Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris
February 8 – April 5, 2019
With Promiscuous Rooms, Shannon Bool’s focus is the masculine nature of modern architecture, and how it subsumes the female form. She explores mainly the work of the modernist architect Le Corbusier: his plans, drawings, buildings and rooms within them.
The series of photograms or photo-collages entitled Bombshells (2018) takes postcard representations of Oriental female nudes that were popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and overlays them with modernist architectural plans that restrict or box in the women’s bodies. The works are small and feel fragile, despite the strength of the women depicted in the photos. The images reflect the fascination with the idea of women in a harem, depicted frequently by Western artists including Delacroix and Picasso.
As it happened, in the 1930s Le Corbusier went to Algiers where he was very taken with the local women, depicting them in drawings and paintings. Bool considers his project for housing in Algiers, the Plan Obus that would provide better homes in what was a crowded city (his plan was rejected). The artist’s ‘comment’ is a large Jacquard Tapestry, Oued Ouchaia – the name of the subdivision where Le Corbusier located his plan (2018; Jacquard tapestry and embroidery; 209 x 325 cm.). The medium and material is a surprising and satisfying choice for her image of the architectural plans that here cannot control the wild figures. Bool based female silhouettes on drawings by Le Corbusier of women he hired as models. Shannon Bool presents them as two gigantic women who embrace fiercely in what might be interpreted as an act of lesbian love.
Their bodies are covered with Berber carpet motifs, some of them embroidered on the Jacquard surface. The contrast in the figures is striking. The bottom figure’s design is like a checkerboard pattern in quiet shades of grey with an occasional small embroidered flower providing a point of colour. It’s the figure on top that grabs you. The texture of her body is long strands of wool in patterns and colours that suggest flames and heat. Together the two female bodies overpower the superimposed architectural plans that now seem fragile and pointless. The plans designed to control and direct human bodies are here seen to fail, confronted by female desire.
You might expect that the abstract rendering of the figures with the carpet designs would lessen their impact, but that was not at all my experience. The quality of the Jacquard tapestry in its soft surface and relation to interior design turns out to be a very effective statement in this context.
Bool chooses Jacquard tapestry for a number of works that present the very masculine qualities of modernist architecture infiltrated by the feminine. I think her sense of humour is especially vibrant in The Four Seasons (2018, Jacquard tapestry, embroidery; 255 x 168 cm). She has shifted her focus from one modernist architect to another – here, Mies van der Rohe, who designed the Seagram Building in Manhattan in the 1950s (with Philip Johnson and Phyllis Lambert). The Four Seasons Restaurant is part of the building, and Bool hones in on the men’s rest room with its marble floor and the hard lines of stalls lined up on the diagonal. The whole scene is a symphony in greys, softened by the glistening texture of the Jacquard tapestry surface. But the eye is caught by an anomaly: from underneath one of the stalls the long train of a woman’s gown flows along the marble floor. It stands out because of the colourful flowers embroidered on its surface. This made me laugh out loud: what does not belong here in this severe room of black/white/grey hard surfaces! After all, the Seagram Building is the embodiment of corporate men in suits. Let’s play with that, undermine it right where it counts, Bool seems to say.
And she goes from one bathroom to another in a more recent work, Women in Their Apartment (2019; Jacquard Tapestry, embroidery; 221 x 300 cm.). This is the bathroom in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye of 1926, which becomes a setting for a harem. In a room of shiny white tiles, three sketchy figures representing Algerian women reference Delacroix’s paintings of Women of Algiers (1830s) and Picasso’s series on the same subject (1950s). Here they have a surprising, jarring element superimposed on their bodies. It is an isolated, hard, shiny rear end apparently representing Kim Kardashian’s bottom. Does the artist suggest a line of succession from the Orientalizing fetishism of the 19th century to current attitudes to women’s bodies as the curator proposes? It does feel as though not much has changed in these centuries of the patriarchy.
There is a certain irony in this installation, located in the new Canadian Cultural Centre on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris. The gallery is a very light, large white space that reflects the type of modernist architectural principles Bool criticizes in her work. It is as stark and chilly as The Four Seasons restroom! More appropriate is a small side hall where the Bombshell photograms are installed in an intimate setting.
Promiscuous Rooms will next be seen at the Agnes Etherington Art Gallery in Kingston, Ontario.
Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University
Photo credits: All images are courtesy of Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto