Chair for a woman
January 18 to March 24, 2019
B.C. Binning Gallery
Chair for a woman is Anne Low’s first solo exhibition in a Canadian public gallery. As her practice is responsive to the (imagined) past lives of the architectural spaces in which she exhibits, and given that the Contemporary Art Gallery was purpose built rather than an adapted storefront or former home, Low saw this exhibition as an opportunity to consider the ways of seeing that are specific to exhibitions, and in particular, to those systems of presentation cultivated by decorative arts museums. How do we regard a piece of furniture once it has been removed from use and what knowledge becomes severed in that process? Chair for a woman prompts us to consider that act of looking in its simultaneous reference to and disruption of those strategies of display.
Low’s artistic research is typically rooted in a close looking at historical objects, materials and surfaces, especially those created immediately prior to the Industrial Revolution. She is concerned with the specific conditions under which such objects are produced and consumed—particularly by women—and the domestic spaces they defined. She is attentive to their specificities—the precise weave of a textile, the height of a chair back, the scale of a wallpaper pattern—and the ways they register minute fluctuations in popular taste as well as expressions of the interior worlds of the women who purchased, owned and used them. Low’s sculptural work examines how these expressive forms can be unpinned from their historical contingencies and “made strange.” This imaginative process of extraction, distortion and translation renders her contemporary works uncanny, hovering somewhere between the recognizable and the mysterious.
Five discrete sculptures (all 2018) sit upon a bespoke plinth in the middle of the gallery. The starting points for these works are items found in the domestic interiors of a range of cultural contexts stretching from 1550 BC Egypt to Edwardian England: a fire screen, a writing desk, a set of bed steps, a stool and a chair. From these points of reference, Low makes a series of departures, transgressions and imaginings to create a suite of entirely unusual forms. Bedchamber for a paper stainer (bedsteps) takes the shape of an arcane piece of bedroom furniture familiar to the European upper classes. Edged in wooden pearl beading ordered from a 135 year old woodwork reproductions company, the back of the object has been clad in scraps of wallpaper Low produced in her studio. The tread of the steps is upholstered in a hand-dyed and woven embossed harateen (a weave commonly used for 18th century curtains and bed hangings) created especially from Low’s own design by Vermont-based master weaver Kate Smith. Chair for a woman, with its maple joinery and mother-of-pearl plugs, offers a subtly scaled up interpretation of an ancient Egyptian artifact in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, catalogued under the same enigmatic name. Dead blood takes the form of a small hand-forged stool upholstered and tufted in hand-woven silk. The pattern of stripes used in the silk loosely references the calimancos woven in Norwich, UK, in the 18th century; in Low’s version these stripes are drained of their colour. Ancestress takes the form of a shrunken writing desk with a working drawer, inside of which hides a package of paper tied with handwoven silk. Sitting atop the diminutive writing surface as though paused in mid-use are two full-sized pencils and three casts of candle stubs. Finally, Grubby recalls the often lavishly decorative screens placed in front of historic drawing room fireplaces when not in use. Fashioned from yardage of Low’s own hand-woven silk, stretched across a wooden frame and embroidered with thread and sequins, the grinning sun imagery recalls that on the costume of the down-and-out clown in Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 film Sawdust and Tinsel. It is precisely this uncoupling and recoupling of context and materials, and a wanton roving across a myriad of historical moments, which is characteristic of Low’s artistic approach.
The plinth that hosts these sculptures is also a sitting bench from which visitors are invited to regard the final work of the exhibition. Mounted on the far end wall of the gallery like a picture, this resembles the fragment of a conjured architectural space. Cut-out voids indicate missing architectural elements, while the extravagant moulding and lintel embellished with a small cameo relief of a woman’s head give indications of the decorative choices in the rest of this imagined room. A hinged door swings outwards from the façade to provide an armature for a short length of flocked wallpaper.
The excessively detailed furnished interiors described in the novels of early 20th century writer Edith Wharton figured prominently for Low in the development of this exhibition. Wharton “invests the objects she describes with an almost uncanny emotional resonance,” as scholar Ann Jacobsen has described, and the same might be said for Low. One of the most persistent concerns of her artistic practice is the way in which subjectivity can be articulated through the materials and objects that we gather around ourselves. While in previous exhibitions a singular woman might be imagined through her installation, with Chair for a woman, this expands to a multitude of different possible fictional women and the emotional and psychological states that each might imbibe from the domestic objects she owns. Material details offer clues to the particular subjects who might have dwelled among such objects, but as with all of Low’s work, that which remains not-known is as potent as what is offered up in all its pleasurable specificity.