At a time in which critical discussions of gender in relation to visual art production seem to have retreated into the background, the work of Dominique Rey is a compelling reminder that the question of gender is still as relevant as ever. Against the backdrop of third wave feminism—a term associated with the diverse strains of feminism that originated in the early 90s, informed by poststructuralist theory and critical of the essentialist and puritanical tendencies of a previous generation of feminists—Rey has developed a body of work that examines constructions of female subjectivity and sexuality, most recently in relation to specific female sub-cultures.
In 2003, Rey traveled to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where she gained access to the Crazy Horse strip club and began photographing and videotaping the women working there. Images of the womenʼsʼ reflections in the mirror as they transform themselves into objects of male consumption are set alongside polaroid snapshots initially taken to label the consent forms the artist asked them to sign. A documentary style video records the women carefully applying their make-up—that serves both to heighten their sexuality and create a protective barrier—and talking about aspects of their everyday lives that are repressed in the performativity of the dance, which is, significantly, never shown in this body of work. In images that are heavily and self-consciously mediated in an attempt to get at the real women behind the spectacle, Rey peels away at the layers of social conditioning only to arrive at a fragmented and slippery notion of subjectivity.
The current exhibition follows a two-year investigation that examines a very different group of women: the nuns from the Sisters of the Cross order in Winnipeg. This move from the sexually charged environment of the strip club to the austere and static space of the convent inevitably brings to mind the virgin/whore dichotomy that has historically reduced women to one extreme or the other and forms the very basis of Christianity. In this work however, although Rey again utilizes lens-based media to penetrate the intimate space of her subjects, she does not photograph the nuns themselves but the empty, silent spaces they inhabit—a sitting room, a dormitory, a chapel. Instead the artist has chosen to paint her subjects in a series of watercolor portraits in which the face of each sitter is depicted in detail against a stark white background into which the rest of her body fades and disappears. It is almost as if the photographic image would have been too invasive here. While Rey had inserted her own image alongside the women she had previously photographed in order to address the ethnographic impulse of such an operation, here the moment of identification lies on the plane of spirituality—the reflection and self awareness that the artist associates with her own practice of Vipassana meditation.
There is also an element of closure here as most of these women are elderly and approaching death. In a sense this work functions commemoratively in relation to their individual lives but also to a vocation that seems to belong to another historical moment. And while history has seemingly liberated us as women from the confines of an archaic notion of sexuality, todayʼs image obsessed culture seems equally repressive. Sometimes it even feels like a backlash making it as urgent as ever to talk about gender.