collages, Grossmann is not a photographer. She describes her process as ‘painting with photographs.’ While claiming from the clutter of discarded things, not only is the sensual exile of the photograph subverted, the displaced remnants of once living bodies are embraced by another as they are pulled into the world of the visceral. In the studio, the carnal specimens become the artist’s representational palette: by tearing, re-arranging and filling their flat surfaces with paint, doll parts and any other objects that strike her fancy, photographic surfaces become miniature theaters, condensed worlds.

"Stairs" Collage 18" x 24"

The collaged materiality of the resultant gender performances is further stratified by the artist’s emotive communion with her subjects to the point where, as Grossmann explained, “I felt like I owed these women something better than they had.”[4] Through a praxis of empathy and obsession, Models of Resistance are infused with a temporal reflexivity that can be likened to Marx’s ‘historical present’—past gender performances are brought back into the spotlight of the present and, in their journey, are concurrently re-lived, transfigured and accentuated.

"Gloves" Collage 18" x 24"

Grossmann's models are sites of trauma. Even though, when viewing the series as a feminist work, we may want there to be: there is nothing empowered about the lives the artist's subjects led. In a surprisingly romanticized take, Lynn Ruscheinsky comments how:

[t]here is a genuine resistance to objectification in Grossmann's women that defeat any simple understanding of 'the gaze'. Her women are confident in their bodies and in their sexuality, they invite glances and return them through expression and gesture and thus contravene the idea of ownership and commodification of the female body as the 'woman on display,' ultimately transforming them into potent images of female empowerment. [6]

The resistance to ‘the idea of ownership and commodification of the female body’ is exposed by the potent exacerbation of what it is resisting. These women are most certainly (still) on display. Despite the feminist backlash of the Twenty-First Century where individual sexual agency is deemed the ultimate in women's liberation, their aiming to please sexualized incarcerations are more visible in our contemporaneity than in the historical context of their production. Far from at face value, the empowerment to be found in Grossmann's Models of Resistance is in the agitation of its lack.

Thanks to the liberations achieved by the pre-backlash, feminist advancements of the Twentieth Century, Grossmann’s models’ submissive positionings, once systemically invisibilized within their original contexts, are now brazen slaps in the face. The artist yanks the women’s entrapments into a renewed display that, through her aesthetic accentuations of systemic pathology, are made visible as dis-empowered. And this is precisely the point. The core resistances expressed by Grossmann’s models is through the over-determined re-presentation of their very ‘object-hood’ that critics like Ruscheinsky claim to be have been miraculously overcome, even though the images moan and whimper otherwise. Heads are bowed and turned away; bodies droop listlessly from puppet strings that evoke meat hooks; human heads are torn off and replaced by those of chillingly vacant dolls’; “Ginger” is hung morosely on the wall: “Make it stop,” her mask stares and “Not again” at the ineluctability of it all.

"Pencil Skirt" Collage 18" x 24"

The women in these found photographs were, through Cixous, “kept at a distance from [themselves, and who have] been made to see (=not-see) woman on the basis of what man wants to see of her, which is to say, almost nothing.” [7] Grossmann exhumes the female bereft of self. The artist further reduces these women-objects as but gloves, a sweater, a back, a bum, a hat. Such intuitive designations name the woman in patriarchal hierarchy ‘nothing’ and, in this system, woman as ‘nothing’ is everything. Grossmann’s models resist by bombarding us with the ultimate contradiction: the excessive ‘something’ of woman as ‘nothing.’

Grossmann told me how Models of Resistance is the first project where she has included both female and male genders within her jam-packed frames. Images like “Plaid Skirt” and “Stairs” both have a penis. However, in “Stairs” the priapus is a drooped memory, where in “Plaid Skirt” the bulge exudes the same fecund possibilities as the voluptuous breasts. “Stairs,” “Ginger,” and “Lace-ups” have all been given a male chest, but the moods of each communicate multiplicities of ‘male-ness.’ Grossmann pulls out all of her guns with the blasting construction of “Hands,” however. With ‘her’ boy-calf stockinged and shoed, soft womanly thighs, other foot lost in layers of photographic fodder, unabashed boobs, and the ‘hands’ that could be bikini bottoms holding back a hermaphrodite lurking and laughing beneath, the image forbids any stability in its carnivalesque projection.

"Hands" Collage 18" x 24"

Angela Grossmann’s Models of Resistance can be left to sit like rotting meat or ravaged as taboo; they can be revered in their irreverent opacity and embraced as testimonial gifts —the multiple possibilities of the viewer’s reactions merging with the not-meant-to-be-fully-fathomed densities of the images. As performance of gender, the shards that she jams into her frames defy the conquest of absolute comprehension: they will not be reduced (again) to mere objects of consumption. The junk store is Grossmann's archeology site. The artist digs for her inspirational punctum, her “highway to content.” Resisting in pieces.

[1]Althusser, Louis in Victor Burgin The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Post-Modernity London: Macmillan, 1986, 4. [2] Martel, Yann The Life of Pi. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2001. [3] Barthes, Roland Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, 36. [4] [5] Canadian Art [6] Ruscheinsky, Lynn [7] Cixous, Helene “Sorties” in The Newly Born Woman, translation by Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 68.

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