Penumbra skirting the shadow
Dr Johanna Dahn

The empty gallery is a bright white space, all hard lines and inflexible surfaces. As a background for the artist its neutrality is indeterminate. Sheila Gaffney’s ‘How She Became Not-He’ is a curving wall of wax, pinkly bulging behind a buttoned floor. With its undercurrents of sensuality it is an exercise in ‘difference’.
While this work was being made the floor of Gaffney’s studio was covered in repetitions of the same tied ribbon; bow after bow lay waiting to be attached. There were buttons everywhere, in boxes and tins, familiar reminders of childhood times spent sifting through the contents, helping mother in the search for a suitable shape, the right size, and the proper colour. Gaffney was given a collection of buttons made of casein (a by-product of coagulated milk) that she has used for this installation, and on the studio wall was hung a section of a child’s vest cast in wax, delicately patterned with a creamy button nipple.
Wax is the soft ‘other’ of sculpture, a mutable material, never static. It melts and congeals, it is vulnerable to heat. It takes impressions, it is the volatile medium of transferences, the unseen container, giving birth to form through flux. Industrial wax comes in deep flesh pink. Gaffney has been using it for a long time now in her re-presentations of female sexuality.
“Adorned, femininity – manifestation of the father’s idea of feminine power….” 1
The Clever Little Girl in pink bows is a Good Girl, Daddy’s beribboned daughter. But Gaffney disputes the stereotype; investigating the psychological taboos that have imposed control and self-disguise on the female body, she rejects the Freudian notion that the fetish is a displacement signifying lack. Refusing to soothe the phallic gaze she presents instead a transgressive excess of the signs of femininity. In her work the button stands sentinel between naked and clothed, and the bow becomes a disturbing reminder of the unseen. This is reclamation, an assertion of female desire which cannot be subsumed within a phallic system.
Buttons can be made of milk and bows of wax, and books can be encapsulated volumes without writing. Janet Beckwith has a recipe for a book, it goes as follows: take a sheet of paper with torn edges, dye it black then bleach it. Repeat ad infinitum. Allow the sheets to dry, then stitch them one to another. First one, then the next, then the next. Place inside a glass box, embellish with green and gold and add a spider’s web of silk. Incorporate a sense of ritual. Seal into a separate world. Variations may be made at will. All work to be done in the home. Beckwith turned away from paint and canvas because she wanted to draw in small notebooks of her own making. She also wanted to manipulate signs of the domestic, cooking and sewing; she had always sewed, and she remembered her mother always sewing.
Books are receptacles of knowledge, and preserving them is a matter of some concern for museums and libraries. Print fades, paper ages, it marks and spots. It is susceptible to atmosphere and (like knowledge) it has to be protected. But safe in their glass compartments these strange books created their own atmosphere. Some were assembled damp, sealed in before bleach had completed its action. In the past, in another gallery, one of them breathed. It steamed the sides of its glass case and tiny creatures emerged from the pile of the pages. Unable to escape, they died.
There is a sense of enigma about Beckwith’s work. The hand-made drawing books have mutated, they have taken on lives of their own. ‘I Promise’ is a wedding cake with plaster icing, disturbingly decayed and crumbling, in three glass-packaged tiers. The private becomes public but irrevocably apart, forever incarcerated.
Linda Schwab’s drawings are made from lowly materials; wax, crayon and charcoal on brown paper, her paintings are unpretentious, in acrylic on thin laminated boards. Unframed paintings and drawings screwed flush to the wall are a statement in themselves, they signify a symbolic collapse of the boundary between art and life. This is a preoccupation that re-emerges within the work itself. ‘Real’ objects have been printed onto painted surfaces; a handkerchief, a shawl, an envelope, a solitary button, She retains the gestural, but rehabilitates it from the grand to the domestic. So ‘real’ ribbons become in paint the act of tying.
In her studio Schwab rummages through books; favourites are volumes of European prints from the seventeenth century, and a pre-war sewing manual, with diagrams that show how to fit clothes. Many of the inhabitants of her drawings are re-workings of borrowed and displaced images; a child turning a handstand was once a cherubic baby in a French engraving, and a dancing woman was a woodcut in a book of Dutch emblems.
Ideas migrate from drawings to paintings, the broken outline of a gown in one work becomes the cutting line of a dress pattern in another. Schwab explores form and texture, her motifs multiply and overlap, are doubled and disintegrated. They spill from one work to the next, eventually reduced to their constituent parts; dotted lines, scrubbed surfaces, shapes emerging from the gloom.
Central to all the work is the debris of private life. ‘Relict’ is a response to an evocative account of the bombing of Dresden. When the cataclysm was over the survivors returned. Hoping to contact those who had been lost they fastened objects onto the remnants of their burnt out homes. Small things, nothing grand. Remainders, fragments, echoes of people once close.
Schwab focused on the ingredients of intimacy. Like opening an empty drawer – nothing left, just a hairpin, a forgotten button, traces of a life. Slight evidence: was here, touched, felt, reached out and danced.
The temple of Modernism demanded an autonomous art object, set apart in a carefully preserved rarefied atmosphere of Form. If the air of Postmodernism tastes a little tainted it may be because it incorporates unfamiliar foreign bodies. Where women are concerned these particles are welcome signs of rents in a filter mesh so refined as to exclude all but the thinnest of mixtures.

1.Luce Irigiray, Veiled Lips, 1983

Artists:
Sheila Gaffney, Linda Schwab, Janet Beckwith
Dean Clough Galleries
5 November – 31 December 1994

Penumbra
Exhibition Essays