Vanessa Mitter: Unquiet Brides
Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name… – Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966.
Girls are going to find a voice. – Kathy Acker, ‘From Psyche’s Journal’, 1997.
From now on, she said, you will be able only to repeat out loud the words you’ve heard others say just a moment before. Won’t you?
Won’t you, Echo said.
Her eyes grew large. Her mouth fell open.
That’s you sorted, Juno said.
You sordid, Echo said.
Right. I’m off back to the hunt, Juno said.
The cunt, Echo said. – Ali Smith, ‘True Short Story’, 2005.
Her hands rest on her hips. Delicate hands, they are, and delicate hips: pale and fragile. She looks like she might break, or snap, like a twig, or like the spindly legs of the green bird that flies above her head. She wears flat Mary Janes. This girl is thin, boyish, and wears a drop-waisted 1920s floral sheathe. Her slightness is deceiving, however: she is no sparrow. With her hands on her hips, it looks like she wants to say something: speak up. From that blue mouth will come sound, song, and speech: maybe even screams.
The dictionary definition says that to be ‘unquiet’ is to be characterized by unrest or disorder, turbulent: the characterization of the attic-locked hysteric. In the works of Vanessa Mitter, she reclaims the word, and its suggestion of the young girl hysteric, as a position of feminist potential, wherein madness becomes a way of talking back, through domestic walls. To be ‘unquiet’ is to be the girl who defeats the fate of silence. It is to be the bride that talks, over and above her containment.
The young girl in the drop-waisted dress is the subject of the painting called Threshold (2015). Has she recently been married? She is stood in a densely packed environment of lime green, purple, orange and blue pigment. The work is unquiet in its restless collaging of colour and materials. Perhaps it is domestic wallpaper, peeling away with age, or a tropical jungle becoming overgrown, wilder with time. In some parts of the image, it is possible to spot a leaf, a bird, a flower or a shoe, amidst the eclectic patterning. This girl is confined in her own image. Natural forms become blurred with abstract ones in this thrillingly chromatic assault of the canvas. It is like peering through a kaleidoscope to find the figure of a young girl bride: she is trapped, but talking. Another painting called Silent Treatment (2015), makes this entrapment known, by virtue of its title and its image: an anonymous figure wears a corseted, full-length dress, but she is headless; her voice has been robbed. This shows us what fate the unquiet bride is looking to escape.
The unquiet bride could also be the girl who makes quilts with her other unquiet brides, stitching shapes together as they converse through the craft: a rallying chorus. This is Vanessa Mitter’s form, with her visceral layering of paint with collaged material, as well as her content, as the girls that she depicts wear their handmade dresses as loud assertions of identity and presence. Her paintings are thus embodied in two senses: the body of the painter can be felt and touched, as much as the bodies of the paintings.
In Deep Sargasso (2015-2016), for example, a green-skinned young girl, her flesh seemingly wasting away (as the body of Echo does in myth), reclines upon a branch, her vacant face demanding the viewer’s gaze. She wears a gown of floral patchwork and crocheted patterns, which disappears into the wider fabric of the embroidered environment. The quilt becomes the dress; the dress becomes the body, an extended body of foreground and background. To immerse yourself in this painting, and others by Mitter, such as Blossom Opening (Keep Dreaming of Kyoto) (2015), is a dizzying, intoxicating sensation. It wills the same feelings of restlessness in the viewer, as is also suggested in the painting’s form and subject: an unquiet mode of looking.
The textural ways in which Mitter appropriates her own work, working and re-working the surface, with the addition of a swathe of fabric, a ripped sheet of paper, or an expressive gesture of paint, becomes a signifier of the passing of time, and the intergenerational bonds between women. This is made even more evident in The Beautiful People, wherein the subjects – although seemingly similar ages – are loud and uncompromising in their bonded multiplicity. There are five of them, and their clothed bodies blur and fade into the next: a defiantly, unquiet expression of empathic communality. Nearly all of them have their hands on their hips. I imagine them talking, echoing one another, answering back to the silent treatment in which they have suffered, like the young girl rebel of Ali Smith’s short story who asserts her right to talk (and rhyme) on her own terms.