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Erin Finley's Drawings at Hallwalls

Erin Finley's drawing are at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center through May 6.

Cinderella Liberties

I attended the Toronto artist Erin Finley’s talk at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center a couple weeks back. I remember it was riveting. Not for what was said, though I’m sure it was coherent and reasonably presented. It was the images on the screen—large ink drawings of such multivarious and pernicious enthusiasms that it was hard to follow the thread of what the professed neo-feminist spoke about. Here were drawings of libertine provocation and yet not. Incisively wrought ceremonies of unbridled bawd but somehow not so. An audience member of a certain age might have felt both violated and vitiated, and yet there were no awed gasps, no disapproving clucks, no titters of titilation, and, at the lecture’s end, few questions. Erin Finley had managed to fulfil her Warholian mantra: “Leave them wanting less.”

Freud said thought is an exploration of possibilities avoiding all the dangers inherent in actual experimentation. Finley’s explorations reveal how violent, destructive, and sadistic the human imagination is. In her fashion-accessorized illuminations, the viewer sees in well articulated, finely limned figures scenes of gorgeous decadence with none of the textures of justice, fidelity, love, or courage. There is no presumption that the craven transgressions pictured will find repentance nor that the slightest confessional thought parsed mental sensation in these fulsome nymphoids.

The artist cites Cinderella, the Disney version, as a point of investigation for her image-making. She speaks of the” Disney-fication” of the heroine, of contemporary portrayals of women that airbrush the visceral vitality, the extraordinary crudeness, and heartless cruelty in women found in the oral tradition that begat the literature of fairytales. Disney’s Cinderella, the best known of all his animated adaptations worldwide, is a bowdlerized re-telling of a classic myth going all the way back to China in the sixth century and before that to the Egyptians: the “dirty stepchild.” Finley takes the sooty kitchen maid saga into the present era of hyper-narcissism, ironic infamies, and editorial underwear. Her blase androgynes, elastic adolescents, and retinue of miniscule minions portray a lascivious netherworld where both designer cork wedgies and flaccid flip-flops strut their stuff.

Finley’s set-piece debauchery allows the viewer the chance to wallow in ersatz voyeurism with none of the historical guilt that follows from the work of such keen observers of the human condition as Hogarth, Otto Dix, or Reginald Marsh. The lowly Aschenputtel who must tend the fireplace ashes remains the archetype of female degradation. Her opposite is the story of the Vestal Virgins, who guarded the hearth lest the fire go out until chosen by the next prince in line. In Finley’s work, the women appear to have no sense of ashen debasement and men are certainly not a royal deliverance. Rather, men become the sex objects of the female’s miserable passions. There is no sense of contradictory emotions, no Oedipal entanglements in these hedonistic exhibitionists. A kind of ur-reality co-exists easily with fantastic abomination. Finley works within the normal expectations of causality and her skill at portraying what HallWall’s visual arts curator, John Massier, describes as “desire-positive” images that vacillate between Jungian complexity and Extasy deviance. Her amoral tableaus prompt the question, “What is the use of choosing to be a good person if one fears one is living an insignificant life?

Finley’s work is at Hallwalls through May 6.

j. tim raymond

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