Tag Archives: Vanessa Mitter

Vanessa Mitter: Unquiet Brides

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.

Vanessa Mitter, Threshold, mixed media (acrylic, gouache, watercolour and collage) on canvas,  125cm x 70cm, 2015-16

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.


Strange Attraction

Dear A, I’m attracted to you, and I don’t know why.

            Shall we be friends?

Artworks can write letters too, inasmuch as they reach out, make lines of contact with other artists, and forge an aesthetic of correspondence. In Strange Attraction, a group exhibition of six artists working in a variety of media at APT Gallery, curated by Emily Purser, that correspondence is curated and archived, as the works speak to one another through their shared preoccupations. Sometimes the works’ closeness can be found in the processes in which they have been made, or the materials that have been manipulated, and sometimes it is found in the works’ ideas, its postscripts and its messages.

Many of the artists gathered here are interested in biography, not as a mapped out narrative, but as an affective pool: a script to be rewritten and performed, as pliable as paper. And even when the life is not visible in the works’ imagery, it exists in the frenetic states of matter and experience that the work has endured.

The abject body is a marginal unclean thing, potentially transgressive in its borderline subversiveness. In Lana Locke’s work, the sculptor references this body, but fragments it, creating sculptural installations that suggest, or indeed perform, a loose and perverse corporeality. Heads float. Limbs are scattered about like twigs on the ground. Bloody sheets fall from flowers on plinths. Locke returns to APT Gallery having previously exhibited there in the Creekside Open 2013, where she won Paul Noble’s Selector’s Prize. Her works in Strange Attraction include the pictured sculpture, Bridal Piece III (2014). Locke says, ‘I am thrilled to return to APT Gallery to be part of this beautiful exhibition curated by Emily Purser. My own work in the show is very personal, and it is clear that all the artists have very different approaches. Yet as you walk around the exhibition, many subtle, organic underlying threads emerge between the artworks of the group and they seem to speak to each other. It is a haunting, strangely uplifting exhibition that I am proud to be a part of.’

This mode of identity performance is similarly found in Lady Lucy’s paintings, which draw on documentary and interview research, to create portraits of layered and collaged material, often incorporating art historical gestures and tropes. Defiantly appropriated, the self is rendered a composite artificial object.

Andrew Mania makes art akin to the obsessive habits of a collector, transcribing people and objects. In his work, the autobiographical is recast in small, coloured pencil drawings, and even smaller paintings: a public re-reading of the intimate. The blue eyes of a young boy gaze out from the canvas, affective and abject: it is a look of innocence, melancholy, desire and love.

In Vanessa Mitter’s paintings, the personal is also treated as a pliant material, a source of affect and investigation, but also of fiction and performance. Collage, paint and pigment find a way on to the canvas in ephemeral expressive gestures. There is an abject narrative at play – of lost childhood and drifting brides – but it is a narrative that wanders in and around the artifice of the material.

In Hannah Campion’s work, painting is made into a happening, and then an installation, as her worked on canvases are then reworked into ambiguous three-dimensional forms, which are strewn on the floor or pinned to the wall. The paper or canvas undergoes all kind of processes: it is crushed, trampled, nailed, repaired, collaged. It is an active, performative mode of painting, which is also a site-specific response to the surrounding space.

Eleanor Moreton is similarly interested in painting as performance. In her work, narrative is not so much read as experienced. She provides the protagonist and the prop, often drawing on her own personal histories; but with the medium and its application (part abstract, part figurative), comes an ambiguous appropriation of the primary material. As in the work of the other five artists, the raw is remoulded as an artistic event.

In Strange Attraction, the viewer will find six distinct but correspondent practices, whereby narratives relating to the bodily and the biographical are re-made in painting, sculpture and installation. In these intimate objects, the personal evades our grasp when the performance takes over.

The exhibition is at A.P.T Gallery, 20th March – 5 th April 2015, with a private view on 19th March, 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Curator’s panel discussion and SLAM (South London Art Map) last Fridays opening 27th March, 6.30pm to 8.30pm.

Gallery Opening Hours: 12.00-5.00pm, Thursday to Sunday