WARREN MURFITT, KATHY SLADE
June 13–July 26, 1997
At the beginning of no words, one of the artists delivers a small package. The box says “Airwalk” on it and I’m pumped to receive what’s inside: a scroll of thin white cotton wrapped with a purple ribbon. Unfurled, four ghostly messages appear one after the other, each one embroidered white on white:
She sways. Muscles tensed in delirious anticipation. her Vision blurs as she begins to shake in rapturous spasms. The smooth moist surface brushes against her swollen red lips. Creases form where her sweat and the force of her movements converge.
Pretty transformative stuff  wonders what it all might lead to.
The first two lines might describe my “feminate” excitement as I open the package. Mere slips of material, delicately presented, are usually guaranteed a kindly reception  like examining the layette of an expected child.
Kathy Slade’s gift, artist to artist/writer to writer, is an hors dâoeuvre, presage of things to come. In the gallery, it’s curtains. Whitework: She sways moves exponentially across the entire front of the gallery, embroidered both street and room sides, with a palest lilac interslip of some clever faux silk charmeuse, lending its characteristic cast to the hand. The messages silently repeat themselves, over and over, whispering white on white. Veiling the gallery with language, the verbs in the lines animate the curtains like impulses, echoes: readers and curtains alike sway in the comings and goings. The entrance is nestled into the centre the curtain, where the voluminous folds are clasped back to allow your passage. Someone can’t help herself, and brushes her skin against the fabric. The material drifts onto the floor and lies in waves and crests, so that unless you pay a tension, creases might form where you step, hardening the curves, your passing dirtying the virginal folds. Movements blur, your vision of the outside fades. In soft, urban daylight, the lilac interlining provides a subtlest colour bath to the inside of the gallery.
At the opposite end of the gallery is a giant Fall, a vertical river of hair photo screened in blue ink on sumptuous red velvet. If the curtains enunciate an historical drift (the writings of female medieval mystics secularized into the macabre of gothic tales, then the final full-blown, serialized traceries of Harlequin romances), this Fall is complete, the implicit swoon gone wild, and the wild woman of surrealism resurgent. That is, she is updated and self-authored, a tousled parody of the Lacanian woman who brims with speech but canât be held by language. She struts right up to the surface of representation, re-configuring Rauol Ubac’s Portrait in a Mirror (1938). Without the solipsism of speechless narcissism, of vanity, there is no masochistic (that is, internalized) sacrifice to representation; instead, what is produced is an uncanny reversal of spectation. Presumably staring right at us, this she (so presently absent) gives no chance for the visitorâs peeping tom-like, scopophilic return. Rendered in good humor, the high-Gothics of the velvet drape, drippingly crimson.
Since there is nothing natural about the accomplishment of femininity (maintained chiefly through masquerade) the slippage from human hair to the nap of velvet, from hand embroidery to the accelerated industriousness of the machine makes good commentary about the normative divisions between nature and artifice, about how the law functions to produce order at the cost of “nature’s wildness”. Fredric Jameson interprets the postmodern as that moment when capitalism penetrates into the unconscious and nature. What nature has been, and what allowances might be made for it in the future concerns, first of all, the possibilities for interpretation.
Reading over the lines of Slade’s text, she sways… muscles tensed in delirious anticipation… vision blurs as she begins to shake in rapturous spasms… where her sweat and the force of her movements converge + I have a diabolical suggestion. Suppose we could overhear the cellular chatter of parthenogenesis and gene-trading bacterial omnisexuality, could this be how those transmutating Geronimos describe themselves??
Warren Murfitt’s Signature is a giant thumb print÷sign of the primate ö married to the subdermal print of a tree. In a collusion of science, fiction and nature, the skin of the tree is scaled 10:1 and flagrantly purple, looking sultry and elegant in the precise way of nature (because it is for itself, and not for us). The thumb print, with enough liquid slippage in its articulation to sign bloodied, is even more deliciously overblown, so that we sink into its phenomenal over-mediation. We recognize it, of course, as the indexical pop culture sign for the war between good and evil (the prime-time narratives of cops and criminals): it’s an old fashioned icon. Visible traceable without the criminal’s permission, it prevails as the cruder, hardier and much more serviceable sign of the telltale trace than that of the high-tech subcutanean DNA. Nostalgia for the recognizable is a main ingredient of the iconic.
Given the immense transformations in techniques of knowledge since the collapse of the mechanical model of explanation in the nineteenth century, fiction seems an increasingly appropriate method of commentary—if only because, in the hands of artists, it offers itself as a concrete symptom. Slade and Murfitt seem to press up against two routines favoured by the Enlightenment: that of standardization, which is designed to simplify basic models and spare parts, to unify standards of measurements and quality, and Kant’s striking of extreme categories to distinguish between things—for instance human or animal, organic or technical. It is but a small step from these to make rigid divisions between the mythic and political, or the phenomenal and textual. If Slade uses words to form a text which seems at first to float, unlocatable in time, but in fact contains a history of the prefab feminine utterance, Murfitt’s Signature fudges the line between science and fiction in order to show up the normal status quo capabilities of representation (that is, the I am real aspects of representation). Whatever histories of avant-garde logic are involved in the contemporary artistâs substitution of mechanical for handworked processes, The wistfulness of the thumb print and the flayed tree print, the faked hand-writing/hand-embroidery, still register as romantic gestures.
In the art world, the subject’s unique mark is not only a guarantee of authenticity, it establishes value. We presume, given the title “Signature”, that the thumb print is the artist’s own inimitable mark, but there is no way for the viewer to determine if it is in fact Murfitt’s print (sic). Even if the proffered authenticity could be ascertained, the case is moot—it’s a photographic rendition. The signature is no more unique in this case than Slade’s feminine utterances. Nevertheless, the ability to render remains the means of establishing—if not value in the usual artistic sense—at least pedigree, since it is “tool use” which supposedly separates us from animals.
To “make one’s mark” on such a scale is a grandiose assertion. If it’s meant to function as a kind of I was here, the gesture is synthetic, the authentic possibility becoming another version of mass produced sentiment (and involving something upon which capitalism depends: the illusion that uniqueness can be bought). The thumb print’s unverifiable origin makes the artist’s mark generic; more sinisterly, it could be the mark of a murderer as easily as Murfitt’s. Beyond conflating the genres of portraiture and landscape (in landscape tradition, the tree is a stand-in for the lone [male] individual), this kind of skin-to-skin coupling really messes around with heroics.
Take Me is a large cube made of plywood, three feet square, its surface dyed psychedelic purple. One hundred and fifty handles cover the surface of the cube on all sides. Ostensibly, they serve as visual invitations, “easy access” to picking up the minimalist cube, but—red and soft and rounded off—they remind me of blood worms. Hand-carved by the artist, they are also copies, patterned off the handgrip on a concrete floating tool. This mimetic relation between the individual and the industrial production line seems absurd until you consider whether first or third world workers produced the “original” template; if the latter, then they’re probably hand-finished anyway. The object seems downright silly: here’s the quintessential minimalist object not proclaiming HANDLE WITH CARE. Puffed up like a blow fish or like bristles on a brush, its very non-theoretical handles do a fine job of protecting the central core, of making a display of minimalism and excess, of blowing the wad (The Handle) on minimalism, of lampooning lost innocence (take me!). Some kind of preciousness has become impure, gone over to the other side.
Depending on whether your organizational impulse is to identify with interiors or exteriors, Murfitt’s minimalist cube seems impregnated, or contaminated all over with the “bloody handles”; it’s a kind of jockey, flogged dead horse. And yet the cube is imperious. It forces out from itself what comes from within. The consummate sign of readiness (“getting a handle”) becomes superfluous in numbers—abject failures rather than triumphant borers. Does the conscious register ever really get a handle on the unconscious, or is material practice its brute cousin?
Skin, hair, blood—these stubbornly fragile parts of the body mark the seductive, at times dangerously abject boundaries between one body and that of an other. Both Slaenoncede essential aspects of representation and subjectivity forcefully into play: screen prints and thumb prints; the displaced enonce of the printed word and the phenomenal magic of the photographic print, where the one echoes the other to hover in the interstices between light and shadow; machine embroidery (the marriage of speech and hand, gone tertiary, gone anonymous) and the elemental print of a tree (the flat out, reified aesthetic mutation of something shadowed byomniscient industrial uses, and hence made newly, nostalgically precious); methods of industry, both personal and social, and their ideological imports. The print is a reliquary, pure and never simple.
—Kati Campbell, 1997
1 stuff: raw material or fabric; to fill (an animal’s skin) with material so as to restore the shape of the live animal; to have sexual intercourse with (a woman). Collins English Dictionary.
(return to essay)
2 except maybe when peevish with one’s period.
3 Slade co-wrote the text with Cate Rimmer. The reader is most likely to connect the writing style with that of romance novels typified by Harlequin Publishing, where sex is banned and innuendo is all. But I want to draw the reader’s attention to how much such prose has been cleaned up from a much older form of feminine ecriture. Caroline Walker Bynum, in “The Female Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages” relates that medieval women regularly spoke of, “tasting God, of kissing Him deeply, of going into His heart or entrails, of being covered by His blood. Their descriptions…blur the line between spiritual or psychological, on the one hand, and bodily or even sexual, on the other. Lidwina of Schiedam and Gertrude of Delft, for example, felt such maternal desire for the Christ child that milk flowed from their breasts…The thirteenth-century poet and mystic Hadewijch spoke of Christ penetrating her until she lost herself in the ecstasy of love.” Bynum, in ed. M. Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part One (New York:Urzone,1989), p. 168.
4 Omnisexuality is the oldest form of sex on the planet. While some insects and plants are capable of reproduction without fertilization, bacteria perform genetic exchanges without regard for species barriers. See Dorian Sagan, “Metametezoa: Biology and Multiplicity – eds. J. Crary and S. Kwinter, Incorporations(New York: Urzone, 1992), pp. 376-378.
5 The nostalgic turn here is more insidious that you might expect, given that “[M]odern biology, informed by cellular ultra structure through electron microscopy and detailed knowledge of gene sequences, has supplemented or even negated the long-standing division between plant and animal kingdoms.” Sagan, op. cit., p. 362.
6 Bruno Latour argues that, “Kant’s Critique, which set off at extreme poles Things-in-Themselves from the Transcendental Ego, is what made us believe ourselves to be ‘modem’,” effectively (re)structuring, the political Constitution of Truth. What Latour calls “modern” is a separation of the object and subject poles, “the complete separation of the representation of things—science and technology—from there presentation of humans—politics and justice.” (I would note that Latour’s outlay of representational modes does not include art.) See Donna Haraway, “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others,” eds. L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P. Treichler, Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 329-30. Haraway herself describes postmodern cyborgs as being provocative compounds of the organic, technical, mythic, textual and political. See “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century (1985),” reprinted in Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991).
7 That the female mystic kept faith with bodily experience, and hence bodily metaphor during the medieval period, is not accounted for simply by stating that the speech acts of women did not otherwise register authoritatively.. Bynum’s reminder, that “we must not forget the educational context,” concerns womenâs practice, of course, whatever period of activity is being considered. Medieval women, “usually wrote… in the vernaculars—that is, in the languages they grew up speaking. The major literary genres available in these languages were various kinds of love poetry and romantic stories… [which used] a vocabulary of feelings.” “[W]omen’s works, especially their accounts of visions, were often dictated (that is, spoken) rather than penned;” exhibiting traits, “characteristic of oral thought and expression,” the prose “tends to circle around its point, evoking a state of being.” (172) “[M]en write of the mystical experience, giving a general description which may be used as a theory or yardstick, whereas women write of ‘my’ mystical experience speaking directly of something that may have occurred to them alone. This is true even when, as in the case of Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich, a highly sophisticated theology is elaborated over many years as a gloss on visionary experiences.” Bynum, op. cit., p. 168.1 10
Title: Under The Skin
Category: Exhibition Catalogue
Artist: Warren Murfitt, Kathy Slade
Writers: Kati Campbell
Editor: Susan Edelstein
Design: Roberta Batchelor
Printer: Electric Zoo
Year published: 1997
Binding: Staple Bound
Features: 5 b&w images, 2 colour images
Dimensions: 22 x 18 x 0.3 cm
Weight: 45 g
Price: $4 CDN
Campbell’s essay investigates the work of Murfitt and Slade, identifying aspects of the body through signifiers of sexuality, femininity, and the architectural impact of sculpture.