Excerpts from catalogue essay: Renée Van Halm, Anonymous Volumes, Oakville Galleries
by Carolyn Bell Farrell 1994
Every one of us lives our life in the orbit of basic routines of self-maintenance: cooking and eating, shopping, seeing to domestic chores, keeping our creatural habitat in viable good repair. Such activities are objectively necessary for our welfare and respond to inescapable conditions of human life. But how these activities are viewed and appraised – what value isplaced on the life of creaturely routine – this very much a matter of culture, and of history. Whether these activities are respected or dismissed, valued or despised, depends of the work ideology.
Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked 1
The question of whether an activity is humble lies within that certain cultural construction. Our culture has traditionally prescribed that men and women inhabit separate spheres, with the interior of the house regarded as an intrinsically feminine space. Still life painting is entwined with this cultural construction of gender and with a gendered division of labour. Within the conventional hierarchy of genres, still life places lowest amongst the ranks of history painting – an exclusively male domain – at the summit. A genre deemed appropriate for women painters, still life is posited as an inferior “other” to history painting’s exalted aims. Identified with the domestic, it gravitates around the table with a repertoire limited to familiar hand-scaled objects located within reach. Restricted to primal pace, its scope of vision terminates at the vertical wall of the background, intimately linked with feminine seclusion and confinement, still life painting becomes an expression those relegated to stand “outside the charmed circle of history and greatness.”2
Centred on themes related to historical and modernist painting, Renée Van Halm’s practice has consistently challenged traditional perceptions and ideologies. Participating in discourses informed by feminist and deconstructive theory, her recent investigations have focused on marginalized areas of art practice, specifically still life painting and the decorative arts. Anonymous Volumes, Van Halm’s site work for Gairloch Gallery, follows the kind of enquiry. Exploring the ambivalent reception of these artforms, she illuminates the constructs which have shaped their marginalization. In so doing, she subverts the masculine concept of visuality, which insists upon the artist’s non-participation in the domestic as a condition of access to high art. Operating within the satiric realm, her series of painted constructions proffer a comic deduction of this masculine construct of creativity.
…Implicit in Van Halm’s use of Gairloch is a critique of galleries designed to house modernist art. These pristine cubes, with their high ceilings and immaculate white walls, were built to accommodate the heroic proportions of modernist works while purporting an austere environment, devoid of intrusive outside references. Modernist art was intended to operate in this kind of cloistered arena. While responding to the intimate viewing conditions of Gairloch, Van Halm speaks to the re-positioning of painting within the context of everyday life – both its social relevance its function as a private commodity – refuting the perception it as something separate, exalted and self-referential. 3
1 Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Fours Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990) 137.
2 Ibid, 156
3 From a talk by the artist at Gairloch Gallery, Toronto Tuesday January 24, 1994