[This post was originally a catalogue essay for Marianne Corless, Further, (January 2004 at Grunt Gallery, Vancouver, BC.)]
Because we have no country,
no place to return to other than
because we are alone
and have reached this place
– Susan Musgrave, Flying the Flag of Ourselves[i]
The fur trade jumped out as the most significant historical feature in Canada’s origins, affirming what I had learned in school. However the human drama within the fur trade, including the adventure, avarice and ruthlessness that it involved was something that I hadn’t grasped before. I had worked with fur prior to this as an art material, but with this connection I finally understood the relationship between the material and its great cultural significance to me as a Canadian.
– Marianne Corless, Statement, January 16th, 2003[ii]
Standing, looking across a floor made of fur square patches is like a view from a great height at a landscape of varying sameness. One feels the luxury of the forest as seemingly inexhaustible reserve –there’s more where that came from- a luxury that now usually engenders a knee-jerk of anxiety. Looking at the pelts of animals once as pelts and twice as old coats is working with the dead, but also with the occupied – imagine the smells, the textures, as spore, replete with mute information.
The portraits reference the “old school” tradition of portraiture, but go beyond representation in that the fur transforms the individual into the very material that contributed significantly to their lives and accomplishments. Early trappers in the Canadian wilderness sometimes ate beaver pelts in times of winter starvation, so they became “comprised of” the material that they sought. In the same way, a fur portrait of say, Queen Victoria, actually transforms her into the “spoils of the colonies”[iii]
In Corless’s fur rendition of the new Queen Elizabeth portrait (the popular poster from which this image is taken reads “Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada”), there is a playful deterioration at hand, in more ways than one. There is the underlying threat to the image itself – as if the face were in a process of disappearing into the fur. While the fur is plainly a material used to construct the portrait, there is an unsettling sense of entropy as if the face might pass from celebrity to idiocy. Dovetailing with this idea is the suspicion that the fur rendition of the aging queen could almost pass as a legitimate piece of souvenir ‘craft’ art. Physically, the pictures might dissolve into incoherent masses of fur; culturally the symbol of the monarchy becomes indistinguishable from living room kitsch.
There is more to the fur, however, than the curious surprise of its mingling with resemblance, or the bemusement at cultural ironies. The potential for metamorphosis inferred in Corless’s evocation of the queen as being transformed into “the spoils” refers to a more penetrating reading of the notion of ‘the border’ as it occurs in the painting or the person within arm’s reach or the clothes and other commodities which become a second skin. One looks, one wears, one makes exchanges; one alters and is altered, all within the constituency of touch. Within the imaginative territory of these subjects are rawness and wealth, the luxuriant and the excoriated: the brown corruption of a Velasquez portrait, the germs teeming in the clothes of the colonial wealthy, the dirtiness of money and also its sublimating, purifying simplicity.
Within the ‘fourth wall’ that divides a painting from its viewer is a richer terrain than we imagined from across the picture gallery. The glazes that made the shadows and light of flesh, but also gold, velvet, leather, and jewels might open up to our inquiry as the objects of history and ephemera of personality; they might give way beneath an apprehension of age and distance to reveal the work as fragments and accidents, bacteria and dust. A fur coat as an emblem of prestige begins as an animal and ends in luxe, literally, light. Luxury, as a dazzling sheen, intimidates, establishes a class-distance, but also unifies with its subject into an object with no history before it was an object of desire. This was the marginal limit of the fox – an organ but not a severed part, a resemblance, but not an index anyone can read in order to find the heart of the matter.
The impact of colonization on the people of First Nations was the other historical feature to affect me strongly. The facts themselves were disturbing, but so was my sense of surprise in finally understanding that disease and violence played such a fundamental role in transforming Canada’s population. In connecting with and claiming Canadian history for the first time, the displacement of those who were already here was something that I also had to own.[iv]
These blankets with their intertwined suggestions of exchange, occupation and disease are both units of trade and agents of change. As Hudson’s Bay Company currency for pelts, the point blankets represented the sense of survival as something possessing palpable weight, quantifiable in its denseness and texture. As a colourful object of current fashion (witness the HBC’s recent reissuing of the blanket stripe on everything from scarves to handbags to coats), the colours would transcend the reality of their history along with the heaviness of their material. They were and are moveable emblems for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s art, and – here, now – for the artist’s. The smallpox-like anomalies Corless has sewn into them are hints of viral life that refer specifically to a concealed history. Which history? Here the threads diverge: the disease was an insurgent hidden in blankets; its revelation undermines a complacency of official record; the intuitive ‘drawing’, even painting that the stitching becomes, offers a curiously liberating opposite for the artist from the rigor of working resemblance in fur.
However the blankets and flags might function as a grim reminder, they keep a certain fugitive comfort, and remain marked with paint or thread in a way which suggests the creative act that is rehabilitating, even while it is mordant. Corless has noted Jasper Johns’s use of the American flag of the McCarthy era as a supposedly ‘neutral’ subject matter for the exploration of the material values of paint. Today, his encaustic flags are in a state of constant deterioration, as if the segregated pleasure of the wax paint’s application were still burning time within the ceremonial pattern of the flag. The most famous reoccurrence of the American flag in popular imagination since that time has been during the flag-burning controversy of the Reagan years and the flags – genuinely populist and at times wretchedly ragged – which have hung and flown in New York city since September 11th. Blankets represent, in their oldest cultural connotations, a portable domesticity. In America, one pledges allegiance to the flag, “wraps” oneself in it. Here or there, you take your home wherever you can find it.
Resemblances are no different. In his essay, This Mortal Magic, David Hickey talks about the experience of losing people as a lost Rolodex card, photographs which fall out of the shuffle.[v] He points out that in portraiture that came before the advent of the photograph, a picture might quite literally ‘stand in’ for its patron when they were away from family, as a near-flesh and blood reminder. Contrast this with John Berger’s assertion that oil painting was developed, as a technology, firstly to render with maximum persuasiveness the palpable richness of patrons and their goods.[vi] Somewhere between these arguments is a longing for symbolic objects to agitate the conditions of daily life, or the power of even devalued symbols to become filled with urgency as the need of the moment divines its agency in metaphor. Within any definition of craft is repetition and labour, and it’s on to this that we’d assume, project, or wish for, the trace of love ploughed under.
My father died when I was 14 — he was an alderman in our community (Fort McMurray) and the flags around our city went to half-mast. I have visceral memories of seeing those lowered Canadian flags, and to this day the sight of a lowered flag hits me emotionally. In the time following 9/11 the flags were half-mast for weeks on end; within a month and without really knowing where it would lead, I responded to the emotion that I was experiencing and produced the first piece of this body of work, fur flag.[vii]
The fur flag is a dense-looking thing. It bears a lot of associations, many of which Corless, characteristically Canadian by her own reckoning, won’t pin down exactly.
It seems a dreadful conceit to say of anything, any object, that it’s capable of speaking for victims of colonial occupation, or addressing issues of animal cruelty, etc; grave or facetious. But a flag is and was the article of such conceits, and the flag of the nation-state is a modern idea that – like certain other 20th century concepts – mutates as it decays. Right now, when advertisers synthesize a new Canadian-ness on beer commercials or in the creation of brand-immersive vacation camps based on sportswear and leather goods,[viii] the Canadian flag as reconstituted out of fur seems like our reference point for ‘raw materials’ lost and found.
[i] Susan Musgrave, “Flying the Flag of Ourselves”, Tarts and Muggers, Poems New and Selected (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982), 101
[ii] Marianne Corless, “Statement, January 16th, 2003” (unpublished, used with author’s permission)
[v] Cf. Dave Hickey, “This Mortal Magic”, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (Los Angles: Art Issues Press, 1993)
[vi] John Berger, “5”, John Berger, Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, Richard Hollis, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books/BBC, 1972), 90
[vii] Conversation with the artist 12/03
[viii] Naomi Klein, “Mergers and Synergy”, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Toronto: Vintage, 2000), 152-154