by Alexa Johnston curator of Contemporary Art Auckland Art Gallery 1984
Sylvia Siddell sees her work as emerging from her general unease about the world, and her anxiety about the precarious nature of human existence. She talks of a lack of confidence in the future which she has felt from an early age; a feeling that tragedy can engulf her at any time. Her drawings are an attempt to allay the dragons, the spectres which arise from this insecurity. The awareness of death as an inexplicable, unavoidable end is the source of much of her work. Sylvia Siddell's mother raised hens and sold eggs. Siddell remembers as a child all the chickens around the house, and death as an ever present reality. "Any morning you could wake up to find a whole batch of day old chicks had died in the night."
Sylvia Siddell's drawings are also a means of controlling the forces which make domesticity a disabling trap for many women. She is aware of the ancient idea that the maker of the image gains control of the object or person depicted. This realization is what lies behind the well documented reluctance of many tribal people to be photographed or painted. In Siddell's case, the images she makes lay open the oppressive to ridicule and laughter; satire is a long-standing means of undermining the power of tyrants.
The tyrants she draws are often household appliances which represent the pressure on women in our society to take the responsibility for the care of the home. Sylvia Siddell knows the tyrannical demands of an orderly house. Women have long been instilled with the idea that their virtue and worth depend on their tidiness, neatness, cleanliness and calm; their careful control of themselves and their environment. The exhortations to live up to this ideal are proclaimed by the advertising all around us. The blame for an untidy house, or for noisy, grubby children seems inevitably to fall on the female in the partnership. Advertisements depict women as servants by nature, gaining great pleasure from eternally cleaning up other people's messes. The house is kept shiny and bright by an ever-smiling "housewife"; but who ever married a house?
On those who ignore these standards, or who cannot live up to them, society places a heavy burden of guilt; this is intellectually absurd, but still emotionally damaging. And the struggle to keep up is bound to fail. The clean and tidy house will get dirty, and may dissolve into chaos at any moment. Turn your back and the dirt reappears on the windows. Sylvia Siddell draws a washing basket filled with dirty laundry, and calls it Cornucopia; it is never empty.
The impression of seething movement which Sylvia Siddell achieves in her drawings contributes to their unsettling qualities. Her early work was done when her two daughters were babies and wouldn't sleep. She spent hours at night pacing the house with them, and felt strongly that household objects remain still only when you look at them, that rooms are filled with activity until we walk in and the objects freeze into immobility again. In her drawings, taps become muscular, and contorted electrical leads and hoses are like knotted snakes or umbilical cords; machines and appliances are twisted and misshapen, buckled and bent. Siddell covers surfaces with pencil strokes which make the complicated, shimmering moire patterns at which she excels. She contrasts the seductive beauty of pencil patterning with subjects which display an edge of grotesque humour. Siddell greatly admires Albrecht Durer's drawings and engravings which show his dazzling control of line. His etching and woodcut media require a linear creation of image; shading is achieved with masses of line rather than areas of soft tone. Sylvia Siddell chooses to restrict herself to line and, using a soft pencil, she suggests a variety of surfaces from gleaming metal to feathers, from soft skin to reptilian scales.
A Day in the life of Mrs. S.
Sylvia Siddell's 1977 exhibition at the Barry Lett Galleries was called A Day in the Life of Mrs. S., and comprised a group of drawings which captured many of the undisciplined appliances which lurk around her house, demanding her attention. Although Siddell seldom draws directly from her subject (she finds it better to invent forms), her observation of every detail of her subjects is obvious. In Washing Machine the agitator in the machine crouches like a phallic monster, and the knobs are labelled with words which allude to viciousness and disease: depravity, lust and lechery, cripples and bestial, dissipate, violate and defile, even select-a-pestilence; plague, scurvy or gonorrhoea. The brand name of this nightmare machine is Sodom and Gomorrah. From the plug hole crawls a lizard; this is the stuff of nightmares. It is, of course, the half-humorous antithesis of the clean, bright and shiny appliances which appear on our television screens promising to remove all nasty dirt from our lives. In the same exhibition Siddell exhibited drawings of her vacuum cleaner and, in an interview she said, "Even a sewing machine looks like a crouching beast."
Eater and Eaten
In 1979 Siddell exhibited another group of works under the title Cordon Noir in which she explored the tasks relating to cooking and preparing of food. Siddell says she is fascinated by the relationships between eater and eaten. There is something absurd and macabre in the way we will tenderly grow a cabbage, fertilize it, shoo away the white butterflies, water it, and then, when it is big enough, bring it inside and chop it in pieces. We do the same with animals; the chickens of her childhood, once their laying days were over, were killed as boiling fowls. She remembers seeing bruises around wings which had been broken long before death. Old hens thrown on the scrap heap when their productive days were over. The drawing Cuisine Minceur is a particularly grim and distressing comment on our use of animals. (Siddell is not a vegetarian.) When we are faced with the reality of a dead animal, fur, feathers, claws and all, few of us can avoid feelings of guilt. Eating meat is a bloody business. Siddell says she also wants to emphasize that the physical suffering of animals when they are killed is no different from our physical suffering; we simply have the added dimension of mental anguish.
Monday Morning is a self-portrait made not long after Sylvia Siddell's fortieth birthday. It is an image that emerges from self-mockery rather than anger. It has elements of desperation as well as the humour which the title suggests. Her hand conceals her face from herself apprehensive, yet engrossed in the analysis of appearance and of personal reality. The conglomeration of makeup bottles form a barrier between the artist and her reflected image. Monday Morning, confronts the anxiety we feel in facing ourselves; in looking behind the facade we present to others, and acknowledging that there are realities about ourselves which are not contained in the roles we assume in society. Sylvia Siddell's drawings exist within the western tradition of feminist art established over the past decades. Her work, though uncompromising and unsettling, is very much the product of an intelligent artist who views women's situation in the world today with a mixture of rage and humour.
||Unruly Practices. Auckland Art Gallery 1994
Sylvia Siddell Survey Show
Slaughter of the Innocents
The preparation of food is surrounded by constraints and rituals in all human societies. Food is not only essential to our physical survival, it is also sacred, precious and loaded with powerful symbolism. It is used to mark our most important events, and its beauty and transience is celebrated, but if treated in the wrong way it can pollute and even cause death.
The gathering together of people to eat is also fraught with possible dangers. Stories we tell of social disasters, faux pas or family strife, are often set around the dinner table, when we are in close proximity and our differences are most exposed. In her masterly book The Rituals of Dinner: the origins, evolution, eccentricities and meaning of table manners, Margaret Visser outlines the ways cultures attempt to control the possible dangers inherent in people eating together. She writes:
"Violence, after all, is necessary if any organism is to ingest another. Animals are murdered to produce meat; vegetables are torn up, peeled and chopped; most of what we eat is treated with fire; and chewing is designed remorselessly to finish what killing and cooking began. People naturally prefer that none of this should happen to them. Behind every rule of table etiquette lurks the determination of each person present to be a diner, not a dish. It is one of the chief roles of etiquette to keep the lid on the violence which the meal being eaten presupposes."
Sylvia Siddell relentlessly but humorously removes this lid, leaving us face to face with a mayhem in which the distinctions between the diner and the dish are often uncomfortably challenged. A cabbage head is sliced in half in a painting titled Beheaded and, in Divided, a gleaming orange pumpkin spills its seeds under the attack of a shiny meat cleaver. The painting Bonbons shows a box of chocolates in which all the delicious sweet morsels are parts of women's bodies. A feminist concern with the relegation of women to the position of ,consumable' items permeates many of Siddell's images. It is hard to control an instinctive shudder, and perhaps a smile. By painting these atrocities Siddell disempowers them.
Siddell's perceptive and at times macabre sense of humour has been a distinctive facet of her work since she began exhibiting in 1975.. Her first solo exhibition, called 'A Day in the Life of Mrs. S', included drawings of out-of-control home appliances, the crawling and awful antithesis of those bright and shiny machines which advertisers promise will remove all the nasty dirt from houses, clothes, and by extension, lives. (Margaret Visser comments on the twentieth-century western obsession with cleanliness which leads fast-food proprietors to encase foods in layers of unnecessary packaging - promising to seal us away from the dangers of rawness, rottenness and dirt.) Siddell spells out clearly the impossibility of ignoring these processes which are an inevitable and essential part of the whole cycle of life. Casualty shows the mess left after a dinner party and in other paintings a fly lands on a meat pie, a wasp hovers over fruit and a milk bottle emits a cascade of green slime.
Siddell's title for this exhibition, Slaughter of the Innocents, originates in the biblical story of Herod ordering the massacre of all children in Bethlehem, in an attempt to remove the threat created by the birth of Christ. The subject became a favourite among painters in fifteenth-century Europe for displaying virtuosity in compositions of violent action. Sylvia Siddell consciously connects her work to this art-historical precedent, but uses the theme in a secular way to explore its resonance as political and social commentary. She makes of the many small works in this room a composite battle scene swirling and seething with action and colour; a scene which encompasses events within and beyond the domestic arena, commenting on the violence which is a constant in contemporary life. Some of her titles read like a litany of unpleasant states: Imperilled, Lacerated, Bleeding, Pitiable, Flayed. Yet there are also Bountiful, Ample, Delectable, Tender and Homegrown.
If grand themes like the massacre of the innocents have generally been viewed as the province of male artists, still-life painting has a strong connection with women painters. The great age of still-life painting in seventeenth - century Spain and the Netherlands produced many male masters, but also provided an opportunity for women artists to flourish. Despite the danger of identification with a 'minor' area of the visual arts, the painting of flowers, food and fruit gave women access to important systems of symbols which dealt with the brevity of life and the folly of obsession with worldly pleasures. Still lifes were more loaded with grim meaning for the seventeenth - century viewer than they seem today. They also offered an opportunity to revel in the luscious beauty of food and the tactile and sensual qualities of paint.
Sylvia Siddell takes on all these issues in her action filled 'still lifes'. She is stimulated and inspired by the work of other painters and her pleasure in colour and surface is evident in the celebratory vigour of her paintings. She both acknowledges and questions art-historical traditions by filling her paintings with unruly objects and depicting unruly practices. Rather than warning the viewer of impending decay, Siddell applauds its inevitability. She posits the processes of change and regeneration as symbols of resistance to the human passion for control. As she points to anger and violence, she disempowers them with ridicule. Her works are a call to arms and an anarchic fanfare of revolution. The Auckland City Art Gallery is pleased to present this exhibition of Sylvia Siddell's work and to salute her achievements as a feminist artist.
Alexa M. Johnston