Images courtesy of Cooper Cole
Written by Tatum Dooley
The centerpieces of Fin Simonetti’s solo show “Head Gusset,” at Cooper Cole, are two bear traps made of stained glass. I crept around the traps as if they were functional, circling them like an animal curious about a new addition to its territory. Intrigued, but wary. I fantasized about them snapping shut and the resulting havoc. I pictured a demolition video on YouTube: there one minute, gone the next. Intrusive thoughts suggested that an act of violence would be even more breathtaking than the two traps, in ethereal greys and earth tones, sitting serenely.
I understand that beginning a review by admitting your urge to destroy the work in question is unconventional. But it’s the truth, one that hints at the violence lurking beneath the surface of Simonetti’s work. The show takes place in Cooper Cole’s new gallery cum storage locker cum doomsday bunker. It’s an unconventional space to show an exhibition solely comprised of stained glass since there’s no light, but it works to the show’s benefit: Simonetti’s glass works don’t need light to prove their beauty. In addition to the two bear traps, there are three wall-mounted stained glass windows of a sewing pattern for a teddy bear, the kind a seamstress would use when stitching the toy. The space is very still, silent, and pristine. It feels like a bunker shared by a hunter and toymaker—or one person who is both.
Gusset 1, Stained glass, 18 x 36 x 6 in
Hirschhorn Pattern, Stained glass, custom wood frame 19 x 26.5 in
The premise of the show revolves around the genesis of the teddy bear and its undercurrent of cruelty. When on a hunting trip, an injured bear was tethered to a tree for Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt to kill. He declined to kill the animal, presumably feeling too guilty, and instead, he asked an enslaved person to do it for him. The violence towards black bodies more acceptable to Roosevelt than violence towards a bear. The next day, Clifford Berryman, a political cartoonist for the Washington Post, depicted the bear as plush and unassuming, and Roosevelt as a coward. After seeing the cartoon, a toymaker made the now-infamous teddy bear, named after the president—“Teddy’s bear.” The story of a fun childlike object and beloved president co-exists alongside the violent reality of the slave-trade in America. “Head Gusset”—the name has an uneasy ring to it—places unthreatening teddy bear patterns next to the brutality of the bear traps, the cohabitation creates an abject reality out of aesthetically beautiful objects.
Coincidently, a few days before I visited Simonetti’s exhibition, I started reading the Canadian classic Bear by Marian Engel. Published in 1976, the book is about a woman who has sex with a bear. The main character, Lou, reacts wholly nonchalantly when introduced to the bear who lives on the property where she’s staying. “Bear. There. Staring. She stared back. Everyone has once in their life to decide whether he is a Platonist or not, she thought. I am a woman sitting on a stoop eating bread and bacon. This is a bear. Not a toy bear, not a Pooh bear, not an airlines Koala bear. A real bear.” Despite the claim of it being real, more real than a stuffed animal, Lou treats the bear as anything but, having sex with it and eventually falling in love. The lines between real and fake blur in Engel’s book and Simonetti’s show—what kind of bear deserves the violence of a chain and trap? And what kind deserves to be cuddled and loved? The relationship climaxes when Lou and the bear have penetrative sex and the bear claws her back—proving that the line between love and violence is a thin one.
There’s a long tradition of stained glass depicting something sinister, the beauty of the colours and the craftsmanship veil scenes of torture. As a child I would spend church services gazing up at stained glass windows that illustrated murder. Simonetti’s stained glass work does something similar, using a medium known for its symbolism of light and hope to portray the theatrics of violence.
Buddly Pattern, Stained glass, custom wood frame 10 x 21 in
Gusset 2, Stained glass, 18 x 36 x 6 in
Read more from Tatum Dooley here.
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