26 June 1997 - 2 August 1997
Opening Reception 26 June 1997 8pm
The word ‘text’ comes originally from textile: it means the interweaving of different threads,” says Heather Cameron. In her piece Paragons from her show Consuming Passion. Cameron’s use of textiles, with its gentle irony and humour, critiques culturally dominant narratives of the virgin/whore dichotomy by conflating them. The consequence is a delightful allegory of mild excess, a new luxury of mind, a generous tsk tsk and turning away “without prejudice’ from traditional gendered assumptions. Cameron claims not to have had any conscious political intent in the creation of the piece; however, Paragonsis loaded with references to mordant stereotypes that have worked to restrict women’s freedom throughout recent history. The result is a witty, sensual work of art that shyly seduces and, as Delilah, exposes and shears away the source of power. Intelligent and slightly mischievous, the work produces re-readings of women’s psycho-sexual space.
Paragons consists of a set of women’s underwear embroidered with the Seven Deadly Sins hung on wrought-iron supports and mounted on a wooden structure that resembles a fashion runway or the podium at a beauty pageant or Olympic event. On the highest pedestal is Pride, a girdle with a luscious veil of netting attached to a bustle on the derrire, which stands like a crowned queen flanked by her maids in waiting. Sloth, a baggy worn-out pair of white underpants with stretched elastic, hangs dejectedly, while Gluttony billows, and Lust, beribboned with red satin bows, falls in a shimmer of black silk. Wrath is portrayed as red crushed velvet with yellow ric rac, Envy is green sequined with a beaded fringe, and Greed is glorious in gold lam. Cameron makes liberal and effective use of the culturally legitimated and easily accessible associations one has for the various sins.
The idea for the work originated with several diverse factors, including Cameron’s memory of the circumstances under which she began and finished making a sampler when she was a teenager. (That is, the sampler was begun in innocence and completed as an act of repentance to atone for rebelliousness.) Samplers, which were particularly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were, superficially, cloths that young women embroidered to prove they had facility in sewing. More than that, though, the time, practice and diligence that girls were required to put into the production of these objects had the ulterior effect of teaching them other “feminine virtues” such as patience and obedience.
The cultural differentiation of the sexes is based to this day upon the passivity and subordination of women, which brings up the other major influence for this piece, the Days of the Week women’s panty sets. These terribly cute pastel sets promote ideals of female hygiene and sexual innocence based on a premise of women’s innate uncleanliness, slovenliness and lack of self-governance. It is well documented that the simple and quotidian artifact of women’s underwear is indicative of changing mores in this century. By superimposing the Seven Deadly Sins, with their Biblical intonations, on the Days of the Week panties Cameron brings into question a number of suppositions. She flaunts the idea of women’s increasing agency in the manipulation of restrictive social contracts. She puts into question the parameters of female work/leisure, morality and the body, gender-based values of diligence, piety, obedience and humility, and the mechanisms of gender-divided activity which construct and reinforce social identity. Cameron exposes the inculcation of girls into the feminine by altering the context of traditionally female materials-fabric-and traditionally male materials-wood and metal. She flips notions of exclusive male authority over the production of artifacts and of meaning, as well as notions of male authority over the female body. The support structure of Paragons add to the work’s ambiguity. From the front the wooden pedestals are precise, almost decoratively architectural, displaying an apparently obvious value in their polish and exactitude. The view from the back reveals the podium’s practicality and artificiality. The multiplicity of similar little tricks of perception the piece plays on the viewer generate a playful sense of vertigo. Cameron takes pleasure in the quality and usefulness of the transferable skills required to produce her art. She also questions whether as an artist she must justify or apologize for the employment of “craft” in the production of the work. At some point in
Paragons the concept and the sundry means of production used to realize the piece merge. Tension results as the materials, the process, the concepts and the historical references fight for supremacy. The literal and symbolic are left in an uneasy stasis. With its identity in crisis and its pants down, Paragons continues to expose the funny, warm-hearted side of itself.