August 24, 2015

Guest Blogger Quinn Caroline Hannah, BLUE GOWN AESTHETIC: Exploring the limitations of art criticism

How can certain limitations be used to free the imagination in art criticism? Is it possible to make a show "come alive" in your writing when you haven't seen it yourself? Guest blogger Quinn Caroline Hannah explores the issue of blue gown aesthetic.

Hinda Avery's series Resisterrrz: Scenes from the Resistance at The Cultch, Vancouver

The immateriality of my mind swims around me in a foggy hue, like the clouds that hang low and silver outside my window. I’ve been in the hospital going on four weeks now with nothing to wear but a blue hospital gown and pajama bottoms with people skiing on them. I have two, my wardrobe has expanded since entering the hospital: one for inside, one for outside. 
My first destination was the ER where I received phone calls, text messages and images of an exhibition that was happening in Vancouver. Being unable to leave the hospital creates a new understanding of limitations. In the ER at least I was able to use my mobile phone and computer. Four days later I entered a new unit, what I termed limbo two, in the Family medicine unit. Each ward I moved to I was in a room by myself with a bed and no window. I received my three meals a day, wore my gowns, drank gingerale and tried to stay in contact with the outside world from within a new world. Two days later I made my final journey within the walls of the hospital: to the acute adult psychiatric unit.  I no longer had access to my phone, my computer, the internet, speaking to any of my friends or family except on a phone shared by 20 other people and monitored by staff. I shared a room and requested printed versions of images of the exhibition I had seen when I was in the ER.
In the psychiatric unit, we were allowed outside for Fresh Air Breaks – known as FABs – for 15 minutes at quarter to each hour. We were served our three meals a day. Given our medications, checked on at night with flashlights to make sure we were asleep and in our beds. The ward was a locked ward. There was no way out unless you were allowed out. I was truly limited in a new way. 
Hinda Avery’s Resisterrrz: Scenes from a Resistance at The Cultch featured large scale paintings of the artist’s family acting as feminist Resistance fighters in Nazi invaded Poland and Germany. In fact her family were driven from Poland and Germany by the Nazi and many members were killed for being Jewish. Reclaiming her Jewish identity, Avery’s paintings are joyous while critical in their endeavour to resist limitations her family experienced simply because of their heritage. Each painting features a group of women, the Rosen sisters, dressed in Burlesque like attire. Brightly coloured underwear and bras are worn over full bodied colourful jumpsuits. Corsets and chaps in ebullient colours cover white bodysuits. Women laughing and wearing space suits float around a space with glee. In each one the women are all delighted, smiling and laughing, brandishing hand guns or drills. There is no fear in their eyes or expressions. Only jubilation and triumphant at taking back their inherent power. 

Hinda Avery's series Resisterrrz: Scenes from the Resistance at The Cultch, Vancouver

However, my understanding of these paintings and the exhibition can only be read from a limited perspective. I sat on my bed, watching the silver clouds hang low outside, or the rain pour down in sheets followed by fat rainbows, or the sun shine brightly in cloudless blue skies; clear cloudless nights with full moons that illuminate my room. Sitting on my bed while the days passed by one after another I looked at these images of Hinda Avery’s paintings. Printed out they lay scattered amongst a series of books on everything from pop psychology to curatorial studies and novels about hiking in the wilderness, worksheets on self-esteem, mood journals, managing stress, scale your day, EMDR info sheets, medication pamphlets and a big, fluffy stuffed cat a friend brought me. 
The world of art criticism predicates that the reviewer of an exhibition sees it in person. This is an unwritten rule almost. See the exhibition. Experience it in person, as a whole, an entirety. See the light on the canvas, the arrangement of works, the spacing, the levelness of the labels. The interaction of the works amongst each other. However, how is this dealt with in a situation where the exhibition is inaccessible for one reason or another. In this particular case it was the limitation of being confined to a hospital. In other situations it may be accessibility. Thus, in situations such as these, are critiques of exhibitions written from outside the exhibition space itself valid? Is it possible for the reviewer to curate their own version of the experience and arrangement of the work that allows for a reading that takes into account the limitation of being unable to attend in person? Or, does this predicated understanding of seeing the work in person disallow such a reading? Invalidate it?

Hinda Avery, Resisterrrz: Scenes from the Resistance at The Cultch, Vancouver

Seeing Hinda Avery’s exhibition Resisterrrz: Scenes from the Resistance at The Cultch through printed and digital images while being limited to a hospital bed within the walls of a hospital, 900 km north of the city it was being shown in, required my mind to imagine the exhibition on a different level. I equally wondered at length about my own limitations in that moment, as well as the limitations that are enforced in a way through the area of art criticism as well as the limitations of living in a regional centre where access to exhibitions is limited by cost of travel. In her paintings Avery allows for a powerful reclamation of identity – both feminist and oppressed – through the redressing of bodies as well the as rediscovery of roles. Here I would like to reclaim my own identity: I am a woman, writer, art critic, curator and someone who suffers from mental illness. I reclaim my ability to interpret exhibitions despite limitations whilst wearing my blue gown. 

Quinn Caroline Hannah

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