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What I'm Reading: Mirror Images by Whitney Chadwick

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

For my current research, I'm revisiting a text I read during my MFA years, Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation. This text was published to accompany an exhiition which looked at art historical assumptions about gender, identity, and intergenerational legacies in the context of Surrealism.

The text includes 7 essays, from providing an over view of women in the Surrealist movement, discussing Duchamp and Cahun's play with gender , and the problem of self representation when the body is positioned as object. It's exciting when you find an essay or book that feels like it's speaking inside your head - the tone, or the arguments feel like they could have come from your mind, or that they perfectly explained something unspeakable but known, until then that is. There are sections of this text that do that in my head - and there are ways in which I desire to talk about my work and my reasons which are so well explained by these writers.

I want to make a note here, that this book (published 1996) does not critically discuss Claude Cahun (1894 - 1954) being listed under the heading "woman surrealist", despite Cahun's clear interest in pursuing an existence outside of gender labels. Cahun and their long-time romantic partner, Marcel Moore, both took masculine/gender-neutral names in early adulthood. Though Cahun used she/her pronouns in their day-to-day, many queer art historians have opted to used they/them pronouns when discussing them, considering the context of Cahun's many writings and works regarding gender. Cahun's autobiography, for example, clearly discusses their interest in and desire to detach themselves from the confines of the gender binary. So, if you investigate this book further, please note and be critical of the binary model of gender presented by these authors.

A few quotes that resonate with me came from Whitney Chadwick, Katy Kline, Helene Poisner, and Susan Suleiman.


"The doubled image in Surrealism has often been read as a means of breaking with unitary meaning or as Rosalind Krauss has elaborated, a device for signifying the real and the unreal simultaneously. The doubled image, however, also provided women artists with a way of complicating otherness by reproducing it as sameness, by making the woman Other to herself and engaging her in a dialogue with the self that produces her life as narrative."

Whitney Chadwick

This causes me to think about my interest in folklore and fairytale, and consider Jack Zipe's discussion of the Fairy world as a 'counter world' (see my last blog post here). By relying on doubled figures in my artwork, and engaging these figures into a fairy and folk world, the tensions between real and unreal is multiplied and complicated. Mirrors facing mirrors. I worry that this makes my work a psychological narrative mess ...but maybe that's what it is regardless. I'm not trying to answer questions in my work; I'm asking questions and I'm not expecting answers.

"As viewers, we bring certain expectations to the self-portarit. In offering the self as subject, viewers assume the artist has chosen to reveal intimate aspects of their physical and psychological being to us. From this perspective, the self portrait serves as the artist's most direct avenue for the disclosure and assertion of identity. For many women artists, particularly those influenced by Surrealism, self-representation is a far more complex and conflicted issue."

Helene Poisner

This struck me, as I often struggle with viewers asking me, "So is this about you?". They bring that expectation to the work, that this is about my psychology or physical being.

And, its simply not a simple "yes" or "no". It is both, in varying proportions and with varying intentions. It's a mess of contradictions. I paint figures coded as feminine, but hide their secondary sexual characteristics with pattern and fabric. I paint figures who look sort-of like me and my sister, but move away from realistic representation as it doesn't feel right. When I paint 2 figures it's never "that one is me, that one is Cass." Never. That feels wrong. They are the same person, and that person is both of us, and neither of us. She is someone else, but she is part of us/me/her. The paintings are a self interrogation, and a disguise. Considering this, it's become fair to say that my work is drawn from and will perhaps contribute to the Surrealist lineage (I say, somewhat confidently) -- as Poisner says, "the presence of mutually conflicting thoughts and feelings, after all, is deeply rooted in the Surrealists' wish to embrace duality and contradiction."

"The art historian Thomas Crow writes that in contemporary art, 'consciousness of precedent has become very nearly the condition and definition of major artistic ambition.' The consciousness of precent is not limited to artists, however; it is also the stock-in-trade of historians and of commentators. By making works speak to each other across time (and space) the commentary not only discovers connections but creates them. which is exactly as it should be."

Susan Suleiman

My art professors were fond of saying "we stand on the shoulders of giants," which I usually took to mean that we had permission to look back and be influenced by artistic predecessors. As I left school and began to make work without the educational system, I tried to let go of comparing myself to historical and contemporary artists. It felt like a distraction at best, severely demotivating at worst. However, I agree with Suleiman here, that works created by artists should speak to each other across time and space. This is not to say that artists should make pieces with that in mind. Expecting a full art historical argument for every work created is unreasonable (and privileges those who have that specific educational support).But, I understand the importance that Suleiman emphasizes here, that art historians, curators, and commentators are fairly tasked with contextualizing art with other art. Nothing is ever alone, "which is exactly as it should be".

That's it for my thoughts on this reading today <3. Take care



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