Toni Hamel: The lingering
14 September - 24 November 2013
at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa Canada
Given a long run and two galleries at RMG suggests the importance that the curators attribute to this artist and the thematic direction of her work. Hamel's graphically strong drawings and installations present a forceful narrative on the complications of domestic life in general as well as the psychologically repressive nature of carrying out artistic endeavours on the home front. While this is a feminist story told many times, the necessity for retelling still exists.
Hamel delivers a powerful , highly skilled discourse, with content that avoids polemic with dark, subtle humour. The hand of the artist is present, as is the idea of women working with their hands. So-called housewifely tasks are shown in bizarre parody, as images of 1950s style "homemakers" carry out various housekeeping duties that subvert notions of domesticity and underscore its often constricting nature. Women's hands are at work building a nest, decorating an enormous peacock then cheerfully taking it to market in a wheelbarrow, digging in the garden for hearts, working on a child's costume, slicing bread, and so on. Women are shown working together, looking out into a larger world to which there is only imaginary access.
Thread and twine are employed throughout, providing a fitting metaphor for gendered constraints. It is also used to extend, accentuate, enhance the finely detailed figurative work on paper and canvas, to define/confine the walls from which one thousand cranes fly forth, to make a cascade of hair that a woman irons industriously, or suggest the skeletal structure of wings that release a kitchen chair from its base where so much domestic work is done.
The iconic house image appears in thread in small drawings such as "Attachments" where a woman mows an imaginary lawn, her machine's cord umbilically attached to the house. In other works the thread is a line pulled out of one picture plane into another. In a drawing of a photograph of a woman hanging clothes on a line, a passing bird pulls the clothesline beyond the photo into a freer space. Less whimsically, red thread sews shut a woman's mouth.
While the main floor Alexandra Luke Gallery showcases the artist's exquisitely drawn wall works and three major canvas installations, an ascent to the upper gallery immerses one in a world of origami cranes escaping from six houses, into a central nest-like construction made from twigs. An accompanying sound piece of bird cries, gentle whistling, soft giggles, and a beautiful Chopin Nocturne (#9) permeates both exhibition spaces. (audio by Peter Nelis) There is unabashed femininity expressed in the aural and visual content, underscoring the multi-faceted nature of femaleness and of feminism.
In general there is a tendency for us to engage in a cognitive dissonance about the role of women within the domestic sphere. There is a comfort level in homemaking that ignores the toll which it has taken in limiting women's lives. Some feminist theory re-evaluates the hand work of women as integral to oral narrative, as safe spaces for discussions, for storytelling, for continuation of a particular cultural environment, for sharing skills, ideas inside a private sphere. However it is clear from the surreal nature of many of the tasks being done by these smiling, busy women that Hamel's intent is to question the validity of repetitive and often meaningless work or, at least, work that is done at the expense of women having richer more creative lives.
In her book of essays titled SILENCES, author Tillie Olson mourns the silences‑‑ the literary works unwritten or unpublished because of difficult circumstances and biased ... practices. In The lingering Hamel illustrates the issue with biting humour, skill and warmth.
I grew up in a subdivision where we had some Hungarian neighbors. One was my best friend Helen. Whenever I meet someone with any however remote connection to Hungarian-ness I feel compelled to tell them this, along with several other facts such as that I can count and sing in Hungarian, and say a few other words. Without any encouragement I will start in describing the magnificent family picnics I would get invited to, the food that was gradually replacing our previously wasp fare, and what I perceive to be the final kicker, that my cousin had a Hungarian-style wedding since English ones were so dull in comparison. Sometimes I tell until my audience starts to back away. I do know not to follow and continue, although it is tempting.
But those picnics! To perpetually starving adolescents they were the most amazing of feasts, where all of Helen's relatives contributed enormous amounts of breaded veal and chicken, mountains of potato salad, cabbage rolls, barbecued meats, cakes, little pastries rolled in nuts and sugar, plums, peaches, of course watermelon. Much of this was homemade and home grown in those wide and treeless subdivision lots.
We would play in the warm Lake Erie waves, look for fossils along rocky Morgan's point, then go back for more food. I was a big eater for a skinny kid, and one time, on the way home, Helen's family were joking about this, or maybe just mentioning whether anyone was still hungry, and it came up that there was one veal chop left and would anyone want it. The car was stopped and it was retrieved from the trunk for me to eat. That became one of their family stories that, once I got older, would make me shrink with embarrassment at the telling.
The labour market and climate in the Niagara peninsula must have been a major attraction for people coming from Hungary where they could grow the old country fruits and veg. Some were newcomers after the Hungarian revolution in the 50s but the ones we knew were mostly first and second generation families. Nagy and Szabo was as common as Smith and Jones.
Everyone had a garden, and everyone made wine. Our neighbour also had a
still but we were supposed to keep that a secret.
Helen's stepfather John had emigrated more recently, in retrospect he had clearly had a different past life than factory work. He had paintings in the basement, and on summer evenings the crickets and frogs would be upstaged by his haunting mandolin. Language was a barrier - he would grin at us and say things like "Sonofagun" as he polished and polished his car. There was a swing, that he would sometimes push us on, terrifyingly high.
When my friend came out of gawky adolescence as quite the beauty, boys started calling her. This would be when John's old country values took over. One memorable event was when he told a would-be suitor to fuck off, then slammed the telephone down. The cultural mashup between old and new is always hard. I am sure it gets played out over and over, but at the time it was pretty shocking. For one thing, fuck off hadn't made its way off the streets and into the common lexicon yet.
There was hard work and the struggle of upward mobility while still maintaining the old values. Everyone helped - both parents had factory jobs and older daughter looked after the little ones. This is how I learned things like "Don't touch that" and "go home you dirty pig" as my friend's little siblings were her constant shadow. Despite outside work, her mother still made soup stock with cordon bleu clarity, rows of preserves including peaches, pears, plums, tomatoes, dill pickles. Peaches had to be arranged in the mason jar with rounded halves facing out, perfectly nestled to be beautiful through the glass.
The house was also kept impeccably clean. If we walked on a carpet Helen would brush the nap back with her hand to erase our footsteps. We didn't play inside, but I have a clear and happy memory of the two of us playing Monopoly on a blanket in the yard, and her mother bringing out a huge bowl of cherries for us.
My memories from this time are all summer ones. We climbed trees in a nearby orchard, we jumped in the hay in somebody's barn. We played in the construction sites where the subdivision was expanding. We rode our bikes.
Over the years we have lost touch, but I often imagine Helen as Baba, telling her stories of the white bread English families and their goings on.