"All I’m trying to do is be a positive force. All any of us can do is try to be that. If everyone could do that, the world would be transformed," says Victoria Cantons (b. 1969) in our conversation about her solo exhibition at Flowers Gallery, titled People Trust People Who Look Like Them (11 May - 2 July 2022). Some might think that transforming the world is an ambitious, almost impossible undertaking. Yet I believe that if there’s anything at all that has the power to change the way we perceive others and ourselves, it is art. Especially now that the situation we're in is not particularly hopeful, as hopeless as it sounds.
Attesting that the personal is political, Cantons’ body of work attempts to do just that. Firstly, it explores the painful reality of existing outside the canon of cisgender heteronormativity. Yet it's also about trying to accept yourself in the world that so eagerly prevents you from believing that you are enough as you are. Which you are, as one of the neon pieces titled I am enough that's on display illuminates (pun intended).
I like to see exhibitions as liminal spaces, in terms of Victor Turner (1920-1983), a cultural anthropologist who developed the concept of ‘liminality.’ That is, as spaces of transition, ultimately between two states of being. That is why I love them so; that small but mighty metamorphosis you go through when seeing a show is priceless, and it happens most of the time that you leave if not with new thoughts and ideas, then at least new feelings. As soon as I step into the Flowers Gallery, I know I’ll step out with both, which is why I decide to talk to Cantons herself, particularly about her Jenny Holzer-esque use of language (one of my favourite contemporary artists and a key inspiration for Cantons in terms of how she combines verbal and pictorial languages).
“We are the same,” reads the first piece, encaustic on linen. Next to it, a triptych of the same material titled, borrowing from Martin Luther King's famous speech, Bill posters: I have a dream: “Look at me. Look at me and remember. Look at my face and hear my voice. Because whatever you think, this is my place too and I will not be forgotten… So don’t call me by your label because I’m not…and I can now hear the music: My band and my people, playing the music I can march to. And the tears on my cheeks will wash away yesterday.” Intentional solecism. Or accidental?
It all starts with a sketchbook, a place where grammar mistakes exist freely, birthplace of the affirmations Cantons writes for no one else but herself. She then decides to make them public, letting other people into the world of her own. It’s the sketchbooks that I look through on her website that catch my attention, as I read through the words that resonate with me. “Making the artwork I make is a cathartic exercise,” Cantons admits in our call, “it’s something I have inside of me and I have to get it out. With some of the artworks that I create, it's a bit like throwing up. It’s just coming out and there’s no control.”
Paintings that populate the next room embody that idea of art as an arena for emotional release. It’s almost as if the oil painting series, titled Transgender Woman, wanted to come out and take up space because the person on them (Cantons herself) wanted to take up space in society that has for so long belittled and dismissed those in the trans communities. They’re so powerful and bold - both in terms of content and form - but also exceptionally vulnerable and intimate. You’re looking at a woman in different stages of her life, but first and foremost, you’re looking at a person who is just like you. Remember, "we are the same". It’s the kind of work that the artist would want her younger self to see, as she says in the conversation with Ben Luke at Flowers Gallery, and the kind of work I’d want my younger self to see, the chronicle of life, struggle, acceptance, pain and, ultimately, love.
"I make a list of statements at the beginning of each sketchbook," Cantons explains. One of those becomes a four-minute video Clinging to My Own Beliefs / Belly Button Fuzz, the last work in the exhibition about being slapped, quite literally, by society, a piece that is just as visceral as the paintings. "It progresses from the very simple direct literal ones and ends with I am love," the artist continues, "because I do believe that love is the answer.” That is the feeling I had after the exhibition and also the one I carried on after the discussion with Cantons, who is a very positive force indeed.