Monday, March 01, 2010

Titillate opening March 4 at Gallery 1313 (Toronto)

New Fibre Works by Heather Saunders
March 3 to 14, 2010
Reception March 4, 7 to 9 pm
Gallery 1313, 1313 Queen St. W., Toronto

Bleaching out all the Kevins
by Christopher Régimbal

She wrote his name in marker in all her bras and underwear and mum found them and bleached out all the Kevins.

- The Virgin Suicides, 1999

Over the past decade, New York-based Canadian fibre artist Heather Saunders has developed a practice based on examining how sensory queues such as texture, colour, and pattern in female fashion subtly, and sometimes overtly, reinforce sex and gender norms in girls and women. In the past, Saunders has refashioned formal wear for girls, lingerie, and wedding dresses to tease out new meaning from these ideological and ceremonial items of female clothing. Her latest exhibition Titillate at Gallery 1313 in Toronto mashes up cupcake imagery and women’s underwear to explore the function of both cuteness and youthfulness in the sexualization of women. Although this exhibition appears at first to be a playful look at a widespread sexual kink, it is also a cautionary exploration of the limits that define sexual behaviour.

The lingerie industry is a world-wide empire that thrives on reinforcing definitions of sexiness and desire in men and women, playing to their fantasies and creating sexual roles for each to inhabit. These roles are illustrated by John Cusack’s character Rob Gordon in the film adaptation of High Fidelity when he rants, “I used to dream I’d be surrounded by exotic, women’s underwear forever and ever. Now I know they just save their best pairs for the nights they know they’re going to sleep with somebody.” Titillate investigates how definitions of sexiness and desire create the conditions that dictate not only how women see themselves but how they see themselves being seen by men. My position as a male writer offers me a perspective to discuss Saunders’ work from the other side of the gendering gaze.

Saunders’ 2006 exhibition Please Touch at the W.K.P. Kennedy Gallery in North Bay consisted of more than twenty cocoon shaped bundles sewn from nighties, bras, women’s underwear, and baby clothing. Even with their otherworldly cocoon shapes, Saunders was able to draw out an unmistakable femininity through her careful choice of materials, textures, forms, and colours. The sculptures made a clear reference to infancy and inevitably induced an “aw, how cute” reaction in many viewers. At the same time, they established a connection between the outfits worn by adult women to sexually entice their partners and the gowns worn by infant girls to symbolize their purity. Her 2008 exhibition When I Was Just a Little Girl, Que Sera Sera? at Gallery 1313 added the element of text to her cocoon sculptures by refashioning baby clothing with captions such as “I’m a baby doll,” and “Mon Ange.” Please Touch and When I Was Just a Little Girl, Que Sera Sera? revealed the relationship between the fetishization of cuteness, its related naughtiness, and the erotic infantilization of women, by presenting it as a process that begins in the very first minutes of life for young girls.

returns to the territory that Saunders explored in these two exhibitions, only in this new show, the thread that binds the work together is cupcake imagery. The popularity of cupcakes has exploded in recent years, triggering a proliferation of cupcake boutiques, cookbooks, websites, and clothing. Consider a collection of twenty-five pastel outfits for baby girls that the artist has collected and is displaying in the exhibition. All of them incorporate images of cupcakes, some with seemingly benign captions such as “sweet treat” and “so sweet,” and others with downright creepy captions such as “grandpa’s little cupcake” and “daddy thinks I’m sweeter than sugar”. Along with the collection of baby outfits in Titillate, a twenty-sixth item of clothing recasts the assemblage in a new light: a pink, adult-sized t-shirt that reads “I [cupcake] NY.” Exhibited together, the cupcake outfits trace a gendering path that takes its first steps in infancy and follows countless girls through their lives to adulthood. Worn by adults, the cupcake images that represent the cuteness of baby girls take on an erotic tone, one that is only hinted at in this first example but becomes more evident throughout the exhibition.

Saunders further explores the erotic connotations of cupcakes in Girls I Went to High School With (2010), a set of five embroideries that are adapted from stock photographs of young women suggestively licking and eating the frosted treats. Fair-skinned and youthful women gesture playfully with cupcakes in the source material for the embroideries. All five models in Girls I Went to High School With look adolescent and the cupcakes that they are gesturing with serve only to make them appear younger and more playful. One of the models is wearing a heart shaped tiara and mauve eye makeup and licks her cupcake icing with her mouth wide open while another throws her head back in a playful laughter. The cupcakes on children’s clothing that represent the cuteness of baby girls become phallic stand-ins in a simulation of oral sex. By embroidering the mass-culture images in pink with sparkled thread and pastel colours, effectively turning the source images into a form similar to the sweet treat-type baby clothing, Saunders highlights the absurd imagery of this common advertising trope.

The relationship between the aesthetics of cupcakes, sexuality, and age is further complicated in A-Cup Cakes and D-Cup Cakes (both 2010). The twelve smaller A-Cup Cakes are sewn from pale yellow, blue, pink, mint, mauve, and white underwear, a colour pallet that mimics not only popular cupcake icing flavours but cute baby clothing included in this exhibition as well. The two larger D-Cup Cakes are sewn from lingerie and are topped by a red baby bottle nipple and a red sequin pasty in the stead of the traditional cherry. The floral imagery found in the lace of the underwear and the lingerie lends its design surprisingly well to the icing patterns in these two pieces and is also repeated in the floral tracery pattern on the base of the cake stands that are used to display them. The visual connection between underwear and lingerie patterning and cupcake baking and presentation materials is cleverly made in another work, Ode to Facebook (2010), seven embroidered texts on satin backgrounds that read such things as “chocolate,” “hot pink,” “classic white,” and “pink with polka dots.” These descriptions could easily be drawn from a cupcake decorating cookbook, but they were actually taken from a viral Facebook campaign earlier this year that encouraged women to disclose the colour of their bras in their status updates. The back-story only becomes evident in the last embroidery, which reads “have gone from black to none girls!”, actually lifted from the status of a girl that Saunders went to high school with.

The two themes that Saunders simultaneously develops through this exhibition find their common genesis in the oldest sculpture in the exhibition, Sugar & Spice (2009), a D-sized chocolate coloured bra in the shape of two cherry-topped cupcakes fashioned out of fragments of pale pink lingerie and baby dresses. These two themes are the dual function of cupcakes as children’s desserts and sexual props and the mimicry of baby clothes in erotic lingerie. The act of licking cupcakes in mock fellatio is reversed in Sugar & Spice, as the cupcakes become a sexual toy that prompts the male to lick his partner’s breasts like icing. Although the proposition of bringing a giant cupcake bra into the bedroom seems farcical, is it really that much more farcical than the absurdity of erotically emulating the child-like behaviour of licking icing off of the top of a cupcake? Sugar & Spice reasserts the line between girl and woman, playfulness and fetishization, and Martha Stewart propriety and “Girls Gone Wild” obscenity, which have become strangely and sometimes dangerously blurred in contemporary society.

Although a sexualization of cupcake cuteness seems on the surface to be harmless, taken to its extreme of pornographic depictions of “Barely Legal” women in pink panties, pigtails, and cotton socks, it can in instances lead to the abuse and humiliation of young women. The vast majority of the time, the mangling of Magnolia Bakery cuteness with Victoria Secret sexiness is just another in a series of strange things that happens in the bedrooms of the world. By approaching her subject with a certain amount of humour, Saunders’ cupcake bra sculptures and embroideries take the piss out of the whole thing.

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