Featured Artist: Sharon VanStarkenburg

My work addresses psychological and physical transformations, the resultant distortions of the coercive pressures of girlhood, and the effects of being “othered.” Tropes of Western white girlhood and womanhood are explored, deconstructed, and parodied to reveal their fallacies. I problematize normative femininity, body policing, and the acculturation into desiring and being desirable. My practice is anchored in narrative and employs allegory to communicate visceral realities such as birth, sexuality, the performance of the body, grief, trauma, and jouissance. I do so through petit récits, to acknowledge the diversity and multiplicity of human experience, trusting that the personal is a means to making artwork available to various identifications. With a feminist perspective including contemporary theories of identity, embodiment and subjectivity, I am incorporating the personal and the political; the emotional and the intellectual; the individual and the collective.

I am also investigating the theoretical work of Natalie Loveless, particularly that of the role of the personal voice in feminist criticism, which she describes as “read in, but not reducible to, the autobiographical, situated, motivated, interested, anecdotal, and performative – is to assert a location and production of value tied to… ‘me.’” (Practice in the Flesh of Theory) Her concept of theorypractice is anchored in the everyday, which is precisely where and how art making takes place, as the practicing artist well knows.

The female body is frankly represented, with figures and postures that speak to the performance of embodiment, of gender, and of femininity (a situation in a specific socio-historical moment; it is a position women are encouraged, through discourses and categorization, to inhabit and use). There is often paradoxical coupling of apprehension and ambivalence with agility and empowerment. Frequently their bodies are strange and unruly. In this way the psychological becomes manifest in the representation of something physical: the body can produce foreign objects; parts become grossly enlarged or disconnected; hybridization or multiplicity are possible. 

I use signifiers of the liminal spaces/times of women; the transitions and rites of passage  that indicate a new ontological or social status. Examples are tiaras, pearls, rituals, changing physicality, and ceremonial clothes or uniforms. My work is blasphemous: I take symbols of proper, normative femininity and make them transgressive within contexts in which the female protagonists resist and reinvent their meanings. I am connecting my youth with contemporary girlhood and making narrative associations with a sympathetic Sister Gaze. Frequently in my work groups of girls and women are working together toward a shared enterprise, the ultimate goal is not explicitly clear but there are indications that their purpose is righteous even if their means at times appear pernicious. The girls and women I represent have gone rogue, selecting their own agendas and goals, but use the skills and knowledge they have accrued in their education as girls. It is important for me that the work conveys autonomy in its figures, but that this self-determination is precarious.

Domain, Oil on Terraskin, 19.5″ x 28″

VanStarkenburg was born in Pembroke, ON in 1974.  She earned her BFA from the University of Ottawa in 1997, studied at NYU, (Masters level Fine Arts 2007) and is an MFA graduate from the University of Ottawa (2018). She is the recipient of grants from The Canada Council for the Arts, The Ontario Arts Council, and The City of Ottawa, as well as other prestigious arts awards. Her current work can be found on Instagram at @sharonvanstarkenburgart.

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