Toni Hamel: The lingering

14 September – 24 November 2013
at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa Canada

Given a long run and two galleries at RMG suggests the importance that the curators attribute to this artist and the thematic direction of her work. Hamel’s graphically strong drawings and installations present a forceful narrative on the complications of domestic life in general as well as the psychologically repressive nature of carrying out artistic endeavours on the home front.  While this is a feminist story told many times, the necessity for retelling still exists.

Hamel delivers a powerful , highly skilled discourse,  with content that avoids  polemic with dark,  subtle humour. The hand of the artist is present, as is the idea of women working with their hands. So-called housewifely tasks  are shown in bizarre parody, as images of 1950s style “homemakers” carry out various housekeeping duties that subvert notions of domesticity and underscore its often constricting nature.  Women’s hands are at work building a nest, decorating an enormous peacock then cheerfully taking it to market in a wheelbarrow, digging in the garden for hearts, working on a child’s costume, slicing bread, and so on.  Women are shown working together, looking out into a larger world to which there is only imaginary access.

Thread and twine are employed throughout, providing a fitting metaphor for gendered constraints. It is also used to extend, accentuate, enhance the finely detailed figurative work on paper and  canvas, to define/confine the walls from which one thousand cranes fly forth, to make a cascade of hair that a woman irons industriously, or suggest the skeletal structure of wings that release a kitchen chair from its base where so much domestic work is done.

The iconic house image appears in thread in small drawings such as “Attachments” where a woman mows an imaginary lawn, her machine’s cord umbilically attached to the house.  In other works the thread is a line pulled out of one picture plane into another.  In a drawing of a photograph of a woman hanging clothes on a line,  a passing bird pulls the clothesline beyond the photo into a freer space. Less whimsically, red thread sews shut a woman’s mouth.

While the main floor Alexandra Luke Gallery showcases the artist’s exquisitely drawn wall works and three major canvas installations, an ascent to the upper gallery immerses one in a world of origami cranes escaping from six houses, into a central nest-like construction made from twigs. An accompanying sound piece of bird cries, gentle whistling, soft giggles, and a beautiful Chopin Nocturne (#9)  permeates both exhibition spaces (audio by Peter Nelis). There is unabashed femininity expressed in the aural and visual content, underscoring the multi-faceted nature of femaleness and of feminism.

In general there is a tendency for us to engage in a cognitive dissonance about the role of women within the domestic sphere. There is a comfort level in homemaking that ignores the toll which it has taken in limiting women’s lives. Some feminist theory re-evaluates the hand work of women as integral to oral narrative, as safe spaces for discussions, for storytelling, for continuation of a particular cultural environment, for sharing skills, ideas inside a private sphere.  However it is clear from the surreal nature of many of the tasks being done by these smiling, busy women that Hamel’s intent is to question the validity of repetitive and often meaningless work or, at least, work that is done at the expense of women having richer more creative lives.

In her book of essays titled SILENCES, author Tillie Olson mourns the silences‑‑ the  literary works unwritten or unpublished because of difficult  circumstances and biased … practices.  In The lingering Hamel illustrates the issue with biting humour, skill and warmth.