Julianne Chapple: “Women Appear (and sometimes they learn how to disappear)”

Posted on November 13th, 2017

We find ourselves sitting in a simulacrum of a living room. There is no fourth wall. Nor are there walls one-through-three. At the centre of the space is a large Persian-style carpet. In one corner: a modernist teak chair with blue upholstery sat on a small rug, a floor lamp, and a side table on which is placed a crystal decanter of whiskey and a tumbler glass. In the opposite corner: another, smaller armchair that looks quite comfy, and which has its own side table with a crystal ashtray on it. Some potted house plants—umbrella and ficus trees maybe?—bound the space, as do some benches. But the benches do not appear to be ‘of’ the space; they are merely here for our, the audience’s, benefit, so that we may watch. Strewn about and stacked upon the benches and tables are books, a plurality of which reference feminist art history and criticism. Music that matches the sentimentality of the room pours out from a speaker in the corner. Carefully placed on the rug in the centre of the room are sheets of paper on which are printed in large letters the house rules: “make yourself at home,” “enjoy your stay,” “feel free to move through the space,” “at your leisure,” “peruse the available reading material,” and “watch and be watched.”

Julianne Chapple performs “Women who appear (and sometimes they learn how to disappear)” at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain.

Julianne Chapple sits in the blue chair. But ‘sits’ isn’t the right word. Chapple is sprawled across the chair, her limbs hanging toward the floor, in a way that carefully toes the line between languid and luxuriating. She is wearing high-waist tweed slacks and a loose-fitting white blouse. Her mousey hair completely obscures her face. Picking up the tumbler, Chapple pours it several fingers full of whiskey and takes a long sip. Her fingers take delicate purchase on the glass, and it seems rather that her hand and arm dangle from it instead.

An indeterminate amount of time passes, but at least one or two songs play that seem to long for less complicated times or the elusive love of a coy woman. Chapple sips at her whiskey from underneath her long hair, and we all sit and stare at her and each other. With nearly imperceptible slowness, the artist falls from the chair and onto the floor. But ‘falls’ isn’t the right word. Chapple slumps, almost melting, moving like a glob of treacle pouring itself onto and across the floor. There is a wallowing, indulgent viscosity to her movement as she makes her way around the space, whiskey ever in hand and face rarely seen.

Julianne Chapple performs “Women who appear (and sometimes they learn how to disappear)” at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Michael JH Woolley.

She finds herself eventually sprawled across the rug, transcribing scribbles from a notebook into large letters on white paper. These letters resolve into provocative truisms, written each onto one or two pieces of paper, and arranged carefully in a grid that spans the carpet and spills onto the gallery floor:

muscular relaxation may make you appear / passive and/or sexually available

making up too much space may be seen / as an act of aggression

taking up too little space may be seen as weakness

making eye contact with an observer may make / you appear complicit in being watched

not making eye contact with an observer may make / you appear complicit in your role as an object

adopting the role of observer may be seen as / siding with your oppressor

Reading them, I am given pause considering the context, and I feel as though others here are as well. We watch carefully as Chapple writes these axioms, craning our necks, tilting our heads, and squinting out eyes to make out the words. There are uncomfortable chuckles and thoughtful murmurs as each page is finished and placed among the others. I let my eyes track across the room, lingering in the mutual stares of others doing the same. Chapple meanwhile sips her whiskey and meanders herself across the floor, onto and amongst the furniture with serpentine aloofness and acrobatic aplomb.

Julianne Chapple performs “Women who appear (and sometimes they learn how to disappear)” at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain.

The artist makes her way around the gallery space, back to the blue chair, underneath benches, and behind people’s legs standing along the white walls, all without much obvious thought or care for who else might be in her space. And it is obviously and demonstratively her space. She is neither demure nor shrinking in her capacity to occupy it, and while she seemed once to be hiding from our gaze it is more clear now that she is rather refusing it. There is a peculiar and contradictory intimacy arising from encroaching upon Chapple’s space and her body, and we as an audience are left to question our own role in our discomfort here.

Chapple’s work asks us to engage with and impinge upon the artist. But we are left wondering to what extent we should take up such an offer simply because it is what is expected of us in this particular social space. The artist spreads herself out before us and challenges us to consider the tropes that lead us to conflate rightful confidence and bashful sultriness. To what degree are we obligated to watch—leer at?—an artist, and take her as an object to be examined? To what degree are we obligated to avert our eyes? These questions are rhetorical, but also pertinent, as made obvious by the uncritical and impudent stares that fall upon Chapple from some present in the room. Are we more or less complicit in watching others watch rather than by refusing to look at all?