Practice makes perfect - a world of sweet nothings.
catalogue essay for Robbin Deyo's exhibition "sweet senstations"
Southern Alberta Art Gallery January 22 - March 06, 2005
Hearts and diamonds lay about. The smell of bees wax and solvent permeate the air. Cookie cutters of differing shapes and sizes cover the tables. A pile of pressboard flowers have been freshly cut from the band saw. Turkey basters and cake decorating devices are filled with paint. In the midst of such paraphernalia Robbin Deyo's studio feels like an alchemical bakery. It is a transposed space of feminine domestic production where the qualities of good home-making take effect in the space of art creation. A large pot steams in the corner atop a burner. The wax medium is ready to have more wooden flowers dipped in and then be set aside to settle and cool. The scraps of wax chips littering the floor have been scraped from objects that did not live up to expectation. It is the expectation to achieve a flawless surface of seduction.
Surfaces seem to speak. When surrounded by works whose materiality dominates our physiological and psychological space we cannot help but 'listen' to their resonance. The visual exterior that we are permitted to encounter as a viewer is in many instances an artwork's first line of offense (we concede that all mighty first impressions hinge upon the superficial) - and simultaneously its' last line of defense (when all else fails, trust your eyes). Surfaces may seem to scream, laugh, cry, belch. .... Deyo's surfaces beg.
Dipped, poured or decorated, the surfaces of Deyo's wall works are for the most part sealed in an immaculate translucent layer of chromatically tinted wax. We are transfixed at the oscillation between the works' obvious materiality and the refraction of light within it. Light and matter seem to become one in the same resulting in a dissolved reality. The surfaces seem to be somewhere peculiarly in-between - a sublimated hazy state of limbo. It is as though we have gained access to a playful waking dream. The material does not assume the rough and raw qualities that characterize traditional encaustic painting but rather attempts to possess a flawless finish. The surfaces (with the exception of the NO PAINTINGS which will be discussed later) possess no trace of touch; no trace of tool or method - they are virtually uninterrupted. They resonate like unblemished pastel skin. The surfaces speak of a pristine virginal ideal whose clichéd ideal of purity is enforced by the playful generic shapes we would associate to youthful innocence - palm sized mint green clovers, ... baby blue stars.... Ironically, Deyo's concern with a sublime optical finish (using a material whose inherent qualities seem to refuse this) establishes works that beg to be not only visually caressed, but physically touched. They beg for us to viscerally experience the works' fresh organic flesh with our own. It is the wax's organic presence and welcoming 'daycare' colour palette that propagate this urge. We would not experience this compulsion if the works were of seamless grey plastic, or polished glass. The wax generates a seductive mystery and hence a curiousity. We shouldn't touch - we know this - but yet the works seem to beg for it.
The long sheet metal wall of Sweetness and Light bounces the light out while the thousands of waxen lucky charms seem to pull the light in, like a dancing galaxy in reverse. Each little moon and sun begs to be plucked, held and rubbed. The inner glow of each surface is too inviting. It's as if we are being set up to make the first move. So many offerings; how can one resist?
The attempt at seduction by Deyo is obvious. It is meant to be obvious - we are charmed by the romantic honesty of it all. Her works are undeniably dolled up and taken out to woo the viewer. Deliberately coy in temperament due to cozy pastel colours, this unapolagetic display of hopeful enchantment does not overplay its hand and dissuade our impulse to make some kind of sensual connection (be it visual, physical, or emotional). Quite the opposite. What uniquely characterizes Deyo's work is that she literally wears her candy coated fragile heart on her sleeve, romancing us to suspend our disbelief in the flagrant light of not so hidden charms. It dares us because her shapes are in one respect so emotionally/culturally sterile (the simple red valentine heart) yet their material delicacy and sense of hand crafted care imbue them with a revitalized sense of sincerity. This sincerity is strangely compounded by the work's overwhelming number of components. The sheer multitude of diaphanous clouds, marshmallow teardrops and all things sugar and spice now becomes endearing as it swallows us up in its own vast spaciousness. The works coax us into questioning the potency of the seduction strategies we all fall victim to. How gullible are we willing to be in the light of delicious innocent flirtations?
Any relation to pop irony is diffused by a beguiling sense of tenderness that compels the viewer to somehow push aside grown up cynicism and get swept into a world of whispered sweet nothings. This stated, the seduction of infatuation is as precarious as it is fleeting. Ironically, if the work does beg for various levels of intimate contact, any slight physical touch on our behalf will leave an indelible mark. The surface is so responsive to foreign contact that such an act effectively destroys the structural integrity of the work. The allure of the pristine and delicate become stained and tainted as traces of human contact break the charmed spell.. The 'perfect' surfaces are precarious and fleeting. Though it may seem odd to spend time discussing the act of touch with work that is resoundingly visual, Deyo's works are as much physical as they are optical. Physical in their objecthood, physical in their generation of an architectural space and physical in their presence as the delicate artifact of methodical manual labour. This culminates in the realization that Deyo utilizes a unique surface that operates within the exhibition space as a metaphor for a utopic sate of external perfection. Though her works contain no figurative references, the material itself is bodily in character and therefore inevitably implicates our bodies in a corporeal engagement. It is as though in lieu of the artists presence the works are served as replacement offerings that test not only the viewers' limits of infatuation, but her own. The works display of 'girlish' domestic sensuality requires us to ask how much seduction can we stand before the experience becomes a saccharine tease? At what point does the desire to offer such digestible pleasures begin to reveal a sugar coated longing on behalf of Deyo? These questions begin to hint at a consciously subversive melancholy prevalent in the work. A felt absence that haunts the spaces between the sweetness and the light. This is the work's poignancy.Turning from the playful firmament of Sweetness and Light, the viewer encounters a more earth bound pastoral experience. Eight thousand miniature marshmallowy wax flowers geometrically adorn a 300 square foot wall. Soft bulbous petals of yellows, oranges and greens quietly grip the wall that create shifting fields of chromatic patterns. The objects assume the function of a dreamlike candied treat. What could be more perfect and blissful?
The title is Forget me not. It refers to the flower and acts as a plea. This sugared field of bliss is an obsessive attempt to combat the fear of not being remembered. Within the abundance there is a melancholic absence. This functions in stark contrast to the aura of youthful naiveté that coats Deyo's work, and it is here that a sophisticated subversion and commentary occurs. Our sense of this naiveté is not only predicated upon the superficialities of colour, form and subject matter. A deeper sense emerges from an assumed belief (that we project upon the artist) that the sheer numbers and toilsome repetitive will somehow erode the pejorative underpinnings of the term naive. Perhaps all that which is normally dismissed as trite or childish must be given its due if it can reach a scale grand enough to swallow our field of vision by grafting itself exponentially across entire walls.
The crucial realization is that the overwhelming presence of Deyo's practice tempers any sense of idyllic naiveté with an acute sense of noble futility. How noble, yet potentially futile, is it to believe that the act of doing something obsessively will make whatever you hope for come true? To believe in your heart of hearts that the playful charms cast by the work will hold and we will be unable to forget the artist. Through the determination of amassing numbers, Deyo challenges our cynicism. She challenges all that would prevent us from believing self worth can be established through these gracious offerings. We are in the presence of a meditated hope; and hope in Deyo's world can only be realized through hard work and tender care. Ultimately these works address how identity may be constructed through faith in labour. They speak of the unflinching belief that by obsessively repeating an act (like a physical mantra) the naive will no longer be simply that and instead become the real. There is a longing for a sense of fixed identity that can be satiated by producing when producing for others. It is as though the artist has placed a faith in that the multitudes of sweet nothings must finally add up to the sweetest of something.
The compelling component in Deyo's work is that it consciously risks finalizing its viewer engagement with a sunshine embrace of whispered sweet nothings - a sentimental visual fling. Having spent time with the work we realize this is untrue. The trite tickle and wink flirtations that emanate from the cliché forms of cookie cut flowers, and girlie-girl colours acquire a level of gravitas based on their insistent numbers and the obsessive labour involved. A gravitas founded in her practice and conditioned by the pervasive cultural dictum that practice makes perfect. This is the works' crucial centre. Whether they are hundreds of blue monochromes that eventually become clouds, or sugar charged cereal box shapes that playfully create a gigantic Saturday morning constellation, these forms come to us in repetitive obsessive abundance. An abundance of sky, an abundance of flora, an abundance of that which has been individually hand made on an intimate scale - that which has been 'practiced" ad infinitum with a material that seems to yearn for perfection. Eight thousand wax dipped pre cut flowers geometrically preside across the wall. We see the time; we see the practice.
Deyo has constructed the forms from scratch, polished them, and coated them in wax by dipping or pouring. At a distance the perfection of Deyo's wall works seem to rely on a superficial sense of seamless execution - a societal cliché of perfection in the form of feminine beauty - perfectly soft, perfectly delicate, perfectly innocent. Upon close inspection, they are not perfect. Made by hand with an unpredictable medium, her forms maintain the intimate charm of the slightly flawed, slightly irregular, slightly individual and vulnerable. At nose length the perfection lies not on the surface, but in the acknowledgment that her practice will never permit perfection and therefore allow her to pursue it forever. Not as a sentenced act of hard labour but as the ritualistic pursuit of an ideal. An ideal that the self can be made and offered to us by a practice that should make perfect in an obsessively fabricated perfect world. But this is not the real world. The real world the viewer brings into her secret garden is harsh and 'grown up'. It is this uncooperative reality that conditions Deyo's studio practice; a reality where wax will never perfectly pour and settle, just as the self will never be finished. It is forever in the process of 'being made perfect" - the self being re- cut and coated over and over. Deyo's labourious process presents a compelling foil to the works' seemingly superficial flights of youthful fancy. A repetitious act in other instances could be deemed habitual. In Deyo's case, the process plunges far deeper than that and is nothing short of ritualistic. The basis of ritual behavior is founded upon the premise that the act is in service of personal transformation. Perhaps this is most obvious in the NO PAINTINGS. This work is comprised of some seventy square tableaus of varying scale and depth that adorn the wall. They resemble immaculate cakes whose painted wax surfaces and sides look like icing sugar applied by a baker's touch. Each are of a muted pastel colour. It is a delicate field of fastidious seduction. They beg to be adored and hungered for. As we gaze at the works for an extended period the dialogue changes - the word NO optically reveals itself from the surface of each ornate piece. Deyo has literally embedded a quiet voice within the work. A word whose declarative authority seems whispered from within the romantic trappings of a consumable offering. What we assume initially is subverted through time and our contemplation of the process. In the act of decorating - the act of dressing up the works - the toil of repeatedly infusing a word of succinct refusal - NO - both ennobles it, and saddens it. To have found the strength to say no. To have to have said it so many times...
Deyo's practice knowingly questions yet embraces the belief that hope/identity must be crafted from physical labours of love and endless repetitive means. Only this can subvert the enticement of surface and superficial naiveté. From here, the work can earn its cathartic weight by challenging the strategies of feminine identity construction. The obsessive/compulsive act of making operates in contrast to the finished veneer of pure innocence, and is the bitter that mediates the sweet. It is this subversive aftertaste that permeates the lustre of her not so innocent, not so jocular, not so childish play world. When surrounded by the frosted light of Deyo's pearlescent teardrops or forget-me-nots we sense that they beg for smitten attention. They beg us to buy into a seemingly naive larger than life dream world conjured by an obsessive determination of belief. And when given time to contemplate, the wall works ultimately beg us to recognize how the repetitive act of producing sentimentalized offerings by the thousands is an attempt to explore the manufacturing of self. The acknowledgment of this process sets up an emotional double-cross; a subversion enacted upon the superficiality of its own sensual appeal. The material specificity of an artwork speaks not only of its physical constitution but importantly of its process-based origins - it speaks the artist's practice. Deyo's work confirms this, but as much as these works offer, they plea for as much in return. As Deyo's wall installations flirtatiously beckon the viewer from different directions, the artist seems oddly present - tugging at our sleeve - reaching for our hearts.