INTERVIEW BY DARBY MILBRATH
Mother Tongue at Clint Roenisch Gallery
9 March – 15 April, 2017
190 Saint Helens Avenue, Toronto, Ontario
Mother Tongue is as if Claire Greenshaw pressed pause and all of a sudden these domestic moments and fragments of the mundane and ordinary came into focus. Things you pay no mind to because they’ve always been there like your mother tongue: greasy fingerprints, spilt milk, kiss blots, rings of stains, a worn broom, scribbled-down phone numbers, dangling tube socks. The remnants and residue of a hurried human life caught and replicated meticulously into drawings. I like imagining Claire bent over a piece of paper for half a year, rendering in coloured pencil something that could’ve taken minutes composing—like a kiss stain on toilet paper. And all the while she’s plodding away, I wonder what she’s scheming. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek. The gestural, humourous swagger of a drunken pair of nylons, Nice Legs, What Time Do They Open?, the reference to a female torture device used on gossips, the evidence of a mother’s domestic servitude, and a large abstract work that is a copy of her 3-year-old son’s painting of some grapes. It’s very softly and playfully violent and humorous, as if she’s very slowly and methodically playing a trick on us.
How did you title your show?
I began to see some themes emerging in the work, one of which is the primacy of drawing, and this idea of it being an enduring human occupation. I was thinking about drawing as somehow parallel to language. As the work developed I realized that it also involved a sort of trace of fragmented body, like fingerprints and legs, lipstick stains, and bums, and so on. I like the physicality of a tongue. It’s so intimate and sort of abject and funny—I think those are underlying elements in many of these artworks. I felt the phrase “Mother Tongue” nicely encompassed those things: origins, language and the body.
I love how you play with the traces of humans left behind…
I like the residue of everyday life. I’ve often used images or objects that are either of the domestic sphere or of daily habits—things that connect us to the rhythms of our lives, the traces of production and consumption. I’m interested in the margins, things that aren’t exactly celebrated.
Were these works made up over a long time? Some of it seems performative or accidental?
Some things are more planned out and some ideas have come together more spontaneously. For example, the sculptures are experimental and fast, born out of exploring materials and finding what works. The drawings go through a process like that in the construction of their image, but then involve a laboured, time-consuming process of depicting it two-dimensionally. The drawing called Supportive Nonentity was sort of accidental. I’ve had the same drawing board for a few years and so it had built up layers of texture organically through the day-to-day stains or the testing of different coloured pencils, hastily writing down a telephone number and so on. After a time I was looking at it and thought it would be a nice image to draw, so I faithfully reproduced it. It wasn’t consciously composed.
Are these works all drawings on paper?
They’re all drawings with coloured pencil on paper, except for a few works with graphite and charcoal.
What is the charcoal drawing about?
I was thinking a lot about the primacy of drawing as I was working. I was struck by how we rely on the simple gesture of moving our fingers across the screen in touch technology—like an iPhone or iPad. Whenever my phone is off it looks like I’ve made a gestural drawing across its surface with my greasy fingerprints. So that’s what the drawing is. I cut out a little piece of paper and placed it over my phone, dipped my thumb in ink and did the gesture to open it. Then I drew that but much larger, in charcoal. I thought it sort of looked like a face. It doesn’t take much to suggest something representational, or to create something that is somehow recognizable.
Can you describe your process for the other drawings?
I usually experiment with materials, like scraps of paper or found images that I will interfere with somehow, like casting a shadow across their surface or cutting a hole out or making a fold. Then, I photograph them. I print out the image on my computer printer and draw from that. I really enjoy the process of drawing. I’ll spend a few hours or days composing an image and then will spend months actually executing it. The concentrated effort of drawing for me is a really satisfying experience where my internal dialogue can be suspended. It’s almost meditative. For me, drawing is a different way of understanding and seeing things. It feels like a way of thinking without language.
Let’s talk about the sculpture.
The process of making sculpture is more experimental to me as I get to play with different materials and see how they interact. I suppose, this is the same process as my preparation for the drawings. The sculpture with the bottles is titled Nice Legs, What Time Do They Open?
It came out of playing with different materials that I was interested in. I was thinking about the cement boots of gangster stories and the complexity of our culture’s attitudes towards women, alcohol, sexuality and violence. I was interested in playing around with a sort of unstable figure. It’s also meant to be humourous. I think humour is a good way to disarm and expose things that can be uncomfortable or disturbing.
Is the painting Zeuxis Can Eat Me also watercolour ink stains?
No, actually. I had been reading a book about trompe l’œil painting and one of the stories is about these two ancient Greek painters, Parrhasius and Zeuxis, who had a competition to see who was the better artist. One painted some grapes and while revealing it to the judges, a bird came down to pluck at them, and everyone was really impressed that this painter had fooled nature. The artist then impatiently stepped forward to remove the drapery to reveal the painting of his competitor only to find that the painting itself was a tromp l’oeil of the drapery and that he had been fooled. It’s kind of absurd. The question is who is better—the painter who fooled nature or the painter who fooled the artist. I asked my eldest son who was three at the time to paint me some grapes. Zeuxis Can Eat Me is my drawing of his painting on a much larger scale.
Do you collaborate often with your kids?
Yes, sometimes. I’ve done one other drawing where I drew some circular brush strokes that my son made.
I’d like to hear about the sculpture with the broom.
It’s called MILF and is a broomstick with a tube sock full of marbles. I had frozen milk in them at the opening that was slowly dripping out of them onto the floor. For a long time I had this idea to work with dangling socks. I wanted them to be reminiscent of breasts or something bodily. MILF is such a gross word—both hilarious and offensive. I think it’s interesting how becoming a mother in a patriarchal society in some way un-sexes you. At the same time, there is this supposed glory in still being sexually appealing while a mother. It’s a weird erasure of a woman’s sexuality and the potential changes that result from pregnancy and childbirth—both in terms of a body and also sexuality. It’s just more of the same old story isn’t it? Assessing a woman’s value according to her fertility and sex appeal within the confines of male heterosexual desires. It’s lame. The broom in the sculpture is quite worn down, and I like how this suggests a life of domestic servitude. The majority of people that look after children are women, whether it’s their own or other people’s. I was thinking about ideas around women and labour and the labour of motherhood and value or lack of it. In the same breath, it could also be a phallus and testicles or it could be something that happened in a chaotic domestic moment unintentionally. I think people make unconscious sculpture every day. I also like the connection of the broom as a witch’s vehicle.
I thought it was soap in a sock in reference to the improvised weapon.
There is definitely a violent undertone to that work, and to some of my other artworks as well.
I think as women we have to navigate a lot of violence. We live in a capitalist, racist, sexist society, our culture is inherently violent. Scold’s Bridal, the title of the drawing of the kiss mark on toilet paper, is the name of a medieval torture device that women who were “scolds” or outspoken would be forced to wear as punishment. The device is a harness with a spike inside the mouth so if they spoke while wearing it they would pierce their tongue. Humiliation was also a part of it, as women would be paraded around in public wearing it.
How has being a mother changed your art practice?
It made me more organized with time management and financial budgeting. Different life experiences change who you are, and who you are changes your work. I’m sure it has changed many of my perceptions about the world and people, but it’s hard to articulate specifically what comes from parenthood and what is just time and life. I was worried about how it might change things when I was pregnant with my first child. Figuring out the logistics of childcare is very challenging, but apart from that, as an artist I still feel creative and focused in my work. I sometimes think that people have a negative assumption that motherhood saps people of their creative capacity but that isn’t true. Artists who are parents need practical support to make time and space for a typically very low income job, while looking after children and all that entails with resources stretched further than before.
What’s the best piece of advice you were given about art making?
I was told by a teacher once to doubt the doubts. I think that can be helpful as I tend to worry a lot.
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