Material Girls at Doris McCarthy Gallery

Material Girls is an exhibition curated by women (Jennifer Matotek, Blair Fornwald, Wendy Peart) featuring works by women (twenty-five Canadian and International artists) that addresses aspects of being a woman (the feminized body, gendered space, capitalistic desire); and it couldn’t find itself in a better space. Currently showing at the all-female staffed Doris McCarthy Gallery in Scarborough — named after the late-great landscape painter and mentor to feminist art pioneer Joyce Wieland — Material Girls is a travelling show that recently left its roots at Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina for Toronto’s far east end.  

Installation view of Material Girls, Doris McCarthy Gallery

Described in its title panel as a horror vacui: fearful of empty space, the show is also self-admittedly “visually overwhelming” at times with works ranging from Sarah Anne Johnson’s small and intimate c-prints to Tricia Middleton’s expansive pastel-coloured wax-covered stalagmites emerging from the floor. And the show’s themes are just as plentiful as its visuals — a given, as Material Girls was put together by three curators with three different interests of study. Matotek looks at how pattern and repetition is utilized by various cultural perspectives, Fornwald is interested in the notion of feminine excess, and Peart finds fascination in the tactility of materials and how they consider the human body in various ways. 

Tricia Middleton, Ladder Buddies (detail), 2013-14, mixed media, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist and Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran

Marie Watt’s “Skywalker/Skyscraper (Axis Mundi)” is one work that checks each curator’s box. The installation is a ninety-six inch tall tower — a readymade of sorts — composed of reclaimed wool blankets that have been folded, piled upwards, and held together by a vertical steel beam. Made up of various pastel-coloured patterned fabrics, Watt’s work encapsulates the “material” part of Material Girls while also complimenting the room in which it sits: where standard white gallery walls have been painted lovely shades of baby pink, blue, and yellow. Conceptually, the work also speaks to multiple dichotomies such as “soft yet strong”, “domestic yet ambitious”, and “Indigenous yet Non-Indigenous”, as represented by Watt’s half-Haudenosaunee heritage.

Marie Watt, Skywalker/Skyscraper (Axis Mundi), 2012, reclaimed wool blankets and steel, 96” x 22” x 22”, collection of the artist

Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of Material Girls is the attention it pays to women artists of culturally diverse backgrounds, importantly including all women — and not just some women — in the continuing dialogue about female artists in the contemporary art world. Works are included by artists from Indigenous, Asian, and Middle Eastern backgrounds like Christi Belcourt, Ying-Yueh Chuang, and Morehshin Allahyari.

From left to right: Ying-Yueh Chuang, Strawberry Banana Cup Cake, 2014, ceramic with Retro Medalta pottery, 6” x 6”, collection of SLATE Fine Art Gallery; Chicken Vegetable Plate, 2014, ceramic with Retro Medalta pottery, 6” x 16”, collection of the artist; Okra Star Plate, 2014, ceramic with Retro Medalta pottery, 3.5” x 11.5”, collection of the artist

Allahyari’s “Like Pearls” is a work that caught my interest right away. Viewed on an iMac in the first room of Material Girls, the piece is a Geocities-style Internet installation decked out with all of the glittering rose GIFS from 2005 you could imagine. Reflecting on objectified images of female underwear models, found in email spam and online underwear stores based in Iran, “Like Pearls” has a quality that is nostalgic yet disturbing; reminding me of what it was like to be twelve years old and mindlessly collecting (and idolizing) similar images of objectification for my own personal webpage. Allahyari’s quirky Internet art perfectly captures the absurdity of this problematic twenty-first-century self-making process that exists across cultures.

Morehshin Allahyari, Like Pearls, 2014-15, website, collection of the artist.

An exhibition full of various materials, cultures, colours, and concepts; Material Girls may well be a horror vacui in the very best way. Most importantly, the show finds unity in its overarching theme of women taking up space, both literally and figuratively.

Text and photo: Emily Lawrence

*Exhibition information: February 3 – April 9, 2016, Doris McCarthy Gallery at University of Toronto Scarborough, 1265 Military Trail. Gallery hours: Mon – Thur: 11 am – 4 pm, Wed: 11 am – 8 pm, Saturday: 12 – 5 pm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *