Thames Art Gallery
On view until January 10, 2016
It might seem a bit adolescent, like a high school teenager mooning about true love, to walk through Julie Sando’s (he called me his) Fully Transistorized Baby at the Thames Art Gallery with a Leonard Cohen song in my head. His mournful Did I Ever Love You is the song in question. If that seems a horrid stereotype of cultural discourse, then all I can offer is that Sando’s work, which is built around a horde of literally thousands of 45 rpm records amassed in the last five years, must share some of that blame.
For example: Sando’s text-based work untitled (In and Out of Love) (2015) orders (with varying coloured text for the different song titles) the 45s by their proclamations (or protestations) of love. I didn’t bring the first cliché into the gallery, but isn’t it appropriate to enjoy the atmosphere that she presents? There are “favourites” listed here, among the one-thousand-plus songs: I found myself humming Because The Night or Don’t Let Me Be Understood as I stood in front of Some Gals Are Good At Romance (2015), with its mirrored diptychs and unsettlingly discarded high heels. Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me or Sugar Daddy or Precious are as familiar as they are eerie, stripped of their affirming (justifying?) social narrative, printed in stark plain fonts on harsh white. The language of love has always been a contested one: a song you won’t find listed in untitled (In and Out of Love) is Florence and the Machine’s Kiss With A Fist, but the debate it generated in the genre of “love songs” lives in the room at the Thames Art Gallery.
Fully Transistorized Baby engages in analysis through sampled isolation and examination. Sando finds a sense of humour—or wry amusement—in these social signifiers that we hum and sing, whether in public, or karaoke, or in our private showers, but it’s worth considering their lyrics, now cast in a different light. Placing these words in a gallery setting changes their implications and higlights their insinuations. In the larger discourse around language and gender, outside the space of “art,” the conversation has also become more rigorous.
Sando is an artist whose gender (and all the corresponding constructions and confluences—“it’s 2015,” after all) is implicit to her work. Love Potion # 9, Love Slave, or The Things We Do For Love all possess unpleasant overtones and posit assumptions about a “boy and his girl” that aren’t just archaic in their heteronormative hegemony but also hearken back to a “simpler time” that, like most myths of social capital, only ever existed as ideology. Allow me to paraphrase Jenny Holzer: romantic love was invented to manipulate women.
But Sando also acknowledges the loaded history of the objet d’art that is “vinyl”, the musical record. A selection of these vintage objects sits in a darkly-coloured display table. I’m unsure if we’re allowed to flip through them, as generations have done and will do, but the invitation is there. Behind this are a series of images (100% Bone White, ) that are nearly completely blank vertical compositions, but with single “spots” that are immediately recognizable from the campy—or dramatic—art of album covers. (Perhaps it’s just the same kind of performative excess we see in In and Out of Love, with the pleading eyes and brooding gazes and 80s hair). A close up of a woman’s eyes meeting ours, or the lower part of another woman’s face, exotic in shadows with richly coloured lips: the appropriated singularity of these samples mirrors the isolation of language of In and Out of Love. Another isolated detail in the 100% Bone White series is an intimate cropping of a couple about to kiss: their hair and the graphic quality suggest a movie poster, like an Elvis film that is as comfortable as it is contrived.
The high heels in several of the works (some gals are good at romance, ) could either be trophies, like marking a bedpost, or perhaps are just outdated markers of projected femininity, as dated and awkward to our contemporary ears as the entreaties of passion from the 45s. (One of the components of some gals is a shiny black and gold work dominated by the flowery script of “L’Amour”, a campy 1970s echo). They may also simply be objects of submission or a dehumanized fetish waiting to be consumed, like a chorus of “girls” singing about the “boys”.
Artist and writer Pearl Van Geest, in her brief comments about the show on the Thames’ site, offers that Sando employs “seductive tactics, slow reveals and double codes of the femme fatale. There is enticement and promise, but there are also indications of a dark underside to the shiny and slick surfaces…” But I’ll end with the title: the assertion “he calls me” fits with the proscriptive nature of the love songs Sando uses as a genesis of the works, where “female” equates to passive, inactive yet acted upon, desired yet not desiring. Sando fractures some of this narrative of social capital with humour, and some with more disturbing detritus, like the high heels, or other signs of vintage popular culture that may make our contemporary selves cringe. But some if it may not be fractured at all.
Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for three years), Magenta, PrairieSeen, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters and was art critic at Planet S for over a decade. Also host & producer of The A Word, he currently lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, after nearly two decades on the Prairies.