In ‘the Natalie Brettschneider Archive,” Carol Sawyer Celebrates the Forgotten Female Artists of Early 20th Century

Monday 13th, November 2017 / 07:00
by Keir Nicoll

VANCOUVER – Carol Sawyer sat down with BeatRoute outside the gallery café downtown at the Vancouver Art Gallery to discuss her “funny and fashionable” artworks. Mostly photographic in nature, the Vancouver-based artist’s work presents her alter ego, Natalie Brettschneider. Sawyer plays the role of the character in the pieces. “I invented her and I realized that if I played her, that would be the most logical thing,” she explains.

Brettschneider actually represents real artists of the European and Canadian avant-garde from the early 1920s to the 1970s. Using photographic exposures, text, and audio, Sawyer uncovered these figures from the past: women sometimes forgotten in time, in the context of the art history canon which often privileges so-called “genius” men, while eclipsing the efforts of women. “When you’re looking at art history, you’re looking for someone you identify with, and you don’t find anyone who looks like you,” Sawyer says. “I think it helps when there is a continuity and there are people who have come before you who had similar concerns.” Amongst those that Sawyer references in her archive are Emmy Hemming, Claude Cahun, Kiki de Montparnasse, and more whose figuring into such events as the founding of the Swiss artistic and political venue Cabaret Voltaire and the manifestation of the anarchic art movement Dada prefigure Sawyer’s efforts to expose the performance of art in today’s world. “I was looking for something that blurred the boundaries between music and visual art,” she adds.

Now, with photographs of women holding kitchen implements in preparation to use them as musical instruments, or her tearing a piece of sheet music in half while a man sits at a piano, or her wearing a huge head of curled paper as a hat, Sawyer is striking out into uncharted territory again. She also poses as though a model of Man Ray. In doing this, Sawyer questions the credibility of art. “It’s art because she says so? Does art happen all the time? What designates it as art? It seeds some doubt.” If her character, Brettschneider, goes and puts a tumbleweed on her head and photographs it, what is declaring it art? She is also leaving space for people in the audience to bring their own desire and knowledge, and to project that onto the art. It is somewhat ambiguous, which she likes. “I want it to have a lot of different layers and access point,” Sawyer says.

Carol Sawyer: the Natalie Brettschneider Archive runs until February 4 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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