Small Homes Curatorial Essay
Indoors. Inside our homes. Inside our minds. Interiors are the parts of the world that are hidden from view. They are our most private spaces and, thus, our most intimate spaces. By allowing others to enter our personal interiors, we give them access to an aspect of who we are. Our inner selves are the unexposed core of our interiors but will inevitably spill out onto our physical selves and our environment. Most likely, a great deal about ourselves can be understood by looking at the places we dwell in, as if these places were sensitive to the ebb and flow of our lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world and has had a severe impact on humanity. We have faced challenges that we had never expected to face and have often had to part from expectations we had set for ourselves. We have been asked to stay in our homes and to distance ourselves from others. In addition to the stress of the uncertainty, our confinement has caused concern over mental health. Though we have always been partial to our homes, we have been forced to face our spaces. The more we dwell in these spaces, the more we influence our environment, leaving us to hold up a mirror to our mental state. Though our concrete spaces may not physically or visually resemble our mental state, they are the result of our actions and mindsets. We must assume that an exchange exists between the outside, our homes and our inner selves.
My COVID-19 experience has impacted my environment as I learn to inhabit a personal space during these strange times. I have returned to my family home and have been separated from my student home. It has been some time since I have lived with family for a long period of time, so I had to alter my environment to suit my current self. In particular, I was forced to negotiate my childhood self, who used to inhabit these spaces, with my current self. Though it required from me to make artificial aesthetic changes, my environment needed to shift towards my inner self so that I could feel supported and comfortable inside the confines of my home while danger and uncertainty persisted outside of it.
Small Homes, a curatorial project executed under the larger Interiors project associated with the Research Centre in Interdisciplinary Arts and Creative Culture, looks at the ways in which interiors relate to collective life and how they are influenced by societal forces. Small Homes is also interested in identifying the (auto)biographical elements from works depicting the artists’ personal interior spaces.
To collect works, we invited students and the public to submit pieces that depicted objects found in their homes. The submission criteria were based on a specific assignment in Shawn Serfas’ painting class in the Department of Visual Arts at Brock University: create small-format paintings of objects found at home. The assignment allows students to enhance their technical skills as well as reflect on their personal surroundings. In Small Homes, the submission criteria have been adjusted to include works in media other than painting.
In addition to providing a short biographical notice, artists were asked to briefly comment on the artwork they had submitted. As curator, one of my tasks has been to use this written corpus to identify the (auto)biographic elements in the artwork. Quite expectably, the connections I make are, to a certain extent, the result of my, not the artists’, environment. This does not mean that my analysis will be false or unreliable. It simply means that I will be informed by things that go beyond the content that has been provided by the artist. In turn, viewers go through their own meaning-making process based on their personal perspectives. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows us secrets which are common to all” (50).
Student artists in Niagara often have the opportunity to exhibit their work in the St. Catharines community but, due to the pandemic, their options have been limited. Yet, the arts and self-expression continue to play a vital role for our well-being, both individually and collectively. While providing the opportunity for young artists to exhibit their work, Small Homes reflects on something that the pandemic has made us even more intimate with: our personal interior spaces, these places we do not usually display, and which are now – digitally – open to viewers in their own homes, thus situating the representations of the artists’ spaces both in a public space (online exhibition) and in our own personal environments. This double mediation is possible because the experience of viewing a virtual exhibition is different from a traditional gallery visit, and online access provides an opportunity for multiple perspectives to be included and for a larger story to be conveyed (Edmonds et al. 172).
Objects are significant because they are often purposefully placed by their owners for a particular reason. The reasons may range from decoration to the belief that objects have a life of their own as is seen in different literary works or, more recently, in films such as Pixar’s Toy Story, where toys come to life when their child owner is away. Such narratives play with the dynamic of our connection to inanimate objects. The question is asked: “If the living self ‘overflows’ into matter, if furnishings are ‘expressive’, are objects then alive – alive in ways that cannot be rationally articulated?” (Brown 84).
We often value things both because of their economic significance and as a repository of memory. Materiality provides comfort and status. On the other hand, objects have the capacity to hold emotional significance due to their relationship to personal memories. Many of us probably have stuffed animals that we used as kids that are still important to us though, to anyone else, they hold little to no value. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the character, Fanny, struggles with her responsibility towards the expensive objects that were gifted to her – she needs to handle them with care – and the fact that she also uses them in her daily life (Brown 52). This double function of objects (to both represent and be useful tools) makes them even more crucial to her feeling of belonging. It is unlikely that any of the artists in the present exhibition are facing a similar dilemma to Fanny’s, but this example illustrates how objects contribute to feelings about who we are.
There also exists a potential for objects to hold “magical” qualities. While change is inevitable in life, objects may remind us of the past and remain fairly constant. To children, objects have a magical potential (Brown 131). Their imagination drives them to discover their surroundings. By associating this time in their lives with objects, they are setting up feelings of nostalgia that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. The objects that we keep in our spaces are filled with memories that evoke feelings of nostalgia and, with them, a sense of comfort. The value placed on objects makes them a quintessential subject matter for artists who wish to revisit these feelings in their work.
Stephanie Dancer depicts a bowl of oranges. This bowl was placed on the table at her friend’s house in California where she spent part of her quarantine. She recalls happy moments spent with her friend’s eldest child playing games by the bowl of oranges. She also mentions the importance of savouring joy in difficult times. In fact, Dancer’s painting does not depict the bowl of oranges itself, but its reflection as if to portray something that goes beyond its tangible state and that we imagine to be the subjective reality of the artist reminiscing a state of mind.
Despite the call asking for depictions of interior space, Emma Mary Sked places a particular emphasis on individual objects. Her choice to replace the background, or what I assume to be the objects’ surrounding environment, with solid coloured backgrounds allows the objects to stand out, leaving any attempt at meaning-making to lay within the elements of the depicted objects. Sked claims that she is not inclined to place value on inanimate objects though she describes how each item represents something different to her. Each object represents either a passion, a person or a value that is dear to her; she is aware of the limits of her tiny living space, making her careful about what items she brings into it.
Terry Badgley’s artwork pays special attention to plants and goes a step further by personifying them. Badgley’s first piece is titled “Silvia,” the name that was given to the plant depicted in the painting. Badgley refers to the plant as “she” and expresses pride in keeping it alive. While plants are living organisms, the name “Silvia” and the pronoun “she” indicate that Badgley has allotted a deeper significance to the plant. In the second piece, Badgley personifies the object by adding faces to the pots. Attracting the viewers’ attention, such personification allows them to experience a deeper emotional response.
For most of us, homes provide safety and comfort amidst the dangers of the outside world – harsh weather, robbery, violence, etc. During the pre-industrialization era, it also represented a safety haven within the changing world. For instance, seventeenth-century Holland and Dutch genre painting portrays how the family and its dynamic are protected within the home (Brown 8). Such traditional and comfortable representation of family life is appealing to the bourgeoisie. As bourgeois homes became relics of a time when their owners maintained power, the style became heavier and more solid to resemble a fortress. At a time when industrialization prompted the rise of the working class, these fortress-like homes were protecting the values that these families upheld in the face of the changing social landscape (39).
The idea of using the home to protect oneself from the outside world continues to be upheld. Individuals can transform their homes into personal sanctuaries where they can be their true selves and distance themselves from social pressures. As pointed out by Walter Benjamin, for the private individual, the interior “represents the universe” (Brown 81), namely his or her most accurate sense of reality. The artists’ representations of their spaces express, at times, their sentiments about their homes. Angelina Turner discusses her home as a place where she does not feel judged and feels safe, and presents her work as making the mundane and safe seem beautiful. Looking at the constants in her life, Shania Thompson describes “her later, increasingly detailed, work [as adopting] a wider perspective,” and suggests that “the places deeply woven into her routine” give her room for exploration.
Their pieces convey the artists’ feelings through pertinent aesthetic choices. Painting allows them to create a softer look because the elements of the piece are slightly blended compared to the sharp distinctions that may exist when using other mediums. Also, the artists tend to use a large variety of colours to make the still life more vibrant, more inviting and lived in. The pieces that include windows show ambiguous landscapes, implying that the artists deem the outside world to be unimportant. In this sense, as long as we remain within the walls of our homes, we have the ability to avoid the difficulties existing beyond that space.
During the pandemic, the notion of home as a safe haven has been at the heart of the dominant narrative being diffused by authorities and newscasters around the world. Even benign activities, such as going to the grocery store or visiting a friend, had suddenly to be adapted or avoided altogether. More than ever we rely on the walls of our homes to protect us from an outside threat, this time a little-known and invisible coronavirus whose progression cannot yet be stopped.
At times a safe and happy space, home may also be a contested, even dangerous space. Domestic violence, feelings of loneliness or confinement, and domestic roles, among other things, can transform the home from a sanctuary to a cage. As much as designing the home may reflect one’s tastes, aspects of design may also reinforce the societal norms which infiltrate individual space. Further, home is for some the atrocious, hidden site of physical and emotional violence.
The role of women in the home has been considered for a long time now. The societal perceptions of women have transformed interior spaces into contested space, marked by gender roles. In the 1950s, the rise of interior design became largely associated with women. As men acted as the main breadwinners, women would dominate – or, from a different perspective, be assigned to - the domestic sphere. This often remains true today (Lupkin 85). One way in which gender has impacted interior design is through colour. The use of colour has been judged as a lack of sophistication in the western world when compared to dark or neutral shades being used with a focus on linearity. Colour, on the other hand, is often perceived as superficial: it “erupts in the excessiveness of ‘feminine, primitive, infantile, vulgar, queer or pathological’” (Titmarsh 133). Though it is not necessarily an issue for women to be associated with interior decorating, it is a symbol of their being kept within the domestic sphere. Different interior spaces highlight the presence of masculine occupants. For instance, in the early 1900s, the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) furnished its parlors in a way that reflected its male members and Christian values. The leaders of the association turned against the Victorian and orientalist styles that were influencing interior design at the time and “embraced Craftsman-style furniture for its simple lines and exposed joints, [and placed] it sparingly in their public rooms” (Lupkin 73). Today, the most common colours for consumers and manufacturers are black, white and red (Glasner 291).
Trends in interior design are in themselves acts of mitigation between personal tastes and societal pressures. Since the advent of television, there has been instructional programming aimed at women for how they should decorate their homes. Though they were encouraged to use their creativity, the programs also outlined rules to make the home more attractive (Lupkin 112). This has become common practice as we continue to receive interior decorating advice from television programs, magazines, and department store displays. In this manner, we are still being influenced by design standards based on outdated ideas.
Home is an unhappy place when walls, rather than acting as a barrier to the dangers of the outside world, confine us in solitude and exposes us to detrimental effects on our mental health. If we experience an outpour of dark emotions within a confined space, our feelings may be reflected onto our environment. Kaitlyn Roberts depicts an apartment where her anxiety becomes unbearable. She describes a suffocating space with “demonic walls” and her blinds are drawn to hide her view of the outside world. The entirety of the space is occupied by a heavy couch and a small, boxy coffee table. The artwork is reminiscent of the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In this story, the female protagonist is haunted by a figure that lurks in the wallpaper of the attic. The figure becomes a metaphor for her psychosis, as the short story animates the wallpaper to simulate the character’s demise. In her statement, Roberts’ language echoes the character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and writes: “the apartment is quiet yet I hear screaming.” No longer a refuge, home is a place of suffering.
Representations of Identity
Interiors have been described as an external dimension of the soul: “the domestic interior […] conveys messages, which is why artists attend to it, and why people like to sit in the room of a beloved person and gaze upon the objects the beloved touched” (Brown 3). Small Homes also engages in reflective self-ideation as the artists are free to aestheticize the subject matter in a way that reflects their perceived image of themselves. Just as in self-portraits, the representation of interior space is an extension of the self.
Identity, however, is more than how we define ourselves; it “is composed not only by acts of self-perception, but also by acts of ‘other-perception’” (R. D. Lang in Saverino et al. 27). In other words, how others perceive us, or at least how we see others see us, makes up the image of who we are. Something similar may occur between ourselves and our environments as well. Auto-spatial exchange is the idea that our environments influence who we are but that our inner selves also influence our environments. Even a quick glimpse at our homes discloses how much they are a result of our most inner selves, not just a decorating project. We do, however, also have the knowledge that our environments influence us and say something about who we are, so we try to strike a balance between our true selves and the people we want to be, making our identity and our environments work hand-in-hand to construct ourselves. In particular, colour is an important consideration in the reflection of our identities onto our environments. More than just adding interest, colour provides its viewers with a sensation (Titmarsh 138).
With Small Homes, artists’ representations of their spaces include personal touches that gives us insight into who they are. For example, Quin McColgan expresses an interest in pets in her biography and includes animals in her paintings. Caroline Sherwood Holroyd has a background in graphic design but appreciates painting for its freedom from the crispness and linearity that she uses in her commercial work. In her paintings, we can see the soft quality of the brushstrokes and the mix of colours that is a sign of her pushing the boundaries of the medium. By comparing the information that the artists provide alongside their work, we can learn to better appreciate and understand the artists and the choices they make while creating their work.
Beyond Identity: Personal Fiction
Though we can discover aspects of the artists’ identities through their artwork, we will no doubt encounter elements of fiction too. It is nice to think of paintings as glimpses of reality, but the nature of artistic representation means that there will be discrepancies based on the artists’ task of providing an element of interest. In order to introduce a narrative or a meaning into the piece, some fictionalization must occur. Even if it is not the artist’s intention to alter the truth, the medium and the distance between ourselves as viewers and the artist make it inevitable for mediation to occur. It is not as though we were being deprived of the truth but we are given the opportunity to understand the subject matter from a different perspective and transform the meaning of the piece to give it a life and significance beyond its actual function.
This conflation between fiction and reality has ambiguous boundaries, but it is better understood when looking at the genre of autofiction. Like autobiography, autofiction tells a story about its author, though, rather than telling true stories, it includes things that never actually happened for the sake of making the narrative more interesting to readers. Thus, the author embraces language as a means of not only conveying meaning but of constituting it and of shaping our perceptions of reality (Worthington 160). When we apply this description to the interpretation of the paintings in Small Homes, we can consider painting to be a visual language that limits our ability to fully grasp reality. Therefore, the artists may use their position to create a similar effect and set up viewers to create their own fictional narratives based on the piece. A visual medium, painting has even more potential for viewers to use their imagination because of its indeterminacy (Jordan and Harris 250).
In autofiction, the idea is to place oneself within the narrative. In Small Homes, however, the artists are absent from the images. The spaces they live in and the objects they show are the clues offered to us as in a mystery game in which participants play detective and put together a narrative. In the absence of human figures, we may also allow personal past emotions to help guide us through the story (Dix 69). As the artists do not include themselves, the paintings are released from the grip of their makers, giving viewers license to create the story that surrounds the subject matter. Even with the help of the materials provided by the artists to better understand the works, viewers are prompted to assume a significant role in the meaning-making process.
As a matter of fact, the still-life genre provides a unique opportunity to fictionalize the lives of the artists because the objects chosen as subject matter prompt viewers to try and pull meaning from their inclusion in the piece. For example, Shania Thompson’s Cupcake, Scissors, Ketchup depicts three items that seemingly have no relation to one another, but the artist’s choice to present them together encourages viewers to try and make sense of the juxtaposition of these three objects within the context. Even though her artist’s statement provides little information that could outline a possible scenario underlying this painting, we will likely remain inclined to try and understand the scenario that led to these three objects coming together through the intention of the artist. In this sense, Thompson embraces the strangeness of this composition and how it puts her painting in a position to be fictionalized.
When trying to discover (auto)biographical elements about the artists through their work, it is important to understand that there are signs of their identities that are included but that they are also aware of the medium they are working in. Also, viewers need to be aware of the limits in our ability to reach any kind of truth. Though we are intrigued by the possibility of discovering one, fiction allows us to move beyond the image in front of us to make further discoveries in our imagination.
Over the course of this essay, I have tried to uncover biographical information about the artists through their representations of their personal interior spaces. By viewing the chosen pieces from multiple different perspectives, I have gained a deeper understanding of the artists and their relationships to their spaces but I also accept the fact that my attempt at narrativizing the works has forced me to incorporate an element of fictionalization (Worthington 7). Therefore, any interpretation I have made about the artworks featured in Small Homes is potentially inaccurate because it results from my personal meaning-making process. This, however, is not a problem because autofiction, which all Small Homes artists have in some way engaged with, is not about literal, but emotional truth (Dix 107).
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