Vanessa Brown at Esker Foundation, Calgary
It could be Esker Foundation’s revolving entrance door, but my breath is taken away by the theatrical display that greets me from a semi-circular dais. Two sheer black housecoats stand upright with sleeves extended as if actors from The Costume Institute. They hang on simple steel stands, reminiscent of kimono displays, with earrings hung inside and outside on their fabric. Some are made of dried flowers and others of sculpted metal, like charms to be carried with the wearer of the coat. Then, after getting context from these human-scale housecoats and earrings, we enter a giant world.
Vanessa Brown, Late Night Trip to the Jeweller’s, 2018, installation view (photo: John Dean)
Next to the housecoats, hanging on an enormous stand, are two large-scale, pastel-coloured earrings, complete with massive ear hooks. Next to the earrings lie two more on the dais, face-down, displaying a secret compartment on their backs to hold a single cigarette. Behind them, leaning against the wall on the dais, is a gravestone-shaped piece of metal engraved with symbols: wine glasses, a teardrop, a snake. These motifs repeat throughout the exhibition. Above all, a clock on the wall is too tired to observe, its eyelash-rimmed eyes sleeping, its numbers askew, and its hour and minute hands absurdly long.
This piece, titled Late Night Trip to the Jeweller’s and part of Vanessa Brown’s exhibition The Witching Hour, is the recounting of an artist’s “stress-induced fever dream” where language is a system of symbols, and information or stories must be passed along the inside of garments. The work is stunning for its playful imaginativeness and skilful craftsmanship. It revels in the humorous impracticality, the anti-usefulness, of its objects: earrings too big to be worn, a clock that doesn’t work, a housecoat primarily meant to transfer messages. All of Brown’s steel and MDF sculptures follow this theme of humorous myth-making, ghostly silhouettes, and child-like – but large-scale – charms. The exhibition is an extended nightmare of a still life.
The staged presentation of the work and its highlighted relationship to the body calls to mind the artist’s expressed interest in fashion and, in particular, the minimalist, gender fluid ‘anti-fashion’explosion of the 1990s in Paris that included Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. These designers, both having moved from Japan to France, played a transformative anti-Imperialist role in fashion at the time, rejecting trends and traditionally gendered silhouettes for more minimal works, often with unfinished, scrappy hems or variations on the kimono. The role of wearable art in collapsing gender roles and flipping the gendering of professions runs parallel to Brown’s use of steel. She contextualizes steel as feminized and jewellery as de-feminized, and challenges associations with scale as carrying a gendered power. Reactionary now to our time, The Witching Hour realizes the mythical space between three and four a.m. when the dreams and spells of women can thrive.
Lindsay Sorell is an artist and writer who recently collaborated with the Advanced Toastmasters of Calgary for the IKG Live 1 performance festival and completed two solo exhibitions of new work: Exercises in Healing at Contemporary Calgary and Buddha, Why Am I Alone? at AVALANCHE! Institute of Contemporary Art. She is currently working on a large-scale watercolour painting of food and is the editor of Luma Quarterly. She is Akimblog’s Calgary correspondent and can be followed on Instagram.