Critical Distance

Myths of Work/Rules of Thumb: Leslie Thompson
November 29 – December 21, 1996

a response to the exhibition by Sheila Spence

The exhibition by Toronto artist Leslie Thompson is made up of two separate pieces: Myths of Work and Rules of Thumb. In the photo installation Myths of Work Thompson begins the journey back from the patriarchal beliefs of business towards some form of matriarchy.

Large black and white images are sequenced and sometimes a text panel is added to the narrative. The same text is spoken on an audio tape which is played through a conference speaker situated on the boardroom table in the centre of the gallery. Drawn from conversations with women who had graduated from a Masters of Business Administration program at their 10th class reunion, the voices on the tape speak of women’s hopes for success within corporate structures and their feelings of entitlement to all of the possibilities available to men within these structures. Sometimes the words are spoken by a single voice and sometimes they are chanted, mantra-like, by a chorus of women’s voices:

“You are the best. You are the brightest. Much is expected of you.” and “Your fantasy career – should you go for it?”. The overall feel of the exhibition is somewhere between desirable and slick, and in this way mirrors the ambivalence of wanting the privilege afforded by an Old Boys’ Club while being repulsed by its exclusions.

The images Thompson uses to symbolise business and the patriarchy are clear: boardroom tables, skyscrapers, blurred subway trains, and the female equivalent of the corporate suit. Blurred, long-exposure photographs of a female figure mimic the gestures of companion images in some of the sequences; a twirling figure makes a curve similar to the end of a boardroom table and a Chanel-clad woman holds her arms across her breasts, as does a historically-referenced relief of a woman in the centre panel of the same triptych. I do not find that the matriarchal images Thompson uses are as accessible; the photograph of the woman, dressed-for-success, briefcase in hand, purposefully striding through the wilderness, for example, is meant to reference both a famous panty hose ad as well as an 18th-century painting of a woman as woodland nymph – these references are not easily read, if at all. Another historical reference could be Eve, or one of the Three Graces, or a take-off on Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”. Our protagonist in these works is disillusioned and angry with the patriarchy. She has fled the boardroom into the wilderness but she does not seem to know where to go beyond this. And she is hanging on to her power suit just in case those in charge have a change of heart and find her a place after all.

Rules of Thumb takes its title from a belief, held by many, that there existed in English common law a rule stating that a man may beat his wife with a whip or rattan no wider than his thumb. In recent years this belief has been discredited – however, it does set the stage for discussions centred around contradictions of conflict and control in gender relations.

In a separate room, painted dark gray, Thompson has constructed six friezes of reversed images of ancient Greek bas-relief sculpture. The subjects were taken from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae and depict a mythical battle between the Amazons and the Greeks. Hung above eye level, these friezes are framed with the classical architecture of a cornice and dentils painted matte black. Just below the cornice, in bold serif text, the works are titled, giving the suggestion of neoclassical structures. The overall feel of this installation is quite dramatic. The photographs flow from one to another. Women battle against men and men against women, pausing only to remove their dead or wounded. There is no hint of what the eventual outcome of the drama may be.

The photographic images, reversed to negative, feel less definitive than would a positive image, rather like an x-ray that asks you to look further than the surface depiction. However, below the layer of gender conflict I do not have a sense of what else there may be to see. Does the struggle between the Amazons and the Greeks ring true today? Are we destined to relive the bloodletting, hero worship, and infanticide endemic in both of these cultures for all of eternity?

As in Myths of Work, Thompson is commenting on male domination, and it appears to be a journey of despair. The Amazons fared no better against the Greeks than did the women who tried to succeed in today’s corporate board- rooms. Isn’t it time we used our choice, power and creativity to construct a future based on values that would move us toward genuine change? Where do we want to go from here?

Sheila Spence is a photographer, activist, collaborator and solo artist living and working in Winnipeg.