Smoke and Mirrors

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 Smoke and Mirrors 4: Acrylic, gel medium, transfer, conte

This is the fourth in the “Smoke and Mirrors” series. The first three of the series can be viewed at http://www.mypersonalheadspace.com

Uncontrolled, primitive movement in the left quadrant of the canvas forms a counterpoint to the structured, rational elements of what seem to be chemical compounds. The colour block technique and bright lines of colour appear to be inspired by gestural expressionism. An overlay of strings of gold drops is evocative of computer code streaming down a screen and can be seen as a commentary on the linear nature of scientific paradigms and their limited ability to quantify raw emotion and layers of meaning.

The entire piece is perhaps a metaphor for the postmodern struggle between linear, rational thought and primitive, sentimental understanding. The background is meant to suggest depth and an inner cosmos floating through the layers of colour. Smoke, rendered in white chalk, flows through the images, creating movement and uniting the disparate elements of the chemical structures with the frenzied whorl and splatter of the vivid greens and oranges.

The Smoke and Mirrors series is a departure from the previous series: The Meaningful Subway, which used realistic images, slightly altered to convey alternate or hidden meanings in every-day symbols. The pregnant semiotics of subway signage gave birth to layers of meaning that created new significations for the observer.

Subway Doors, acrylic, letraset

Despite their differences, it is clear that both series seek to create a paradigm that simultaneously deconstructs the rational and reinvents the unfathomable.

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The King and the Rainbow Cape

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Now, children, I am going to tell you a bedtime story …

Once, in a land not so far away, there lived a cruel and evil king who ruled over a small town. The people in the town feared King Porky, for he would often fly into a violent rage and, pointing to the nearest inhabitant of the town, say – Throw her in the dungeon! – or – Off with her head!

Evil King Porky had a trusted helper who never left his side: Knave Redbreast. Knave Redbreast carried a small, sharp dagger under her wing and delighted in pricking the townspeople from behind, then hiding the dagger quickly so when they looked around, they could not tell where the sharp pricks were coming from. Then she would regale King Porky with these tales and they would both laugh.

The nearest village was in the valley where there lived many horses, stallions on one side of the village and mares on the other. In that village, all of the horses, both mares and stallions, were known for their colourful rainbow-hued capes. They would often parade through the village wearing their rainbow capes, cavorting and playing music, and many of the townspeople from the region would visit these festivals to sing  and dance and make merry.

For some reason, Evil King Porky did not like those villagers. Nobody knew why, for the horses had never done anything in particular to displease the king, but when the king came upon a rainbow cape one day in his town, he threw it down in the mud and laughed as he spat upon it.

One day, a silly goose came to live in King Porky’s town. King Porky encouraged Knave Redbreast to befriend the goose, for as he said – You are both birds and perhaps the goose will come to live in the castle and work for us. Many of the townspeople were afraid of King Porky and did not want to live close to the castle and so the King and Knave Redbreast were often left alone there to hatch their evil plots.

The next day, Knave Redbreast invited Silly Goose to a dinner at the castle but when Knave Redbreast could not resist pricking the goose from behind, the goose soon tired of their company and decided to move to the town.  Before she left, however, the King told Silly Goose about two of the townspeople and said to Silly Goose – I think that Cinderella and Barbie the cat are plotting against me. Cinderella is overly close to Barbie the cat and I am sure this is an unnatural alliance, for why would a cat keep company with Cinderella? Moreover, Cinderella often visits the horses of Rainbow Village and Barbie the cat is also a friend of the horses. Find out what you can about these two and report back to me on anything you can find out about this most inappropriate friendship.

So Silly Goose moved next door to Cinderella and spent much time peering through the keyhole and listening at the door, but in the end, found no evidence of any wrongdoing and decided to tell Barbie the cat about what King Porky had said. Silly Goose also told both Barbie the cat and Cinderella about Knave Redbreast and her habit of pricking the townspeople from behind and then hiding, as well as many other stories of King Porky and his accusations against them. Silly Goose’s words struck fear in the hearts of Cinderella and Barbie the cat and Cinderella decided to leave the town and move to a neighbouring kingdom on the hill. Barbie the cat was very sad to see her friend leave and did not know why King Porky despised the horses of Rainbow Village.

But Barbie the cat could not leave, for she had to tend her small garden where she grew cabbages and carrots. Although King Porky would often pass by and take a bushel of her crops without paying for them, she had to feed her kittens and could not leave her garden. Silly Goose told her – I will move away from here for King Porky is cruel and evil and you should do the same. Barbie the cat just sighed and wished she could leave and move to a place where the mice and the chickens lived freely and did not shake in their boots each time the King and his Knave passed by.

And now it is late and we shall finish the story tomorrow night…

Postmodern Barbie

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Summer is the season of fireworks and festivals. What Barbie did on her summer vacation has included taking in a number of this season’s cultural offerings: Abstract Expressionists and General Idea at the AGO, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Twelfth Night at Stratford and the First Nations Festival at Place des Arts. In other words: art deconstructs life deconstructs art. I finally “get” post-modernism (and not a moment too soon since the frontrunners of culture are already announcing its demise, although I suppose in itself that could be seen as a postmodern construct).

This is not to say that the Abstract Expressionist movement is postmodern; it is not clever and is self-referential in the extreme. The gesture is the message and the bigger the better. It is the big sloppy sundae of art with everything on it, made the way you like it. Whether it tastes good or not is irrelevant. But it was the yin to my understanding the tangy yang of po-mo.

The self-proclaimed postmodern production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Stratford was my first foray into experiencing the rush that comes from juxtaposing and overlaying traditional forms with implicit and explicit contemporary references. My first reaction to the electric guitar player in Elizabethan-styled leather belting out “if music be the food of love, play on” was whaaaat? Followed by, play on, I love it!

I can’t tell you what po-mo is, but I know it when I see it. One of the definitions I came across states, “That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” (What he said…tastes like chicken.)

After that, my summer has been just one big, po-mo (if you’ll excuse the expression) mind-fuck.

The General Idea retrospective turned on the lightbulb to illuminate for me deconstructed and reconstructed reality. The recurring symbols and themes (poodles, pills and threesomes) becoming as instantly recognizable as the Warhol soup can, combined with the very clever Miss General Idea Pavillion that was never built yet successfully reconstructed after (or before) the fact, complete with shards rescued from the non-existent archeological digs. Too clever by half. The repeated theme of threes perhaps casts some light on Bronson’s current pastime of studying theology to “see where Christianity fits into the big picture”.

It is clear to me that the Barbie project has been entertaining, but is it art? It is not “real life” but merely playing at life; then again, we do spend an awful lot of time in the game, in particular the awful office game, where failure to play by the rules can result in epic fail. The experiment teaches that workplace and social interaction is not real life but rather, artificial reality – it is the structure that defines us – but although there is no “I” in team, there is art in artifice.

Take the First Nations Cultural festival at Place des Arts: a conceptual 100-foot-tall teepee constructed of translucent illuminated acrylic sheets, coloured light-panel moose sculptures mounted in black ironic frames reminiscent of the stained glass at the Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal and a white anthropologist from UQAM demonstrating traditional skills such as making stone arrowheads. I still can’t decide whether it was the most authentic comment yet on native culture or the effect of winter boredom and summer heat on the festival designers’ judgement.

During that same visit to Montreal I took in the Gaultier Haute Culture exposition with its Disneyesque mannequins sporting holographic hyper-real facial expressions and providing commentary on the fantastical fashion creations and life in general, a.k.a. absurdity. The iconic forms echoed the themes of native culture and madonna/trinity with satisfying synchronicity.

And I even picked up the perfect po-mo Barbie dress for half price at a random shop on St. Laurent to wear with the fashionable Cole Hahn purse gifted to me by a dear friend visiting from out-of-town. The artifice of the Barbie project informed the authenticity of the artistic experience. Priceless.     

Now, I am working on my own painting. I do not pretend to be an Artist but I like to create art for my very private bedroom gallery. The Barbie project is artful; it is my own personal summer fireworks display. The word for fireworks in French (feux d’artifices) and Spanish (fuegos artificiales) reflects the artificial nature of that fiery show. They are ephemeral, tracing bright colours across the sky canvas and fading as soon as they burst into being. The painting is personal and authentic; this art is real. It is as yet unfinished; it is messy and there are layers so you can’t see what is underneath. Perhaps when it is done, I will put it up on the blog with an appropriate narrative so that it can become art.

Being John Malkovich, Malibu Barbie, and Nothingness

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  “the idea of becoming someone else for a little while, being inside another’s skin – thinking differently, moving differently, feeling differently.”  Being John Malkovich

“Perhaps it is inevitable; perhaps one has to choose between being nothing at all and impersonating what one is.”  Sartre

Being Barbie, like being John Malkovich, is an entertaining project that inspires existential musings. Following a week in which my co-worker, Cinderella, gave her notice and announced her departure to greener employment pastures and my children left for a six-week vacation to visit their father, I am left with my own thoughts and time to think them; I’d like to say that this has opened my eyes to revelations about the meaning of life but the philosopher who speaks to me at this point is Sartre: Hell is… other people.   

Finding a solution to my work situation is front and centre.

It is clear that practical imperatives like paying the bills dictate that I must resist the urge to act precipitously. This at times requires forbearance beyond Barbie’s reach (and you know I was tempted to say “beyond Barbie’s ken), such as happened a few days ago when our IT girl (who is less than proficient in English) asked for my help to understand an email directing her to fix a bug in our company website.  As I labouriously explain the problem to her, my boss emerges from his office to tell me, “I don’t want you bothering Skipper because she has more important things to deal with”.  Of course he assumed that I was the one creating a “bother” because it is now a clearly defined pattern in the office that some of us are deemed to be problems – not coincidentally the women who express inconvenient opinions about management decisions – and others are the favoured children. It is simultaneously illuminating and creepy that he thought it appropriate to give his assistant a stuffed animal as a gift.

Therefore, I dedicated a large chunk of the weekend to my job search, which included meeting with a recruiter. The recruiter had called about a potential job and asked me to come in for an interview.  My nails at that point were a brilliant shade of pink matching the highlighter on my desk and so I made time for a French manicure and pulled from my closet a tailored, conservative suit.  I was being considered for a legal job and a frilly pink blouse would not be sending the right message.  This costuming of the consciousness is an ego-bending experience, not to mention it reveals some confusion as to where to focus my energy in the job search. I have many abilities and a trio of respectable university degrees however, nearly 20 years living abroad and having job experience that no one can easily quantify here means that I am not quite qualified to practice as a lawyer yet am somewhat over-qualified to work in more administrative positions.  At this point I am targeting mid-level positions that depend on skills to be learned in situ and seek such competencies as research ability, organization and written communication skills. These jobs are few and far between and unless I can get my foot in the door for a personal meeting, I fear that my long-in-the-tooth CV may scare off potential employers.  The other possibility, which yields many more postings, is the ubiquitous Executive Assistant – EA. Going this route offers the chance to get perks that I don’t currently enjoy, such as benefits and an employer who may appreciate my efforts. It also means branding myself with a Barbie perma-smile since once I have been defined as an EA, employers will no longer consider my employability as an E. That’s just the way it is. But as our hero, Sartre, once said: “The best work is not what is most difficult for you; it is what you do best.” And I do best when performing my job well results in a happy employer.  I have no doubt I would be a kick-ass EA.

The question is, can I define myself as an EA? While I have high respect for women who do this work, and it is nearly always a woman’s job, I believe I have the ability to be the one making the decisions and designing the plans to carry them out.  On the other hand, I really need to move on and as they say in Spanish, “La necesidad tiene cara de perro” – need has a dog’s face or loosely translated, beggars can’t be choosers.


After sending in a number of CVs and applications into cyberspace, I decided to get a bright summer pedicure and spray-on tan and channel Malibu Barbie.   Being fair-skinned, I had been avoiding the summer sun, but five minutes in a machine that spritzes a fine mist of chemical dyes created the desired effect: a healthy copper glow to set off the blonde hair and coral lips and toes.  I am hoping I’ll have to hide the coral toes for my next interview, but I’m hedging my bets.

It’s better to be good than right

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There are more important things than being right. You can be right about something but at the end of the day, it often doesn’t matter. If you believe you are right about the name of the actor who played that character in the movie you saw a couple of years ago (assuming Google isn’t handy to fact check) and you end up in a snit with your friend over it, it won’t matter much who was right if the rest of your evening is clouded by mutual annoyance. We are taught that being right is the ultimate value but if nobody wants to hear it and they shoot the messenger then that will be the end of messages.

Sure, some things are worth standing on principle, but where to draw the line? Is it compromising who you are as a person to play the office politics game? My bread is landing butter-side up more often since I decided to become a demurring “yes-Barbie”, in the sense that management doesn’t get angry with me since I stopped telling them the sky is going to fall in about 6 months when my department crashes under the weight of its own success because nobody is shoring up the extra tonnage with more human resources. Instead, I smile, “Sure, I’d be more than happy to design a plan to increase growth and achieve even higher sales targets” (but I really hope not to be here when the consequences are an inevitable decline in quality and service). Nobody likes to be told inconvenient truths that interfere with business targets. Survival in the office jungle often means adopting the best camouflage and playing nice.

Being good – agreeable and well-behaved – is rewarded in nearly all situations. Children who are well-behaved do as they are told, don’t talk back to their elders or fight with their peers and endure all manner of dull adult activities without a word of complaint. Adults who are well-behaved know better than to raise politics, religion or contentious social issues in a conversation and if such topics are discussed, they would certainly know enough to change the subject the moment tempers start to flare. Well-behaved adults in the business world may snarl at competitors but they will be cast out from the pack if they dare to challenge their alpha dog’s choices.

The law-abiding, rational society in which we live would have us believe that all situations can be divided into right versus wrong, good versus evil. 

Everyone knows you want to be right and on Superman’s side.

 

But you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar and if the one with the most flies wins, you’d damn well better use honey. My grandmother has often said, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. Barbie is always nice and well-behaved; Barbie’s superpower is being good. In my effort to emulate Barbie’s winning ways, I am working the honeyed approach with the flies in my office.  They can be very irritating, these flies: the way they buzz by my head while I am trying to concentrate on spreadsheets. They seem to lack work to keep them sufficiently occupied and one of them flits about making small talk about her current facebook status, then swoops off to go shopping in the middle of a work day. Butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth Barbie feigns interest in the shopping purchases and offers candy from her desk drawer proving that indeed, you can catch more flies that way. Meanwhile, Barbie’s pink fingernails are digging into her palms in an effort to keep the honeyed smile glued into place and obeying grandma’s law by not saying anything at all.

Serving honey to flies works to attract them and keep them happy and being good works to keep the alpha dog from going for the jugular. The question is: what good will a jar full of flies do Barbie when the sky starts falling and the alpha dog decides to throw her to the wolves?

Don’t waste the pretty

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“Don’t waste the pretty” my mother said to me the other day, her way of complimenting me on my appearance, achieved after the requisite primping ritual. This was not the first time she has said this to me in recent years (since my separation and divorce) and each time it makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable. I smile rather unconvincingly in acknowledgement and try to identify what it is about that comment that causes me to squirm.

Don’t waste the pretty – on its face, it means that I am attractive and should be dating now, putting my energy toward finding a suitable handsome prince, gathering ye rosebuds while ye may. Even on this superficial level, I feel the exhortation is a kind of veiled criticism of my lack of attention to this area of my life. I have had larger pressing  issues to deal with in the past couple of years: moving from one country to another, buying a condo and all the attendant paperwork and financial juggling that required, finding a job and negotiating my way through the minefield of office politics, to name a few. You perhaps expected that I would be creating an e-harmony profile and sifting through potential suitors in my non-existent spare time?  And maybe, just maybe, the idea of a relationship and all that entails – dating, awkward silences or blathering small talk to fill them, and those “oops, sorry, no-you-go-first” situations until you develop enough familiarity to be able to relax – seems  to be all too much to contemplate right now.

So, if I am wasting the pretty, what does this mean? I suppose first of all, it means that when the pretty is gone (and if I understand my mother, this is imminent) then I will no longer be attractive in all senses of the word: neither physically attractive nor a desirable commodity.The currency I now possess for a limited time will soon be devalued and as worthless as the crepey skin on which it is written.  It also is reminiscent of the values that inspired the idiom: “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”  Failure to exploit the barter value your physical appearance represents is akin to wasting your demonstrations of affection and failing to get paid fair market value for those goods and services. 

To me it also means that making the effort to look “pretty” – traditionally feminine and frilly, or as my daughter would say, adhering to a heteronormative stereotype – only makes sense when it has the purpose of showing your colours to potential mates. This peacock plumage painted on the female of the species will be considered tawdry and in poor taste – mutton dressed as lamb – when one reaches the age it is considered unseemly to be a sexual creature, when it becomes fodder for low-brow jokes, although to be fair, these are often directed at both sexes. Why is it wasteful to bedeck yourself in florals and perfumed scents for your own pleasure? If high heels tap across a dance floor and there is no one to hear them, do they exist?

And below this murky surface is the even darker shadow of shipwrecked bones surrounded by the circling sharks. What you have wasted will soon be gone forever; the wasting spectre glares back accusingly with a richtered grimace and crooked pointing finger:  “Don’t waste the pretty”.

I would like some lemon pledge

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Does Barbie have a maid? The dream house is pristine and gleams in rosy perfection yet I have never seen dishevelled and sweaty Barbie wearing pink rubber gloves as her main accessory. On Saturday afternoon I spent the better part of three hours helping to clean up a flooded basement. Time ran short and so I left directly from there to meet a girlfriend, wearing jean capris and a jean jacket, a less-than-fresh Tshirt, my daughter’s old Vans and no makeup. It was more of a seen-better-days biker mama look (minus a few tattoos) than vintage Barbie.  

After joining my friend at a local patio, where we both felt the crowd was quite “young” (this term becoming more and more relative and less based on actual numbers as we collect birthdays), I set off on the public transit journey homeward. After the subway has closed, this journey becomes as much a part of the Saturday evening activities as the outing itself. The bars empty and the streets fill with their occupants, mostly happy and boisterous and a few looking like they would prefer to hug a lamp post for a while rather than climb aboard what is colloquially known as the “vomit comet”: the 24-hour TTC buses that serve a few routes throughout the city.

There I was at 2 am with my long blonde hair, yes, but it was pulled back in a ponytail and I was wearing no makeup. No heels – only the unfashionable skater shoes that my daughter had scornfully cast off and refused to let me wear if I was out in public with her.  Not very Barbie-worthy attire.  I noticed that I was attracting no attention at all from the majority of my fellow night travellers, which was fine with me since I wasn’t in the mood to make conversation anymore. I looked like I might have just finished a night shift at Coffee Time, which as everyone knows, is the very poor and inbred cousin of Timmies and definitely more than six degrees of separation from Starbucks.  While I was aware of this, I certainly didn’t expect that when a rare seat on the bus became available in front of me a sweet young thing would jump into it and proceed to gesture at her friends with one hand while texting with the other, completely oblivious to my movement toward the seat when it had been vacated.

For those who ride public transit, you will know that the days of gentlemen giving up their seats to ladies are long gone.  But it is surprising to me how people are able to insulate themselves so well from the recognition they are sharing space and air with dozens of complete strangers. Maybe that is just an excuse I make for my fellow citizens.  Perhaps it isn’t unwitting unawareness but smug self-interest that allows younger and fitter riders to look right through the women with pregnant bellies or obviously exhausted men or women of a certain age while they remain comfortably seated. I’m not saying that my diner-waitress look was supposed to have invited courtesy, but the shift in attitude from something that had happened to me a week before made me stop and think.  There was the bus driver who stopped for me a few days before, then there was another day when I was hustling down to the subway platform and the door was about to close. I stopped short and watched the doors in front of me, resigned to wait for the next train, when two burly fellows pulled the doors apart and whisked me inside the doors – “come on” said one to the other, “let’s get her in”. I smiled in confusion – this unsolicited assistance came at some risk to their own arms since subway doors are not made to be held back when closing – and I had not made any visible signs to communicate to them it was urgent that I embark on that particular train.

On that day, I had been coming from work and was wearing an appropriately nice dress and jacket, heels and makeup.  My wardrobe was communicating something different about me than my Saturday night bus ride outfit. Lucky for me that my day job doesn’t involve rubber gloves as the main accessory.  Unlucky for those who have no choice but to show their lemon pledge affiliation on the way home in the streetcar, and especially unfortunate if they happen to be over 40 and female, because no amount of spit and polish will make them appear shiny and new to the masses of fellow riders. Their secret power is invisibility but they won’t be able to use it for good or evil.

As for me, I managed to entertain myself with some 2 am streetcar verse:

A generic passenger sits beside me
pregnant waft of
Man scent
humid
fertile black earth
brown tobacco
and salty
Float slowly by
and hang
beside the closed window
then bounce back
memory of Woman scent
warm
yeasty fresh
cherry souffle
hyacinthe
and tears.

 

 

 

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