Suzo Hickey
excerpted from 'Painting as Insubordination' by Patricia L. Levin

Monique Genton, Suzo Hickey and Lucy Hogg live and work in Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver has a diverse and thriving art community perhaps best known in this country for the photo-based artists, Jeff Wall, Allyson Clay, Ken Lum and Jin-me Yoon. The three artists participating in Coughing Paint have chosen to pursue painting despite the recognition that their community has received for photo-based work and in this way they are already working against the grain. As well, within the larger feminist circles of the art world they have each chosen to practice a medium, painting, that is seen as the epitome of masculinist modernist art practice.

Canadian art history has long been dominated by the glorified mythologies of a group of male painters known as the Group of Seven. The dominance of the Goup of Seven is imbricated in the intense project of Canadian nationalism and the push to forge a national identity during the 1920s and 1930s. Their subject matter was the Canadian landscape and their works were virtually institutionalized by the Canadian government through the purchases, sponsored touring exhibitions, lectures and published catalogues. Brenda Lafleur has explained the project in the following:

The Canadian government was seeking to establish its own power apart from that of Britain and change its status from a feminine 'colony' to a masculine 'nation.' The association of the land and paintings of the Group of Seven with a masculine ruggedness served to establish 'difference' from Britain and counter the British colonialist rhetoric of cultural and national superiority, without compromising the desire for white western immigration. The appeal to the mythology of the northern landscape, and its attendant qualities of the courage, tenacity and strength of the Canadian settler in the Group's work, established a binary between Canada and England. The New World is set against the Old World in gender-related terms: the rough landscape versus the softer, mistier landscape...(220).

The influence and popularity off the Group of Seven continues to play an important role in Canadian culture today. Recently, the Vancouver Art Gallery was the west coast venue for a 'blockbuser' exhibition of works by the Group of Seven organized by the National Gallery of Canada. Coincidentally, the Vancouver Art Gallery also holds an impressive collection of works by Emily Carr – the absented, silenced, feminine voice of modern Canadian landscape painting who happened to be a contemporary of the Group of Seven. Ironically, an art school dedicated to Emily Carr plays an important role in the contemporary art scene of Vancouver and it is here that the lives of Monique Genton, Suzo Hickey and Lucy Hogg intersect. Both Hickey and Genton were once students there and today Genton and Hogg are faculty members at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.

Women who make marks with paint participate in a practice that has a long and complicated relationship to women's bodies as objects of desire. Desire and the image are topics fraught with the politics of representation. The works included in this exhibition engage with notions of identity, the various ways in which desire is performative, and the problematic of subjectivity – in the larger world as well as in the more nebulous terrains of visual culture. The profession of art has long been constructed as hyper-masculine especially in modernist art histories. Even today the term artist is understod to signify a male producer. Genton, Hickey and Hogg employ a particular strategic engagement with art practice and its discursive histories that is overtly feminist. Because of this complex history women who paint are necessarily engaged in an oscillating exercise of desire: playing at the interstices of identification with the 'father'and critque, or what I call, the insurgent realm of hysteria. Women and paintings are made, not born. Freud made this abundantly clear in his early work on hysteria. In his case study of Dora, Freud noted that desire, like representation, its production and reception, is the result of a complex psychical event. The trauma of the event may produce a neurosis of somatic symptoms that give voice to the effects of an event that can't otherwise be spoken. The pain of the trauma becomes a plastic incarnation and the unspoken trauma plays out as an embodied representation. In this sense, hysteria becomes a somatic reminiscence of an unspeakable memory/event. Likewise, we might think of feminist art practice as necessarily traumatic.

I choose to think of hysteria as a subversive tactic employed by individuals, both men and women, outside the domains of power. Lacan has defined hysteria, "far from being merely a pathology," as "first and foremost a position in desire, commmon to all (lacking) subjects: the body speaks without being understood, refusing the place assigned to it in the Oedipal triangle" (Wright 225). The hysteric is the woman who demands to be more than body and muse, she identifies with the artmaker. Hysteria manifests the pattern of a daughter who identifies with her father, in opposition to identifying with her mother. She is the artist who knows her profession's history well and she engages with it unafraid. "The hysteric in not disgusted by her sexual body per se, but by the effort of others to pin her down as a sexual body in terms of a gender identity for which she lacks a signifying basis" (Ragland-Sullivan 164). Lacan see the hysteric as "embodying the quintessence of the human subject because she speaks, as agent, from the lack and gaps in knowledge, language and being. In her being she reveals the incapacity of any human subject to satisfy the ideals of Symbolic identifications" (64).

In this way the discourse of hysteria can be seen as woman's symbolic mode for negotiationg self-representation in patriarchal culture. Each of the three artists participation in this exhibition speaks from the cultural fissures of art history to offer a particular interpretation or reminiscence – simultaneously both acceptance and refusal – that reveals the gap between the real and the fictive. The somatic image of a woman coughing paint is meant to vividly express the transgressive practice of women who happen to be artists. The works in this exhibition represent the delirious fantasies of each woman produced through the embodied performance of being, sublimated and ultimately transformed into paint.

Freud said that what is obsessive on the cultural level yields the religious and that what is hysterical yields art. This commentary aptly seems to characterize the position of feminist art practice today. In painting's most recent return (there have been many returns), this time, in the late 1990s to abstraction, women artists have faced a critical dilemma: can there be a feminist abstraction? If so, what is significant about the relationship between abstraction and contermporary art practice? Why is this relationship fraught with gender politics? And finally, how is hysteria used as a performative tactic to engender works which simultaneously identify with and critique this historically masculinist preserve? I will focus on the works of Genton, Hickey and Hogg to address these questions and to articulate the tactical insurgency of hysteria.

Suzo Hickey's suitcase paintings combine text and visual narrative onto the surface of the ubiquitous suitcase. As objects installed on the gallery walls they challenge the urge to a quick or trite reading, referencing as they do both conceptual art and earlier color-field paintings. Hickey's paintings are rich documents of a life narrative, autographies that produce the subject through their reading. As defined by the feminist literary theorist Jeanne Perreault, autography traces the discursive boundaries of identity in its elaboration of a 'self,' as such it becomes a form of self-invention that Perreault sees as an important aspect of contemporary feminist textual practice. The sense of 'self' that the writer produces is "a mixture of contradictory and shifting configurations of personhood; her interpretation of those configurations will inevitably refigure both them and her 'self'"(6). Autography differs from autobiography in that is is not necessarily concerned with the process or unfolding of life events, but rather makes the writing itself an aspect of the selfhood the writer experiences and brings into being. In the same way we can view Hickey's works as the visual analogues of the written 'self' that Perreault describes. They are reminiscences that deny an imposed structure or form.

The inscription of Hickey's autographies onto the surface of painterly objects, whether that be suitcases or canvas, works to disrupt the objectification and elevation of those very same objects to the status of reverential symbolic art forms. Hickey's self-assured brush stroke is present as a queer feminist gesture that simultaneously alludes to and critiques the heroicized signature of art history. Her use of repetition in form and gesture, like Genton, recalls the hysteric's obsessive bodily display of symptoms. Each suitcase, like the hysteric's somatic gesture, enacts a conversation – one that moves from a silent performance to a speaking of the self. The suitcase also metaphorically reiterates the mobility of identification and subjectivity, desire and sexuality.

In her work, Hickey challenges the masculinist domination of the term artist. Her affirmation of the lesbian as both mother and artist contradicts the conventional understanding of gender identity as stable and fixed. In this way, Hickey offers the female spectator a visible body with which to identify; to see, to read and to empathize. Suzo Hickey's works provide women the space of a read and that is in itself a generous gesture.

back to reviews and essays arrow

Site Design : Suzo Hickey  |  Web Development : The Next Level New Media