Photo by DJ McCreary
Persimmon Blackbridge's Constructed Identities
An exhibit of works by Persimmon Blackridge launches the Tangled Arts Gallery.
The Tangled Art Gallery, opening May 4, came into being out of necessity.
“Producing the Tangled Art + Disability festival, our biggest challenge has been finding accessible space,” says artistic director Eliza Chandler.
“Last year we had about 12 art shows in the festival, and we approached galleries at 401 Richmond West to host them. We’ve done a good job getting our work out to our community, but we wanted to get it out to people who may not know about disabled arts. For our festival opening we filled the building – we had probably 1,000 people here. The management of 401 was very impressed by the quality of the artwork, how we put it together and the public attention around what we were doing.”
When 401 offered Tangled a gallery space, the members of the small organization carefully considered whether they were up to the challenge.
“Ultimately there were two interrelated deciding factors,” she says. “One, there’s a desperate lack of accessible art gallery space in the city, especially artist-run centres and smaller galleries. Secondly and more important, it is culturally significant that, though we’re not the first disability art gallery, we’re one of a few, especially in Toronto. And this is an accessible building, so we couldn’t turn it down.”
Tangled Art + Disability helps artists with things like CVs, artist statements and grant applications. A photo workshop with Vincenzo Pietropaolo a few years ago has led to an active photography collective. Tangled is also involved with performing arts, for instance hosting dance classes at TDSB schools with a disabled breakdancer. And a strong focus for the gallery is enhancing the art experience for audiences with disabilities.
“Most of our events are free so that they’re financially accessible, but we’re also thinking about technologies that can increase the accessibility of the artwork.”
The gallery’s opening show is Constructed Identities, sculptures by Persimmon Blackridge, a BC-based lesbian-feminist artist/author who’s been working since the 80s.
“Persimmon’s show has a full audio track so folks who are blind or visually impaired can listen to a description of the work on headphones, and she’s created one piece that’s touchable,” says Chandler. “We’ll have ‘relaxed’ hours for people who might not want a lot of stimulation, like fluorescent lights or noise, or who might make noise themselves and be a bit animated, anyone from kids to folks with autism or epilepsy.”
Technology plays an increasing role for everyone. A show later this year will use a vibro-tactile technology that allows people to feel sound vibrations; it’s for those who are deaf or hard of hearing but something unique for anyone. Chandler would like to partner with a tech giant to get a 3D printer that would allow artists to make touchable, interactive work and headsets that sense the art as you walk by and start playing.
Upcoming programming illustrates how disability cuts across and interacts with a variety of other identities, including race and gender.
Mel Campbell’s textile installation explores themes of blackness and diaspora related to experiences of disability and chronic illness. Gloria Swain’s painting show, Madhouse, opens a dialogue about older black women and mental health issues.
I ask Chandler’s opinion of the “outsider art” label that’s often applied to this kind of work. We both agree that lots of strong, powerful art has come to light because of the art brut (first collected and exhibited by Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s) and outsider art movements.
“The work, often produced in institutions without support, is amazing, but the way it’s framed and contextualized and curated is problematic. When Dubuffet displayed all that incredible work without artists’ names, without inviting them to openings or thinking about having an artist talk, it sent a message that this work is brilliant in spite of the artist’s dislocation or madness or disability or isolation.
“It leaves us with this idea that disabled artists can’t improve. Tangled works really hard to push back against that presumption. An artist might be a mad genius who’s created a great piece, but given the right tools and skills and training and money, that artist could get better and better and better.”
She cites the example of Judith Scott, a fibre sculptor who had Down syndrome and whose amazing bundled assemblages have escaped the outsider pigeonhole in recent exhibits at American museums. Chandler dreams of bringing them to Tangled.
“To me her work is just stunningly beautiful. Was it her intention to make art, or was she just being obsessive? Of course she was making art. She didn’t speak, so we don’t know what her purpose was, but I think she knew what she was doing.”