Its impact is immediate. A jarring confrontation of the industrial age and the modern aesthetic, the sensory experience is disorienting and somewhat perplexing.
The Bridgehead location at the intersection of Preston and Anderson is a curious place. The interior is all modern sensibilities and open space, inviting the passerby to step inside and relax with a beverage and a ginger cookie. Once settled, however, the patron is frequently confronted by the unsettling, unrelenting intrusion of beans being ground. Polite conversation can be a challenge. Relaxation, more so.
Welcome to the factory floor.
And welcome to the imagination of Jenny McMaster, a local mixed-media artist attempting to filter out the next batch of coffee beans in order to enjoy the ones in front of her. An Ottawa native and daughter of a pre-school teacher with a passion for art, McMaster is quietly making a name for herself locally, through attention-getting presentations such as her performance piece during last May’s Chinatown Remixed event, which saw the artist dressed in Edwardian garb, mapping the social scene via tea-stained paper.
McMaster’s latest installment, an exhibition of mixed-media work now in its last 10 days at Centrepointe Theatre Gallery, similarly mines interaction from another era, incorporating corsets into canvas to craft eye-catching three-dimensional creations that confront the viewer as akin to human relief maps. The brownish, faded-looking works displayed on the gallery’s lower level further enhance the antiquated-map experience.
The exhibition is dubbed Tight Laced, and the theme of constraint, particularly with reference to women, is immediately apparent. But, McMaster notes, there is more to her presentation than gender-identity commentary.
“Men actually wore corsets as well,” the artist reminds us. “But it is mainly about gender identity and how women portray themselves. You know, you don’t want to be told how to dress and how you can dress, but at the same time you often will choose to dress in a provocative manner and you have to negotiate that. Like, am I OK with being seen like this in this situation? What are the ramifications?”
She speaks of the “negotiation process” inherent in wardrobe selection, and in social interaction. The corset, according to the Canterbury alumnus, represents that process. As do a suit and tie. (Previous McMaster works presented pin-stripes as prison bars and suits as straitjackets.) To dress for the world outside, is to implicitly conform to society’s constraints.
“I think it’s an important symbol that still brings a lot of things up,” she says of the corset’s contemporary significance. “People do wear girdles and things like that. And you do wear bras, which can be kind of uncomfortable. And heels, which are not necessarily good for you.
“Sometimes you see, in feminism or in other points of view people portray things as being simpler than they are. It’s not necessarily just, ‘We’re being repressed.’ It’s, ‘We’re in a negotiation process.’ We’re defining ourselves. So it’s not just about being given certain restrictions by certain environments; it’s about a negotiation process, about how we see ourselves and how we choose to be seen.”
It’s also, if you like, about titillation.
“The corset is also associated with S&M. It is something that’s still worn as an item of lingerie. Like, if you google it… Google is a good way to see how something is viewed in popular culture.”
“It can be seen as pushing the boundaries,” she suggests, “because it has a sadomasochistic side; the corset is also associated with S&M. It is something that’s still worn as an item of lingerie. So there’s a push and pull. And gender identity always has that push and pull.”
Such conflict is well represented in McMaster’s work, which routinely melds seemingly incongruous media to create something wholly original. “I’ve kind of invented a lot of different things by using the tools at hand,” is how McMaster explains her fascination with mixed-media. “That’s how I was brought up: to penny-pinch.”