Translated from a French alliterative tongue twister “une mûre mûre murmure au mur,” Wilder Alison’s exhibition A Ripe Blackberry Murmurs to the Wall reveals the artist’s ongoing exploration of language and queer identity through an intricate practice of wool painting.
Since 2014, Alison has been visually dissecting Monique Wittig’s novel The Lesbian Body, which theorizes the split subjectivity women experience in language, an inherently patriarchal structure, by textually slashing the French word for first-person subject: “j/e.” Translating Wittig’s seminal text into English, however, posed a problem — the first-person pronoun “I” is only one letter. The solution was to italicize the I, thus turning the word into a literal slash. This slash is at the core of Alison’s series of wool paintings currently on view at Fierman gallery.
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First soaking wool blankets in dye baths, allowing a palette of four to six colors to stain the fabric, Alison subsequently cuts up the blankets and sews them into new compositions that emphasize the diagonal seam, aka slash. A subtle yet poignant critique of gendered power structures embedded in language, Alison’s investigation of queer identity through abstract form falls into a growing lineage of queer artists working in abstraction. By creating the slash through the constructive labor of sowing the wool surface back together, Alison counters the long history of male artists’ enactment of destructive slashes, such as Lucio Fontana’s famous slits, made by the artist literally cutting into the canvas. Alison’s approach to visualizing a split through the act of merging is equally paradoxical as it is poetic.
The gradual, and rather unpredictable, process of dyeing merges composition and surface, recto and verso, in ways that the painterly gesture can only aspire to. The vibrant colors bleed out over the wool, creating cloudy stains — just like a ripe blackberry would do if it could indeed murmur against a wall. In addition to “wall,” the French word “mur” translates to “dyke,” and while Alison is aware it references the structure to stop water, the artist welcomes playing with the word’s English connotation which is linked to sexual identity.
Alison’s use of textile to convey a queer, feminist language evokes the long history of quilting and patternmaking to advance political agendas, going back to early 20th-century suffragette banners. As art historian Julia Bryan Wilson has convincingly argued in her publication Fray: Art and Textile Politics, craft has always been a central strategy in forming and assisting queer identities and sexual practices (for example, the early DIY crafting of sex toys).
Also on view are a series of rectangular ceramic pieces that echo the compositions of the wool paintings. Alison’s first foray into the medium, the ceramics appear to reveal a physical slit that was achieved through a process of carving into the material, and do not allow for the stain-like effect achieved in wool. The ceramics offer an intriguing instance of translating a conceptual design from one medium into another, reflecting how the disruption that occurs in textual translation can also occur visually.