F is for fork & second-wave feminism

History and domesticity dominate exploration of gender roles at Agnes

Fine Arts Review: slow boil @ Agnes Etherington Art Centre until Oct. 29

Two artists revisit the issues of second-wave feminism through a small exhibition in Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s Frances K. Smith Gallery.

Mary Rawlyk, a Kingston native, and Martha Rosler, a video artist from the U.S., have collaborated to produce slow boil, which examines domesticity and the role of women through video, print-making and etching.

Rosler’s 1975 video, “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” is the exhibit’s centrepiece, displayed on a rich, red wall at the front of the intimate gallery.

The exhibit’s curator, Jocelyn Purdie, perfectly captures the film’s mood by describing it as a “deadbeat show-and-tell” of kitchen utensils and their applications. Rosler displays a kitchen object or utensil by going through the alphabet and performing a simple action. For example, at the letter “F,” she takes a fork and makes violent jabbing motions.

Rawlyk’s series of eight etchings and prints line the rest of the white gallery space. The red coil of a stove-top burner occupies the bottom half of her first piece: a 1973 print entitled “Boiling.” Above the burner, sharply contrasting with its black background, light blue bubbles rise to the top.

Not simply a representation of a practical household object, it also suggests the building frustration of women encountering limited opportunities during the 1960s and ’70s, much like water eventually coming to a rolling boil. This piece complements the exhibit’s title and successfully summarizes its message.

“Measuring Cup Woman” also places a household object at its centre. In this piece, a photograph of a solemn-faced woman is curled up inside the measuring cup, limited and literally contained by her domestic role.

While Rawlyk’s prints are bland in appearance, though compelling in their content, her four etchings are much more aesthetically pleasing. Highlighting the chores of ironing, wringing shirts, sweeping and sewing, they juxtapose colour with black-and-white and use angular, geometric shapes.

The intense contrast between light and dark emphasizes the conflict between the expectations placed on a woman as the primary housekeeper and her reactions to the role: the light sections depict her daily tasks, and the dark section reveals the depressing side of the chore. The black portion of “Sweeping” includes dirty footprints, baby blocks and clothespins on the floor. Harsh broom bristle marks are also scratched into the print as a hostile response to the performance of the chore.

slow boil forces viewers to explore the definition of gender roles. In Purdie’s introduction to the exhibit, she writes that the display is particularly relevant at a time when “domestic violence and reproductive choice are on the political agenda in Canada and the United States” once again.

It’s not often that artists practicing in different mediums are able to complement each other as wonderfully as Rosler and Rawyk. Their pieces interact, intersect and, in the process, sharpen each other’s message.

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