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Earth Skins: Three Decades of Drawing by Susan Wood

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From the exhibition catalogue published by MSVU Art Gallery, 2011

Earth Skins: Three Decades of Drawing by Susan Wood


For thirty years, Susan Wood has carried on a studio practice rooted in the principles of observational drawing. Atlantic Canadian audiences are probably most familiar with her recent work: elegant and elegiac drawings of decaying flowers, dead birds and insects created over the past dozen years or so. Meticulously rendered in a variety of graphic techniques, often on sumptuously textured handmade papers, these works embody the idea of finitude, reflecting the poignancy of brief lives and the fragility of temporal existence. They have been presented in solo and group exhibitions, including Taxonomies (1999) and Florilegium (2003), both curated by Gil McElroy, whose discussion of the works begins within the frameworks of geography, museology and scientific illustration and broadens into an appreciation of their metaphoric potential. If these exhibitions were all we knew of Susan Wood’s works, we would find much to admire in their exquisite technique and poetic resonance. Digging a little deeper, we might trace a complexity of feeling and purpose that reaches back to her earlier dramatic series: the Devil’s Purse (1985) and the Dresses (1989/91). These boldly expressive works originate in a woman’s corporeal experience. A reassessment of Wood’s recent work in the light of these discloses stronger ecological insights and a deeper connection to the pain and passion of living within one’s own skin (and one’s own earth), than just the inevitable melancholy of shedding it.

The conceptual frames of scientific illustration and museology are not irrelevant—after all, Wood’s renderings of entropic nature connect directly with those historical artworks known as Vanitas and Memento Mori, as well as with contemporary ecological concerns—but additional perspectives are needed to uncover the range and depth of her studio production. The repetition of vessel forms, for example, and the prevalence of female body surrogates and skin tropes in Wood’s images suggest that some aspects of feminist theory will provide useful contexts for discussion. In addition, there is the frame of the medium itself—the relevance, for this artist, of choosing drawing as her primary practice, and the way in which the material, tactile processes of mark-making and collage contribute to such affecting metaphors of incarnation.

Stand-ins and Surrogates

Susan Wood began working on the Devil’s Purse Series in the early 1980s while she and her husband Stephen Fudge were completing graduate studies in Calgary (she in Fine Art, he in Geography). Soon after she finished her MFA program (and despite some encouraging exhibitions and purchases) a chance encounter compelled Wood to shift her practice from painting back to her first passion, drawing.

The discarded skate-egg cases known locally as “devil’s purses” are found among the natural debris along the Atlantic shoreline. They are not very large—about the size of your palm—but with two spindly “arms” and two “legs” at the corners they look remarkably like tiny headless human bodies. As Wood tells it:

“... I rediscovered the Devil’s Purse at a time when I was living far from the ocean, during an annual summer trek back to the beaches of childhood. A chance finding, something picked up out of the seaweed... the sand shaken out of its punctured belly, a glazing and crusting of salt over the black, brittle skin—I collected all that I could find.
It was not an arbitrary decision to use that image... It was and is for me a marvelous albeit sinister metaphor; it spoke of femaleness, fecundity, inside/outside, containment, stretching and tearing—it was a torso, a vessel and eerily human.”

In 1983 Susan and Stephen moved back East to Newfoundland, where she intensified her explorations of the devil’s purse through drawing, collage, and cast paper sculpture, seeking the appropriate form that might embody the connections she intuited. She remembered the rows of classical and Renaissance marble figures on the avenues and buildings of Rome (first encountered during a trip to Italy with her father in 1974) and realized that her drawings required a similar scale, slightly larger-than-lifesize, in order for the allusion to the human body to be, as she put it, unavoidable. The resultant series of oversized drawings were rendered in carbon, collage and dry pigment—a row, not of idealized white classical figures, but of the broken, black purses, some with twisted or missing limbs, their “torsos” ruptured to reveal blood red or grey interiors, often harbouring a subtly drawn stone or shell in the once soft incubating chamber.

Arguably her first significant solo exhibition, the nationally touring Devil’s Purse Series included twenty one drawings (of which five have been selected for this survey exhibition [catalogue numbers 1-5]) as well as mixed media collages and cast paper assemblages. The works announced an artist who was not afraid of large-scale drawing or of the raw emotions elicited by her anthropomorphized subject. “Her purses hang... like so many giant discarded skins, split, desiccated and sub-human. Disconcertingly, this is what devil’s purses are in nature—discarded breeding apparatus,” wrote reviewer Peter Gard, cogently identifying the works as “stand-ins for birth rituals.” Vita Plume was even more explicit: “These works, while exploring the imagery of menstruation, incubation, and reproduction, are in no way a celebration of fecundity... [Wood’s] images speak of brittle vulnerability... In their vacuous hollows one feels the echoes of painful contractions and the inevitability of death and decay.”

The Devil’s Purse Series was the first time Wood showed work that referred so directly to the gendered body and the potential violence of reproduction; but her obsession with the cycles and processes of the natural world has been with her since childhood. Among her lesser-known works of this period are two sets of drawings on delicate washi (handmade Japanese paper) titled Nest Cycle I and Nest Cycle II (both 1986/7) [cat. nos. 6, 7]. They have not been exhibited before, and I include them here because they act like a kind of rebus in which images stand for a range of ideas—not only different methods of graphic mark-making but also the themes to which this artist has returned again and again: the cycles of birth, growth, reproduction, decay and death; the vessel-forms, such as nests, that imply containment and nurturing (but also, when empty, absence and loss); the strong material sensibility—surfaces and textures that suggest skin, feathers and bones, twigs and grass, both tough and fragile.

Soon after launching the Devil’s Purse exhibition, Wood exhibited Beach Refuse/Studio Debris at Contemporary Graphics, St John’s, and prepared an installation called Gifts from Paradise for the innovative City and Sea exhibition in 1988, which led directly to its inclusion in curator Joan Borsa’s memorable Maskunow: A Trail A Path (along with internationally-known artists such as Marlene Creates, Hamish Fulton, and Tomiyo Sasaki). Borsa’s curatorial essay dissected the attitudes towards nature implicit in the installations. She aligned Wood’s work with the tricky woman-nature/man-culture debates of the time, interpreting it as making parallels between the treatment of nature and the treatment of women in patriarchal structures, a position that, while not untrue, was felt by Wood to be somewhat too specific for her subtler intentions.

Central to her Maskunow installation was a trio of kimono-like sculptures made of hand-cast paper. Like the Devil’s Purses, these earth-toned dresses with outstretched sleeves hung empty and torn, their rubbed and pigmented surfaces encrusted here and there with shells, twigs, pebbles, and even a nest—an embroidery of natural detritus, as it were. Wood used these sculptures as models for her next major series of drawings: the Dresses. Over a period of five years she made more than twenty of these larger-than-lifesize images, of which seven [cat. nos. 8-14] are included in this exhibition—but not the original sculptural trio. They, along with many of her three-dimensional paper casts, are either destroyed or too fragile to travel.

As I have written elsewhere, the Dress drawings are “layered out of skin-thin leaves of paper on which the drawn, rubbed or spattered marks record various histories. Some are pale and gauzy as if laced with cobwebs; others appear to be covered in dark wiry hair or caked mud. Many show evidence of violation. Some have a kind of carapace delineated over the abdomen, like a protective shell (which, in others, resembles a ruptured womb).” While the body is usually only inferred, not explicitly depicted, in most of these drawings, a few body parts do occasionally appear, especially hands: hands cover breasts, lift the edge of a leathery skirt, or part fleshly curtains to reveal a network of inner vessels. In other drawings dry sticks pierce empty, flapping skirts like scarecrows. As with the Devil’s Purse series, a larger-than-lifesize scale and judiciously rendered shadows give these “bloodied earth-skins” (as Wood calls them) a compelling three-dimensional presence. Some commentators have noted that both series have a strangely religious aura, their repeated cruciform shapes, isolated like icons against uninflected backgrounds, resembling rows of martyrs or the Christian stations of the cross—or at least connoting sacrifice. Wood, however, claims no religious affiliation, and has never indicated that the works have a spiritual content beyond their earthy materiality.

The original catalyst for the sculptural dresses was an antique Palestinian wedding dress that Wood saw in 1978 while visiting her mentor, artist Stephen Andrews, in the home that he shared with his partner, Willem Wasserman, in Southern Spain. Wood had first met Andrews during a studio residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1976/7, beginning a lifelong friendship with the expatriate Canadian artist, whose work, like hers, included the gathering and collaging of paper and debris (in his case owing much to Kurt Schwitters and Arte Povera). An ongoing correspondence and frequent visits between her family and Andrews’ provided a constant inspiration over the years for Wood, to whom, upon his death in 1995, he left his home in Spain, much of his art work and materials, and the antique wedding dress.

While not visually replicating that particular dress, Wood’s Dress drawings allude to the rituals and processes of fertility, marriage and motherhood, as well as to maturing and aging. If they are surrogates for bodies, then these are less-than perfect bodies, bearing the marks of accumulated histories and offering sharp contrast to the unblemished skins of, say, Vogue or Penthouse models. They represent an attempt to come to terms with a woman’s body in all its fecundity and changeability—engorging, then releasing blood, water, milk—and to prompt empathic engagement, especially from those who are repulsed by such messy biology. When Wood first embarked on the Devil’s Purse series, she was unaware that she had become pregnant with her first child. By the time she began the Dress series, she had two young sons and was pregnant with a third. To say that her personal experience of motherhood informed these drawings would be to state the obvious. What is more interesting is to locate the works within some of the artistic and socio-political concerns of the period in which they were made.

1980 to 1990 was not an auspicious period for artists to focus on explicit representations of the female figure. If Wood’s dresses have something of “a quality of indirection—that is, of not depicting their content explicitly,” curator Ingrid Jenkner comments, perhaps this is because they were made “in the wake of the feminist iconoclasm of the 1980s” —an iconoclasm based on the assertion that female biology itself was the detestable cause of women’s subjugation, and that to emphasize or celebrate it was to threaten the social and political gains that feminism had achieved in the previous decades. Wood was only too aware of the stigma of essentialism (or biological determinism) that might attach to her work, and carefully sought to counter it: “My work... has dealt with issues of the female body and its links with nature and other aspects of social and cultural life... [T]he work has been about a woman’s voice giving form to a range of female bodily experiences. My intention has never been a celebration of biological destiny and I’m nervous about the woman-nature equation. What I have struggled with is the notion that one’s body is a personal resource and not a handicap and the drawings and installations have been my attempt to understand what those corporeal connections might be.”

If Wood had been acquainted with the work of Belgian philosopher and feminist Luce Irigaray, she might have found some comfort in Irigaray’s promotion of “strategic essentialism” in the construction of a female subject-position. Contrary to much feminist thinking of the period, this strategy was not based on minimizing the differences between men and women (or “same-ing”), in order to achieve equality and justice, but rather on deliberately assuming the feminine—on asserting difference—and thereby converting a form of subordination into an affirmation and a source of power. Irigaray would have had no difficulty with Wood’s representations of the multivalent experiences of female sexuality: “My critique,” writes Irigaray, “is accompanied by the beginnings of a woman’s phenomenological elaboration of the auto-affection and auto-representation of her own body.” Unfortunately, translations of Irigaray’s major works only began to appear in North America in the latter half of the 1980s, just as essentialism was receiving a bad rap from North American feminists, resulting in delayed appreciation and significant misreadings of her contribution.

It is important to emphasize that while Wood’s work may be interpreted as feminist, it is neither polemical nor primarily activist in intent; rather it is rooted in the phenomenal—the experiential. Wood’s chosen task has been to present subjective female bodily experiences as well as experiences of the natural world without overt theoretical framing. (Interestingly, her works are presented without physical framing, too—i.e. simply pinned to the wall—so that as little as possible intervenes between the viewer and the sensuous experience.) Wood turns naturally not to theory but to poetry, prose, and letters. At the time she was making the Dresses, however, she did find similar sentiments to her own in the writings of American poet, essayist and feminist Adrienne Rich, who, like Wood, was the mother of three sons. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Rich writes “The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology... It will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny. In order to live a fully human life we require not only control of our bodies, we must touch the unity and resonance of our physicality, our bond with the natural order, the corporeal ground of our intelligence.” This “bond with the natural order”, also defined by Irigaray as a “non-phallic” relationship with the natural world, has informed Wood’s work beyond its preoccupation with body surrogates.

Of course Wood was not the only one to employ the image of clothing as a stand-in for the body in this period. Feminist artist Mary Kelly (who tended to regard any visual self-representation by women as politically non-viable) included actual baby vests and diapers in her Post-Partum Document (1973-79 )and employed images of clothing in her Interim series, (1984-89). Curator Nina Felshin’s survey exhibition The Empty Dress, Clothing as Surrogate in Recent Art hit the North American circuit in 1993 and included work by thirty international artists. In Canada, Glynis Humphrey’s fabulous yet monstrous giant pink Prom Dress and Ruth Schueing’s aluminum dress for Rosie the Riveter were among curator Robin Metcalfe’s choices for his 1998 exhibition Dressing Down. Many other examples could be furnished, suggesting a zeitgeist of body surrogates. However, while acknowledging similarities of genre and morphology among the works of these “dressmakers”, it would be a mistake to assume that they all have similar intentions. In this regard, I think some of Canadian artist Betty Goodwin’s early graphic works (her 1970s Vests and Nests, for example), and especially Mira Schor’s 1977 piece Dress Book (Angel) and subsequent dress pieces, are more relevant to Susan Wood’s work, not least because they, too, favour the materiality of the drawn, written, rubbed or printed mark on paper as an exploration of skin, fragility, memory and female corporeal experience.

I would also mention Canadian/Czech artist Jana Sterbak’s alarming dress sculptures of the late 1980s made of live wires or raw meat. Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic (1987) arose in discussion with Wood (when I visited her St. John’s studio in 1988, while researching The Tenth Dalhousie Drawing Exhibition) and was subsequently mentioned in my catalogue essay. It was not merely the fact that the Flesh Dress was made of meat, and Wood was then calling her dress images “bloodied earth-skins” with obvious references to the flesh, but also because of its reference to the late mediaeval Vanitas. This moralistic warning presented images of fleshly decay, often of lovely maidens disintegrating into haggard crones, a misogynist precursor of the better-known Vanitas (or Memento Mori) of the Little Dutch Masters (among others) who placed images of skulls, insects, rotting fruit and other reminders of mortality in their still life paintings. Both varieties of Vanitas may be counted among the many threads of reference that weave their way through Wood’s accumulated production. However, Wood’s images act more as a reverse kind of Vanitas, since they offer no moral or spiritual nostrums in preparation for an afterlife, but focus instead on inhabiting and valuing more fully the physical richness of this life, however brief.

Elegies, skin tropes and other metaphors

On the wall of Wood’s studio is a photograph of bentwood chairs gracefully rotting in a field. In the early 1990s, she used this image in a suite of drawings prompted by the death of her father. She says she found the woven bentwood sticks appealing: fragile structures similar to bird bones and the stems of withered flowers, intertwining like roots or blood vessels (which often receive similar graphic treatment in her drawings). They can be seen in Shadow (1992) [cat. no. 16] where an empty chair signals absence. In fact, over the past two decades Wood has endured the loss not only of her father but also of other close family members and friends, prematurely succumbing to disease: her brother Harold (1994), her mentor Stephen Andrews (1995), his partner Willem (1998), and most recently her own life-partner Stephen Fudge (November 2010).

While we can trace an elegiac tone in much of Wood’s imagery of recent years—and in some cases, as with In Memory of SA (1995) [cat. no. 17] and The Bouquet (2011) [cat. no. 41], a specific memorial function—there is nevertheless in her work a clear-eyed, somewhat pragmatic approach to the inevitability of death (whether human, animal or botanical) as part of a natural cycle. There is also a consistent valuing of the material remnants that signal each individual life. In Spanish Letters (2002) [cat. no. 31] for example, Wood combines various papers from Stephen Andrews’ studio, drawings of lilies culled from her garden, and handwritten statements from his last letters to her, in affirmation of his once vital presence and continuing significance. There is a similar honouring of non-human biota in her work. The vulnerability of living vessels runs through all of Wood’s depictions: we infer the absent life—the blood, sap, viscera—in the wilted blooms, the desiccated insects, and the feathered corpses of birds.

Part of Wood’s studio practice involves daily observational drawing, somewhat like the pianist’s five-finger exercises. In the mid-1990s, she began visiting the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History to draw the bird specimens—not the “Audubon-style” stuffed and mounted birds with their glass eyes and “natural” poses that a visitor might encounter in the public display cases, but the hundreds of eyeless, eviscerated, dry carcasses, lying on their backs in the museum’s storage boxes, their feet tied together and labeled like so many tiny traffic accident victims. Interestingly, in the museum business, such hollow, unmounted specimens are formally called “skins.”

Eventually, Wood’s dead bird drawings encompassed not only the museum specimens but also those found and brought to her by friends, or those she picked up herself from time to time. Using pen and ink, watercolour, carbon pencils and a range of collaged papers, Wood examines the multiple forms and textures of these “little deaths” (as she calls them), addressing their fragility with empathy and, occasionally, macabre humour. Often, stories of their finding contribute handwritten notes to the drawings, which take on a life of their own beyond their carefully observed facts. During this same period, Wood developed her floral sketches of daffodils, lupins, tulips, irises, coneflowers, and lilies, mainly culled from her own back yard, following their natural cycles from bud to bloom through withering to bud again. The flower and bird studies were combined in the exhibition Taxonomies (1999).

Ornithological and botanical drawings have an important place in the natural history of Nova Scotia—as exemplified by the contributors to Robie Tuft’s Birds of Nova Scotia or the wildflower drawings of the early nineteenth-century artist Maria Morris (the first named female Nova Scotian artist). Wood, too, can “do botanicals” with the best, and has produced fine renderings of plants in the style of Dürer, among others. But, as Gil McElroy observes, the drawings in Taxonomies may “find their root source in the scientific image. But they do not find a home there.” Indeed, unlike the orderly scientific and museological processes of collecting, observing, and cataloging to which they refer, these lyrical drawings—in their rich materiality, progressive iterations of subject (as in Janet’s Heron [cat. nos. 21-24]) and open-ended arrangements—have an expressive power that transcends facticity. “She seems to propose a whole new model for classification,” comments reviewer Pan Wendt, “grounded in... the existence [of the birds and plants] as subjects: a personal and transitory taxonomy, one that displays its own fragility and fallibility.”

The works in Wood’s exhibition Florilegium (2003) also diverge from scientific illustration, being as much about the material processes of drawing as they are about image. Paper—heavily textured watercolor paper, fragile Japanese washi, paper pulp, blotting paper, writing paper, graph paper, found paper—has played an active role in the composition and construction of Wood’s drawings. Paper has the metaphorical inference of skin (and literal too, if we recall that vellum was originally made from the skin of young goats); it is also a ground for writing and, until very recently, was the main component of books. The word “Florilegium” meant a collection or folio of writing long before it acquired its sense as a catalogue of bulbs or botanical images, and in the eponymous exhibition all these aspects have their references. The series Leave-ings (2000), for example, is folio-size, layered with found papers from a sample book for engineers and draughtsmen and sections torn from her own floral drawings, loosely arranged in interchangeable sequences. (If Leave-ings suggests leave-taking, perhaps from friends or family, in addition to botanical leaves, leaves of paper, or even left-overs, it surely demonstrates how layered the resonances can become). Italian Letters 2002/3) [cat. no. 30], presented as a series of nine diptychs, is equally concerned with its own material processes. Each left-hand sheet carries detailed renderings of flowers (and one bird) on exquisite Fabriano writing paper—actual letterhead taken from the Hotel Parco del Principi during her memorable trip to Rome with her father (and hoarded for decades until it found a purpose here); the right hand sheets comprise abstract markings, drips and stains (including coffee stains) and scribbled notes, cut from the paper that covers the table on which Wood works. Each evocative image is carefully twinned with its associated abstract mark-making in a way that calls attention to the process of drawing while maintaining its allusive potential.

Most of the works in Florilegium incorporate fragments of printed and handwritten text, not so much for their actual meaning (although it is often à propos) but as visual elements. While one could hardly say that Wood’s work is text-based, I am reminded of a statement by Canadian artist Claude Mongrain, discussing his choices for the Ninth Dalhousie Drawing Exhibition: “Like writing, drawing is an act of inscription which manifests a thought, and the formation of this thought is inseparable from the gesture that produces it.” The partial texts in Florilegium reinforce the impression of a temporary gathering of thoughts and meanings already suggested by the layered papers and provisional arrangements. Wood’s emphasis on the transitory, accidental and contingent (also noted in exhibition titles such as Dress Fragments, Fragments of Refuge, Book of Fragments) reflects her acute consciousness of the physical world as constantly in flux. The work of nature is not passive; it builds up and tears apart, recombining its elements in new cycles of growth and disintegration.

Wood has continued to make flower drawings, despite the tendency of some critics to regard floral subjects as merely decorative—something, it seems to me, that her works’ underlying darkness belies; their personifying titles—Bruised Tulip, They Fade quickly, Iris over Time, Tulips Then and Now, Collapsed Tulip (to name a few)—underscore their metaphoric intent. Moreover, dismissive attitudes towards detailed or ornamental motifs have been discredited by critics such as Naomi Schor, who identifies such prejudices as leftovers from the academic and formalist aesthetics of the previous century (where men have “the sublime vision” and women “take care of the details”). The signifiying potential of flowers is manifest in a range of important art, whether the Little Dutch Maters’ fateful tulipomania, the sexual resonance of Georgia O’Keefe’s images, or Van Gogh’s manic sunflowers; and one can make the case that “the detail” has become so much a part of the postmodern lexicon that there is almost nothing else but detail. Recently, Wood has incorporated insects into her designs—small, jewel-like bees, dragonflies with translucent wings, brown moths and black beetles. Their ornamental charm is undermined by the fact that they are all, in some way, broken. A fragile wing is torn, a leg is missing, the wasps are crushed and beginning to mould. These, too, are skin tropes of a sort.

Insects and flowers come together in the stark five-part suite The Bouquet [cat. no. 41]. These largely monochromatic images are sequential views of dead flowers strewn on the ground, occasionally interspersed with insects. They are drawn in pen and ink over very thin hand-dyed washi, collaged onto large sheets of fine Spanish watercolour paper. The washi (the last sheets of now obsolete stock that Wood was saving for an appropriate occasion) has the physical appearance of skin. The pen and ink drawing has the quality of engraving. “I was thinking of the Bouquet drawings and the Dress drawings and how they both speak obliquely to marriage, yet are so different in their realization,” comments Wood. This hauntingly beautiful suite, in memory of her late husband, joins a selection of her latest floral works, such as Morning Shadows [cat. no. 39] and Present/Absent [cat. no. 40], as evidence of mature, accomplished drawings, balancing precision against gesture, freshness against decay, solid volume against ephemeral shadow, and the piercing particularity of individual deaths against the banal generality of all deaths.

Unless I can touch something...

“My work is rooted in the convention of drawing and in the discourse of what constitutes drawing,” says Susan Wood. She remembers her rigorous academic training in drawing at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University in the early 1970s, at the same time that the teaching of drawing at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design had been virtually abandoned in favour of less conventional methods. She was aware then of the dichotomy between the programs of these two venerable Maritime art schools, and the inevitable questions about relevance that this posed for students in both institutions—there was curiosity and envy on both sides (despite the stories that NSCAD was “the only” place to be). Although Wood went on to do her MFA in painting, she made the switch back to drawing quite abruptly when she began the Devil’s Purse series. “I always think of the Devil's Purse drawings as being the beginning of making work that was mine...” she says, “I also realized that I was more a draw-er than a painter and it seemed to suit me that I had chosen a practice that underlies so much of what artists think and do but has never had a terribly 'loud' voice of its own... it is the niche that I found for myself and it is where I have felt most at home for thirty years.” Ironically, Wood now teaches drawing at NSCAD.

Throughout her practice Wood has emphasized the physical and tactile aspects of drawing, (in contradistinction, perhaps, to the virtual imagery of electronic media). Depictions of hands appear often in her work, underscoring the importance of touch. In the early 1990s, Wood produced a suite of monotypes titled To touch something... incorporating overlays of paper, handwriting and images of hands [see cat. no. 15]. The suite was prompted by a statement by one of Virginia Woolf’s characters that so resonated with Wood it became a kind of mantra: “Unless I can touch something I shall fall down and die.” In her lifetime Virginia Woolf was celebrated for her stream-of-consciousness, anti-materialist literary innovations, but recent critical re-readings demonstrate the central role of the physical in her novels, particularly of touch and texture, and of the skin as a mediator between the internal feelings and external expressions of her characters.

Wood laughingly calls herself a “material girl”, meaning that her work is about the physical and temporal, rather than the abstract or spiritual. Its metaphors point, not to morals or metaphysics but to the value of lived experience. “To perceive is to render oneself present to something through the body,” says the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Wood’s materialist, sense-based practice clearly places it within that phenomenological tradition. Rendering oneself present to something through the body is the essence of Wood’s drawing. The eye informs the hand and the hand informs the eye; and the body to which the eye and hand belong is not neutral. It is as a woman that Wood embraces the physical and sensuous realities of her world, and the world that her drawings in turn embody for us is one in which each small detail is touched and valued. If there is a message here it is to be found in the contrast of Wood’s literally “down to earth” practice as compared to current preoccupations with the virtual world—for example with video gaming and Second Life avatars—where time spent in the electronic world threatens to become more real than one’s own body and one’s own earth, and where one can easily forget how to “touch something” (or someone) in the actual world.

© Susan Gibson Garvey
Canning, April 2011

Selected Bibliography

Borsa, Joan and Reason, David. Muskanow: A Trail A Path. (exhibition catalogue) (St. John’s, NL: Memorial University Art Gallery, 1989).

Curtin, Maureen. Out of Touch: Skin Tropes and Identities in Woolf, Ellison, Pynchon and Acker. (London: Routledge, 2003).

Gard, Peter. Review of Devil’s Purse Series. Memorial University Art Gallery. ArtsAtlantic No. 25 (Spring, 1986).

___________. Review of Dress Fragments. Eastern Edge. ArtsAtlantic No. 39 (Spring, 1991).

Garvey, Susan Gibson. The Tenth Dalhousie Drawing Exhibition. (exhibition catalogue) (Halifax, NS: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1990).

___________, In Passing/en passant. (exhibition catalogue) (Halifax, NS: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1998).

Irigaray, Luce. Je, Tu, Nous: Towards a Culture of Difference, Trans. Alison Martin. (New York, NY: Routledge, 1993).

Jenkner, Ingrid and Mahr, Sigrid. Too small too big. (exhibition catalogue) (Halifax: MSVU Art Gallery, 2004).

McEachern, Susan. “Susan Wood” in Jenkner, Ingrid, et al. Now Appearing: The Mount Saint Vincent University Collection. (Halifax: MSVU Art Gallery, 1996).

McElroy, Gil. Taxonomies. (exhibition catalogue) (Charlottetown, PEI: Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum, 1999).

___________, Florilegium. (exhibition catalogue) (Halifax, NS: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2003).

McKinnon, Sarah. Stephen Andrews. (exhibition catalogue) (Toronto, ON: Leo Kamen Gallery, and Winnipeg, MB: Thomas Gallery, 1992).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception, Ed & Trans. James M. Edie. (California: Northwestern University press, 1964).

Mongrain, Claude. “Le dessin errant” in The Ninth Dalhousie Drawing Exhibition. (exhibition catalogue) (Halifax, NS: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1988).

Nicoll, Audrey. “Flowering End.” Review of Susan Wood at Studio 21 Fine Art, Visual Arts News Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 2006).

Plume, Vita. Review of Devil’s Purse Series. Memorial Art Gallery. Vanguard Vol. 16, No.25 (November 1987).

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as an Experience and Institution. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1976).

Schor, Naomi. Reading in Detail. (New York, NY: Methuen, 1987).

Wark, Jayne. Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).

Wendt, Pan. Review of Taxonomies. Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum. ArtsAtlantic No. 64 (Summer/Fall, 1999).

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