Catalogue essay for the exhibition, Mes Prédatrices by Marie Peter-Toltz
Slag Contemporary, Brooklyn, New York, 28 April – 28 May 2017
Marie Peter-Toltz, Melody Nocturne (2017) oil on canvas, 80 x 30 inches
Marie Peter-Toltz’s new paintings are unashamedly fervent in their pursuit of the ambiguities inherent in female archetypes. I use the term ‘unashamedly’ in a pointed way, to index its converse expression—shame, and its elicitor, shaming. One branch of this, slut-shaming, has become a widely acknowledged form of social stigma directed mainly at women and girls perceived to disregard traditional expectations for the expression of sexuality and/or sexual behaviours. In the midst of third-wave feminism, this more insidious form of stigmatisation, practiced by both men and women, has been steadily proliferating.
Shaming directed at women is a complex instrument of oppression, particularly in relation to gender, sexuality and race (see: intersectionality[i]). The shaming I refer to in relation to Peter-Toltz’s work incubates through the social inversion of feminist lore, whereby women become effectively enslaved by their apparent liberty. In other words, they are seen to transgress, or fall short of orthodox expectations of ‘liberated women’. As much as feminists from all continua have mourned lost freedoms and advocated equality, the seemingly fresh space of opportunity carved out by early feminisms has been colonised with new restrictions brought about by ideological branding. This can lead to exclusive and legislative definitions of feminism that are arguably as detrimental as the forms of closed judgement that disavowed women’s agency in the first place.
Peter-Toltz’s work has always been concerned with the inherited, intuited and learnt aspects of feminism. Previously she has explored this through a more personal, existential lens. Her recent paintings however explore the legacy of third-wave feminism as encompassing a diverse set of approaches that are both in conflict and alignment with former feminisms. Her paintings aim to make visible these ambiguities through a tapestry of forces embedded in the formal elements of the paintings. Line, tone, colour and form both compete and harmonise in these pictures where women cohabitate with tigers and brandish weapons in a flattened space seemingly full of obstacles. These obstacles (water, snow, nets, jungle) are metaphors for any one of the social assailants contemporary women face today in striving to ‘have it all’, the battle for choice, or the right to be seen as simultaneously different from and the same as men.
I asked Marie her intention behind the title of the exhibition Mes Prédatrices. She responded by saying she means ‘my natural predators’ (the female plural of predators in French), further explaining, “there is no gender in English so I had to put it in French.” In the context of this essay, the predator can be understood as the idea of ‘woman’ that society assembles and disseminates in an age of hard-won liberties. The women in Peter-Toltz’s paintings are beset by myth in its multiple meanings (idealised conception, ancient story, fictitious person), that is, they don’t quite fit any singular interpretation of ‘womanhood’. Most apparent is that these women refuse to conform to any ‘traditional’ expectations—they are feminine and masculine in a way that undermines these terms as antonyms. They are not compliant, nor entirely comfortable with the compositional skirmish they find themselves in. Pictorially, they reside in a jungle of colour and mythological references designed to conflate what is ordinarily dichotomous—the corporeal and chimerical, domestic and licentious, maternal and fearsome, and so on.
In the series of six large works, Peter-Toltz employs an unusual format, a canvas size not dissimilar to that of a doorway. She refers to these canvasses as both totemic and phallic in nature. Inside these tall rectangles women, animals and patterned landscapes are hemmed in; playing out what Peter-Toltz refers to as the hybrid, complex, and eternal configurations of femaleness. The heroines in these scenes are not reluctant. Nor are they impassioned—however, the way they are painted is; the urgency and raw abandon of these paintings speaks to the complexity of living out feminism’s victories and pitfalls.
When I first read the title of this exhibition, ‘Mes Prédatrices’, I mistook it for Mes pedatrices, which could be translated as either ‘my female pedants’ or ‘my educators’. When I discussed this with Marie, we agreed that these meanings could also be tacitly implied in the exhibition title. What assails, conditions us, what hounds us can make or unmake us. Even if part of being political is preaching to the converted, it is always necessary to replenish the means through which we understand plurality in relation to feminism’s social mores. Perhaps these paintings of beleaguered goddesses can go some way toward this kind of restitution.
[i] Intersectionality is “The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.” Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), in: Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine. University of Chicago Legal Forum.1989:139–168, (web) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4181947/ Accessed 5.4.2017.