At first glance, Barbara Cole’s exhibition, “Bolster,” seems to be about sex. Pinned to the wall opposite the door of the gallery is Stretched Klein (1996), a black Calvin Klein g-string stretched as far as it will go. On the facing wall hangs Package (1996), a black bicycle tool bag looking suggestively like the “basket” of a man’s crotch. Almost everything in this show is taut, sexy, cool and ironic. Cole’s materials do what they do best: coil, hang, stretch, sit, and the general effect is akin to a visceral evocation of sexual tension. In Rosary #2 (1995), a latex tube hangs from an inverted coat hook, heavy with BB pellets shoved through it at regular intervals. One visitor to the show aptly described Stretched (1996), a royal blue dental dam stretched over two pinheads and taped to the wall, as the hard nipples of a young girl on a cold day at the beach. Stretched and Pinned (1996) reaches from floor to ceiling, its fine orange fishing net pinned crosswise at regular intervals to form a wave pattern. All of these works seem suspended in the moment before their elasticity recoils back on itself, much like the human abdomen arched before flexing in spasm at the point of orgasm. Indeed, the body is nowhere and yet it is everywhere in this exhibition, evoked through the awesome conspicuousness of its absence.
Some works are screaming to be touched, such as Medallion #1 (1996), a palm-sized bronze cast of a woman’s labia. The very tactile treatment of the bronze, and the real cunt it refers to, fill the viewer with the desire to stroke it. But unlike the real body which is revealed in private, these lips are splayed for a public audience. To be a true fetish, Medallion should live in the secret space of the closed hand, not on the wall. Oiled Shelf (1996), a small medite shelf, is another example of a work charged both by its bracketless mounting to the wall and by its engagement of our tactile sense. The shininess and smoothness of the surface lead the visitor’s fingers to a central depression filled invisibly to the brim with oil. Shock registers on people’s faces as their fingers glide into the slippery stuff. Cole talks about her own urges to touch and stroke in an entry on her web page, where she discusses the making of Squeezed (1996), a plasticene penis almost the colour of white flesh, sticking out from underneath an inverted red coat hook:
One day in the studio, I was engaged in my own fetishistic activity; sitting on a stool in front of a knob screwed to the wall at cock height, applying “flesh” coloured plasticene, pushing it onto the knob, drawing it out, warming it to my touch, pulling it out beyond the hard edge of the knob. . . . Doing this punctuated my tendency to use the making of things as an intermediary step in coming to terms with things that I can’t quite grasp otherwise. Artmaking becomes my bolster.
Sex is usually represented narratively, in a masculine economy of looking which appropriates the female body as spectacle. The pale memory of sex which such narrative strategies produce is rejected by Cole, who has instead created for the viewer visceral experiences of sexual tension itself. Although the very au courant sex toys are alluded to, this show is not a how-to of sex in the nineties. Nor is it whiny or sensational, in defiance of any oppressive regime of censorship. And it isn’t embarrassingly “personal.” “Bolster” is funny, whimsical and ironic. It is informed, but not didactic.
The overall look of the show is clean and sparse, which works well for some works, and less so for others. Many of the works refer to fetish objects and there is something necessarily secret or private about the fetish which the style of presentation fails to address (as in Medallion, above). Some works are so small they would do better placed on shelves or pedestals. Or again, in boxes that one might peer into at one’s leisure. And then there are the cute, funny works, more akin to novelty items than to functional sex toys: a twisted condom, a wax “hot dog,” tiny clothespegs clamped over black rubber “nipples,” a bronzed coil sitting forlornly on the floor. Despite these pieces manquees, Cole’s motive was to investigate the line between that which bolsters our ability to engage sexually and that which becomes our object of desire (the fetish) and the strongest works in the show demonstrate her ability to breathe sexual tension into the most banal of materials.
“Bolster” is at times a profound meditation on the complex emotional engagements of sex. While Slit (1996) effectively evokes the crack in the cunt it refers to, the medical adhesive tape with which it is constructed also makes it look something like a maxi pad. The slit/pad begins to shift the terms of representation away from genitalia and their association with sex, towards the more hidden reproductive organs. Gayatri Spivak is right in asserting that sexual pleasure in women is not narrowly reducible to the reproductive function and yet such a claim ignores the complex ways in which reproductive functions such as menstruation can become a bolster to sex. In effectively capturing the oscillating register of pleasure across both sex and reproduction, Cole’s work poignantly animates the ambivalent movement of desire across bodies encoded with different meanings.
Cole has also created a website as part of the exhibition which the viewer is invited to consult at the gallery itself, or on-line at http://www.webcorp.ca/artspeak (“Bolster”). Once at the site, the viewer selects one of seven pairs of panties, representing the days of the week. Like the works exhibited in the gallery, this menu is knowingly ironic and fiercely marked by the feminine. Selecting any one of these pairs takes the reader into an aleatory reading of Cole’s reflections on her own art making process, and quotes by feminist scholars on sexuality such as Mary Ann Doane, Linda Williams and Sally Tisdale. If she sustains her reading long enough, the reader will come away with various definitions of concepts which inform the show: from Freud’s notion of the fetish to Jane Gallop and Jeanne Randolph on the idea of the bolster. As an interactive, hypermediated text, the website resists closure. Like the show it accompanies, it refuses to simply or unproblematically illustrate any particular theory of sex. The nonlinear progress of the reader is necessarily casual, relying on the potential suggestiveness of each individual passage.
Bolster,” as exhibition and web site, is a playground, an imaginary field where the visitor is blithely enjoined to consider sex and sexuality in relation to her/his own whims and fancies. But “Bolster” is more than just a romp in the park. Beyond the merriment of the first order of meaning is a sensitive treatment on the joys and pains of the body (at times one and the same thing), which captures the complexity and contradictoriness of sexual experience.