Bev Pike's paintings explore interior settings. Her subjects, heaps and stacks of clothing and fabric, belong to a domestic sphere of knitting, sewing and laundry. She arranges these textiles to fashion other interiors, cable-knit anatomical structures, caves and crypts, sweeping landscapes and hemmed in on all sides by roiling clouds of flannel.
More than anything, though, Pike is concerned with the inner lives of women and the inward experiences that many women share. Using a deceptively simple approach that she's refined for more than a decade, Pike articulates the embodied experiences of female biology, sexuality and identity, as well as the experience of living in a culture that still routinely misunderstands, misrepresents and seeks to curtail women's agency and self-expression.
Hymenal Views, currently at the University of Manitoba's School of Art Gallery, features six paintings made between 2003 and 2011, enthralling, mural-size watercolours on paper, 2.4 metres tall and six metres across. Though her format, material and subject matter remain constant, she twists, knots, and piles her textiles of varying colour and texture to evoke a surprising diversity of scenery and associations.
In Hymenal View of the Deluge, the arrangement is straightforward: uneven rows of bundled cloth emerge from a shadowy background, suggesting a submarine's view of the ocean floor or an endoscope's view of some polyp-ridden organ. In Hymenal View of Alchemy, we seem to look out through the jagged cave entrance onto a rumpled lava field studded with orange flames, while View of Chill might be an arctic landscape or an underwater chasm of ice. The newest work, Bizzarria View -- Margate, is the only one to explicitly reference human-made architecture, recreating a mysterious, seashell-lined subterranean passage (Shell Grotto in Margate, Kent, discovered in 1835 but never conclusively dated) in ornately textured knitwear.
It's easy to interpret the paintings' hollows and caverns as "womblike," while pink gels placed over some of the overhead lights suffuse the gallery with a warm glow, reinforcing a "bodily" interpretation. Pike's titles explicitly compare the fabric she paints to membranes of the female reproductive system. Reference to the hymen in particular, given its stubborn (and mostly spurious) association with virginity, raises issues of women's social standing and bodily autonomy while alluding to the historically male-dominated medical establishment's own, often bizarre views of female sexuality (look up the origins of the word "hysteria" sometime). A "hymenal view," a view from inside, directly challenges conventional ideas of women as objects of display, scrutiny, and mistrust, subject to an external, male gaze.
In focusing on fabric, Pike, an ardent feminist and self-described spinster, directly references the idea of "women's work," an idea that she both champions and challenges. As paintings, her images, with their expansive format and lively, virtuosic brushwork, recall Group of Seven landscapes as readily they do Jackson Pollock's turbulent abstract expressionist canvases -- both painterly precedents with overwhelmingly "macho" connotations that Pike defiantly upends.
While none of its imagery is "suggestive" or "explicit" in any prurient sense, Hymenal Views' uncompromising politics and unapologetic exploration of gendered experience (and anatomy) might raise objections or doubts for some viewers.
Pike, for her part, seems content to demolish these with the sheer force of her unassailable talent and the overwhelming visual and physical presence of the paintings themselves.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.