Kim Kennedy Austin

Wil Aballe Art Projects, (WAAP), 688 E. Hastings Street

When I first went to look for the gallery, I couldn’t find it. Entering off the street, I found myself in a gallery, but the work I was expecting to see of Kim Kennedy Austin’s wasn’t there. I was told by the attendant that I was actually in Fazakas Gallery but I could get to the WAAP gallery from there. Just go out the back door, down the wooden stairs and find the entrance under the steps.

The door was closed. I knocked and went in and the lights were off and no one was there.  I turned the lights on and the overhead daylight fluorescents flooded the place with a cool light. I suddenly remembered that a friend of mine and I had considered this very same place maybe a year ago for a studio space.

Wil Aballe has done a decent job of making it into the ubiquitous white cube in which to show art but the inauspicious location and virtually hidden entrance is a stark reminder of the lack of accessible venues to show contemporary art in Vancouver.

It’s a Grrrl Thing

The show consisted of 50 framed pieces, all the same size, marching around the  room in a single line at eye level. Starting on the left, the artworks were arranged in five groups of five. Aphorisms and phrases apparently drawn from popular culture aimed at young women were spelled out in coloured beads, the type of craft material typically marketed to girls and women. Phrases such as “From Here … to Maturity”, “Skirting the Issue” and “It’s a Grrrl Thing”, were drawn from editorial headlines and advertising copy in issues of Seventeen, a widely-read magazine for teen girls. Austin combed issues from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and extracted phrases to suit her purpose.

On the opposite wall, the same phrases were mirrored but Austin used a different craft technique. At first it looks like stitching by hand with an elaborate scalloped edge. It is in fact, scratch board, a common art product with a black coating of ink laid over another colour. By scratching the black ink, the colour underneath is revealed. In these pieces, she meticulously renders each phrase by scratching small vertical marks resembling thread-like stitches that outline the shape of the letter.

Details of beading and scatch-board

Creating new meaning

Each of the five groupings seem to loosely relate to a theme which I interpreted as: sexual awareness; emotional awareness; economic realities; behavioural expectations; and exhortations to keep current by pop culture standards. By selectively choosing text snippets, grouping them together, and removing them from their context, Austin curates new meaning. The effect of repeating similar messaging is that it creates a concentration of meaning that becomes much more potent than seeing each message in isolation. Here Austin reflects the impact that the media has, with its repetitive and homogenous messaging, in determining normative behaviour.

By using materials and techniques from craft kits, Austin aligns her work with the culture of the demographic the original behavioural maxims were aimed at. The time-consuming methods of gluing beads or creating densely scratched surfaces, while easy to dismiss as the type of vapid pastimes aimed at women to distract them from engaging in anything of more personal or social significance, may in fact have similarities to other spiritual or community craft practices. I’m thinking of the elaborate Tibetan Buddhist tradition of creating mandalas from coloured sand, decoratively painting Ukranian Pysanky eggs or women’s quilting, knitting or embroidery circles. Whether sitting alone in your room or around a table in a group, these activities afford a time of private reflection or communal engagement through shared activity.

Emotional stress in the body

At odds with this meditative or communal aspect is the inherent violence I sensed from the scratch art, as if each mark of the tool was a small cut to the body, not unlike the distressingly widespread practice of cutting amongst young women who are confronting unbearable psychological or emotional stress. It is perhaps this stress that Austin alludes to, not only through the methodological processes of beading and cuts that she uses to deliver her messages, but also through the messaging in cultural products aimed at young women.

The oval form that Austin has chosen recalls a finger print, a widely understood symbol for individuality, and an apt device to give form to the development of the self through adolescence. The oval also harkens to doilies and other lace-trimmed sewn pieces made by women for the furnishing of their homes.

A closed loop

After viewing all the work, I wasn’t sure why they were hung in one continuous row, instead of side-by-side, for instance, with the same message repeated in the two different media, as shown in the exhibition catalogue. One idea may be as the pieces dialog with each other across the floor, the viewer, too, is encouraged to move back and forth, making connections.

It also directs your attention to the mirroring aspect of the content. Perhaps young women on reading  these messages, do not see their own selves reflected back; instead, the message reflects itself, creating a closed loop where the individual is actually excluded.

From the catalogue:
References

Quinn, Anna. “Learning the meditative power of making Pysanky eggs”. www.newstimes.com. April 1, 2017. Retrieved April 4, 2017. http://www.newstimes.com/local/article/Learning-the-meditative-power-of-making-Pysanky-11043656.php

Wil Aballe Art Projects. www.waapart.com. Retrieved April 4, 2017. http://www.waapart.com/portfolio/kim-kennedy-austin-fast-girls-get-there-first/

Zilio, Michelle. “Self-harm cases among Canadian girls up 110%: CIHI report”. www.ctvnews.ca. November 18, 2014. Retrieved April 4, 2017. http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/self-harm-cases-among-canadian-girls-up-110-cihi-report-1.2107791