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“ ‘Knights and White Satin’: Blurring the Line” (5 MB)
“Mannequins Don’t Look Back” (4.3 MB)

Knights and White Satin is the flagship painting of Ken Tolmie’s series of works on store window mannequins. Fifteen years from conception to completion, this massive oil on canvas is one of the most technically accomplished and conceptually bold works ever to be produced in Canada. The complexity of the subject-matter and the technical proficiency of the execution make a powerful statement about the continued cultural relevance of figurative art.

Knights and White Satin draws on the resources of western art from the medieval to the modern periods, and combines them in what the artist calls “a new humanism.” Going beyond postmodern pastiche, these paintings are actually contemplative, presenting multiple layers of a single idea to the viewer, establishing continuities across time and space. The painting is composed like a triptych: it appears as one continuous shop window, although it is assembled from diverse materials -- a window display of lingerie from Harvey Nichols in London in the 1980s, and sixteenth-century German suits of armour on display at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. The work is therefore what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss would call bricolage: a mixture of random elements pulled together as required, arguably the modus operandi of all postmodern people. By combining sixteenth-century armour with a 1980s window display, and by using the vocabulary of traditional realism in combination with surrealism and twentieth-century abstraction, Knights and White Satin paradoxically makes a unified statement about costume and gender identity across the ages.

Mannequins have replaced human figures in Knights and White Satin, as in all of Tolmie’s recent major paintings. Their artificiality encourages the uninterrupted gaze without the ethical complications of gazing at actual people, but they retain enough residual humanity to attract our attention and model our desires. They allow the voyeuristic instinct of the contemporary consumer to focus on the intellectual and cultural content of paintings in a familiar way.

The painting restates the adage that clothes make the man, or the woman: the objects alone signify gender in the complete absence of human bodies. The display of modern synthetic textiles, moulded plastic, and early modern metalwork -- all products of technical processes -- comments on the role of objects in the creation of human identity and gender. The juxtaposition of objects from disparate periods and places seems to create a timeless statement about male and female roles (the warrior male, the eroticized female). The historical specificity of the objects doesn’t hinder us from reading them symbolically: we comprehend the armour although we no longer wear it. The painting thus makes a paradoxical statement about the process of reading objects symbolically: although the objects that we read change with history, the reading process doesn’t.

This painting has inspired a series of three watercolour studies that reproduces the entire painting.

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