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Sorry I’ve Got A Thing…

Review Vanessa Cornell’s 'Sorry I’ve Got A Thing…' at Smokestack Gallery (Online)

Vanessa Cornell 'It's Rough Getting Motivated on Mondays'

It is perhaps in our moments of greatest loneliness that we become our most defiant. Left unconvinced that our actions bear consequences, or rather, apathetic toward these consequences, we become uncharacteristically brazen or insolent, finding that niceties mean little when the social relations they undergird have otherwise fallen apart. The self thus becomes dualized: at once outwardly impenetrable while internally imperiled; sincere in our attempt to garner attention, but affected in our flippancy. We blow off friends because we fear we’re not wanted; we hurt those we love in frustration at our own pain.

It is at this nexus of impenetrability and vulnerability, sincerity and falseness that Ontario-based artist Vanessa Cornell’s most recent series, titled Sorry I’ve Got A Thing… (2020), situates itself. Combining photography and digital painting, Cornell places a series of either nude or partially clothed painted female figures amidst photographic scenes of mundane solitude – sitting on the couch, writing in a diary, on the toilet. Posed languidly, with legs outstretched and hair falling loosely across or over the shoulders, the women rarely embody a carefree luxuriance, but instead the slackness of ambivalent isolation; the very pose a viewer might assume when scrolling through an online gallery.

These positions are accentuated, and given metonymic credence, by a looseness in the figures’ knees; uniformly bent or awkwardly waylaid to wherever their weight takes them, the rest of the body seems to slouch in accordance. Likewise, their (close-to) nudity, as opposed to reading as erotic, epitomizes this lack of effort – an overt disavowal of the first instance of socialized exertion, putting on clothes. One gets the sense these women have no intention of leaving their apartments, nor that they’ve left any time recently – perhaps they too are in isolation?

Vanessa Cornell 'Everyone Needs To Take Some Me Time'

But what could otherwise appear as abjection is subverted by the women’s upscale locale and clothing. Well-lit and salubriously decorated, each pictured home exudes suburban upper-class comfort; throw pillows complement wicker benches, while a scented candle adorns a well-kept bathroom sink. In turn, the women who do wear clothes wear either silken or waffle-weave robes, seemingly copied and pasted from the pages of an L.L. Bean catalogue. Putting a point on this paradox, several of Cornell’s figures eat fresh fruit, long since a symbol of youth and wealth, evocative of both the classical nude and Kate Winselt’s Rose asking Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack to “draw [her] like one of [his] French girls...wearing only [a ‘very rare’ diamond],” in Titanic (1997).

Yet, in all of these images, Cornell denies the viewer that which stands to cast each figure to either side of the knife edge between vacuous churlishness and internal despair – the face. Each woman is completely devoid of facial features, painted over entirely in skin tones, and as such, the viewer is left to read only body language, mining the smallest details for insight into each figure’s interiority. In doing so, the viewer becomes alert to the small ripples that signal activity below the surface.

In one image, “it’s rough getting motivated on Mondays,” the figure, seated on a bench in the corner of the room, her robe sliding lazily over her shoulder, seems to stare into space; her face directed between her coffee mug and legs, her neck hangs limp, with her chin resting heavily on her collarbone. This is not the pose of she who lives a real-life fantasy, but instead she for whom the impossibility of that fantasy has just been clarified.

Similarly, in “Everyone needs to take some me time,” a woman appraises her own nude image in the mirror, lifting a hand to move hair from the nape of her neck. But what could be read as an exercise in self-congratulatory posing takes on sinister undertones: legs characteristically bent at the knee, begetting an off-kilter posture, the woman’s stomach is convex and bloated, while the hand in her hair doesn’t ruffle, but alters – moving that which is imperfect or incomplete. Suddenly the stare into the mirror becomes disparaging; a mode of self-evaluation, or worse, critique.

Vanessa Cornell, 'I'm Still Waiting For My Coffee Border'

Still, we can’t look away, these figures are uncannily familiar – they are us at our most socially estranged, alone. The experience of looking in a mirror, only to be confronted with our own imperfect image, with no one around to assuage our fears of its invalidity, or its “wrongness,” is a universal one. At a time when all of our lives are defined by some measure of isolation, it is perhaps a universally regular one. Much the same can be said of the desire to live in a fantasy, and that hope’s invariable futility – as Meghan Markle has demonstrated with her departure from public life, even being a royal isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. To that end, much as Cornell’s women contend their internal vicissitudes from positions of material comfort, we too can confirm that our own loneliness is not remedied by the external world; the phenomenon of being alone is not specific to class or race, but is simply human. It is in this knowledge that a quiet kinship is formed between us and the figures.

Moving away from Cornell’s images, we are left with the hope that if we are alone, and they are alone, then perhaps at the very least, we can be alone together.

Jacob Barnes is a writer, editor, and publisher based in London, UK. He is the editor-in-chief and publisher of the arts and culture quarterly Soft Punk Magazine.

On view until May 30 at Smokestack Gallery (online)


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