This exhibition has been on the drawing board for a long time. I have spent over 3 years collecting objects relating to the domestic sphere and to themes of violence in the home and gender inequality. Six decades into feminism and women are still talking about equal pay, childcare and glass ceilings.
Scouring through many an op-shop, junkyard and recyclers, I cherry picked objects that caught my eye depending on their use, shape, colour, age and history. Cups, saucers, knives, scissors, door knobs, light-switches, cutlery, bottles and textiles all play a part in the compositions to tell the stories of each work. Familiar mass produced objects derive their re-presented identities from their new relationships to each other, and from the social history that comes from each one. They are fingerprints of the past, once essential but often discarded and victims of their own built-in obsolescence, temporary anchors to an ever-shifting reality.
These paintings and assemblages share common motifs, focusing on the obsessive desire/pressure to present a veneer to the world of a perfect home; the interior environment expressed through the personal effects we gather around us, the domestic domain where objects are silent spectators to our lives.
I’ve composed these works with their painted wallpapers, tablecloths, tiled floors and patterned carpets and curtains in order to juxtapose a knife or gun with ordinary domestic objects to convey a sense of unease or overt threat. I have deliberately portrayed no obvious violence, and leave it to the viewer to fill in the gaps.
The compositions are important. Objects are intentionally placed to convey harmony or dissonance or something intangible in between. It has always intrigued me that the private persona is very different from the public one. Outward appearances are just that: we behave differently behind closed doors.
Susan O’Doherty 2016
Essay by Anna Johnson
When you look at an immaculate empty living room: the shelves studded with ornaments, the floor polished, the ruffled curtains hanging with tight symmetry, what do you feel? Is it longing, is it nostalgia or perhaps something more ambivalent, something darker. Artwork that slices into the domestic ideal may provoke a strange concert of associations because, ultimately, in so many houses there is a heartache. Dwelling uncomfortably between the ideal and the real, the work of Susan O’Doherty applies fragments of the familiar with incisive intensity.
Suppressed energy, erased emotion and an overwhelming atmosphere of control pervade the paintings and assemblages of her new work for “Pinned to the Wall”. The symmetrical backgrounds she has chosen are based on ceramic bath tiles, vintage wallpaper and the checkerboard of a table cloth or a kitchen floor. Tensely compressed, they form the stifled backbeat of the gendered images we are bombarded with everyday: the wedding dress, the milk bottle, the home beautiful scattered with shiny appliances and cheerful trimmings. And then there are less predictable shards, the triggers that summon the eerie stasis of an aftermath: a child’s patent leather shoe, a knife, a gun, a cracked piece of glass or porcelain rendered menacing by it’s raw edge. Composition heightens the drama of her materials: each image seems so deliberately resolved, as neat as a new bed, as clean as fresh lipstick, as pretty as a picture. Beauty, as every woman is taught, conceals to protect. And, in the patriarchal social order, appearances conceal so much.
Throughout her career O’Doherty has played with the power of aesthetics. For the assemblages in “Moving House” near obsolete technologies (the typewriter, the manual alarm clock) and domestic objects rich with nostalgia (a drawn venetian blind) evoked the enclosure and secrecy of the suburban house. In the new works the uneasy relationship between decoration and objecthood, calm and chaos is more explicit: “I made these works as deliberately beautiful as I could to echo the perfectionism of the roles being depicted. The paintings relate to the assemblage with interlocking repeated patterns. In bedspreads, floorboards and fabric table cloths the design of the home and the repetition of life infers the repetition of behaviour, across families and across history.” The cloying benign patterns, of plaids and pale florals, are almost universal in their strange harmony and the use of pattern itself has a hypnotic effect. Like fashion, feminine décor bears a neutralising and normalising influence. It is an idea given a clear graphic voice in a sculptural work such as “Invisible”. In this work a gripping optical illusion absorbs a fashion shoe into the wallpaper. The cruel design of the shoe is rendered glamorous by pattern, it’s visual power fractured by distraction. This work could be about the vulnerability of a woman in a crippling heel or its meaning could be casting a much longer shadow: reminding us of the way social inequities are normalised by feminised décor and gendered objects.
Fashion, like domestic servitude, is promoted as both an advantage and a liability that is somehow “part of life”. Any woman looking at a stiletto heel will hear any number of conflicting social messages from her own collective memory ranging from style tips to mockery: “Be a lady!”, “Walk tall”, “Just try to run in those!”
In this artist’s hands, objects that are valued as erotic are hollowed out. The way she isolates domestic and fashion items in space gives them an intimate poignancy, more like a living portrait than a faceless shop window. As a substantial statement “Pinned to the Wall” is speaking openly about domestic violence. By humanising inanimate things this project puts a face to the object, a name to the number, a story to the statistic. Women’s lives are heavy with unspoken rules and tacit duties. In the context of a work like “Pinned to the Wall” the cheap padded black satin bra is not a fetish but, like heels, just another necessity, part of the uniform, a part of the job.
O’Doherty is well aware of the taboos encrypted within her materials: her work hones the language of a long line of artists reclaiming private objects for a public message. Over time, imagery of the kitchen, the bedroom and the living room have shifted. The ground gained by poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath is that female ‘things’ are no longer an incongruity within art, they are central to our understanding.
O’Doherty mines many of her materials from local op shops, the three dimensional storehouses of domestic memory. Sliced, drilled, glued and rearranged in her studio, the things that stood silent in a marriage are allowed to scream. The patient tea cup. The abject polished sugar bowl. The ceramic rose with petal edges sharp as blades. Some might ask why her materials are so raw. Yet each object comes with a graduating voltage according to personal experience. To you this is a butter knife. To her it is a weapon. To him it is something that might need to be cleaned and put back in the drawer. Out of sight. Out of mind.
The emotive range of this work is broad. Some of the imagery simply hints at boredom, the unspoken tragedy of lost hours. Others suggest something more extreme. Every work in “Pinned to the Wall” returns to this sense of unchanged values. And more pointedly, unchanged values in the face of much broader public awareness. The atmosphere of inertia generated by a crazy quilt, a frenetic wallpaper or a sterile tidy kitchen is deliberate. And it is deliberate because in essence we really are stuck. Stuck in time and stuck in a pattern that does not serve. The clockwork duties of housework, motherhood and marriage are now widely understood to be unpaid labour and yet the ideal of gender inequality persists, unchallenged and unchanged. Set in aspic. Done and dusted. Immaculate.
Clearly this show goes deeper than simply critiquing an unrealistic and unjust domestic ideal or the outrageous limitations of “staying at home”. O’Doherty tackles domestic violence, systemic abuse and the idea of the home as both a detention centre and a crime scene. Her deft use of space creates an almost static energy around supposedly everyday objects: the tea cup, the open handbag, the wedding dress, the bathroom sink, and imbues them with a vulnerability and humanity that shatters the limitations of the objective view. Look again, these works seem to beckon, this is not a room but a state of mind, this is not a sheet but a shroud, this is not a vase but a vessel for counting tears.
Anna Johnson 2016