5 min

Eye candy

Fluffy feminist confections

Credit: Paula Wilson

Allyson Mitchell removes the plastic wrapping from one of her fun-fur portraits to reveal a woman with dirty blonde pigtails and an ample butt strolling by a pool at sunset. Her naked body is a patchwork of brown, pink and white; touching the fabric makes the tone lighter or darker. Beyond her, the black horizon is dotted with yellow, and above, the sky is coloured purple, orange and burgundy.

“It’s my favourite because in some ways I think of it as a self-portrait in ‘Sexyland.’ It’s a very peaceful image,” says Mitchell.

You may have seen this image before, if you have a thing for circa-1970s Playboy cartoons. Mitchell, however, has refashioned it somewhat. “In the original cartoon there’s a totally disgusting, gross, craggy man with a cigar in the pool looking at her,” she says. “I took him out.”

The fun-fur image is from The Fluff Stands Alone, Mitchell’s upcoming exhibit at Paul Petro Gallery. Mitchell is a gal of all trades: artist, filmmaker, member of Pretty Porky And Pissed Off, PhD candidate in Women’s Studies, teacher and activist.

Her political and artistic ideas are expressed in this show, even if the inspiration came from Hugh Hefner. “It’s too crazy, right?” she says. “It’s a real classic third-wave feminist reclaiming of sexuality…. There’s a post-modern, post-colonial, queer theory, third-wave feminist politic informing the pieces.”

The art in The Fluff Stands Alone is quite crafty. The portraits are composed much like a paint-by-numbers picture (at times, she even wrote the shade of fur in the space just as digits are stamped on canvas). Mitchell adapted the images (removing a creepy guy here, widening a waist there) and blew them up to anywhere from three feet in diametre to five by seven feet. The fun fur was cut out and glued onto panelling. In addition to these pieces, Mitchell has silk-screened four of the images with black ink to create a series of Doodle Art reminiscent of the craft kits we played with as kids.

She began working on the exhibit while attending the Big Rock Candy Mountain residency at The Banff Centre for six weeks last April. The theme was “sweet consumption,” and it seemed like the perfect fit for an artist whose work (films such as Cupcake and Bon Bon) has often involved the sweet stuff. She originally planned to melt down candy and use it to paint the Playboy images, but that didn’t work so she changed to fun fur. The images are, like cotton candy, tasty and desirable. At the same time, they’re dangerous – quite literally. Mitchell had to wear a mask while she was working to keep from inhaling fibres, something she knew from using the material before for, among other things, making a series of genetically modified stuffed animals.

Before she stitched stuffed critters, Mitchell was a babysitter. She remembers minding tykes for a couple who had a collection of Playboy cartoons. When the kiddies were tucked in she would flip through the anthology feeling “simultaneously naughty, turned on and grossed out” while watching The Love Boat and having a snack. Now, as part of her work with Pretty Porky And Pissed Off, she’s always on the lookout for positive representations of large women – no easy task considering how often she finds fat physiques used as a joke, a gross-out gag or a warning against obesity.

One day, leafing through some old Playboys she’d picked up at a yard sale, she recalled her love of those big-boobed cartoon gals with rosy nipples.

“I really feel that these cartoons were inspirations of a moment in time,” she says. Sure, she says, they’re fetishized, with thin waists and big butts, boobs and thighs. Still, she finds they’re not reduced simply to their body parts or seen solely as objects. Mitchell gave the gals “more agency” in her art by enlarging the image, using a tactile material (the varying degrees of shimmeriness and texture gives them more dimension) and removing the wart-faced gents so the women are standing on their own.

“Yes, we are consuming them, or enjoying them or objectifying them,” she says, “but there’s a difference in the way they’re being looked at, I like to think.” Plus, while the female form is often ogled, this exhibit changes who’s doing the gazing. “I think that what we don’t get so often for women, or queer women, or feminists, is eye candy that’s for us,” she says.

But it’s not only the message, but also the medium that reveals her artistic bent.

“I have an affinity to simulacra,” she says. “They’re fake things that are made to look like real things and fall short, which is why I love wood-grain MACtac, that’s why I love fun fur, that’s why I love Astroturf. I think they’re representations of a world gone really wrong.”

Much of her work is made from materials that Mitchell found during thrift store jaunts. She began working with fun fur, for example, after picking up a big bag at a second-hand shop. Her studio houses everything from plastic flowers to vintage wallpaper.

She’s not formally trained as an artist, and the exhibit reflects this lack of convention. As long as you don’t have sticky fingers, for instance, touching is encouraged.

“It’s a risk-taking that I’m willing to do,” she says, “to learn, to see how people are. I really have great faith that the more you expose yourself it’s going to be returned in good faith. That’s why my work is so personal. I make films about my life. I talk about my break-ups, my eating disorder, whatever. But the faith is, that’s what keeps it real, that’s what makes it more tangible to people and more beautiful. I never want there to be a barrier between my art and people, emotionally or literally.”

The Fluff Stands Alone is Mitchell’s first solo exhibit, though Paul Petro has formally represented her for two years. She’s been part of group exhibits for a couple of years before that, including numerous shows with Bucky And Fluff’s Craft Factory with her former art partner Lex Vaughn. “The ability to concentrate is much different when you’re working alone than with other people, and it’s as much about the process as it is the product,” she says. “Even though it’s shown in a public space, there’s a certain privacy about working on and developing an idea into an object and then showing it to people.”

Not that she would ever want to work alone all the time. She likes the balance of focussing on something and having ideas flying at her, of having control over what an object’s going to be and handling the spontaneity of live performance.

Right now, she’s working on a 35mm animation with Fiona Smyth called Foodie. In the spring she’ll have a show at 1080 Bus and Pretty Porky And Pissed Off has a very exciting piece planned for the Mayworks festival.

“With all my art, I hope people will connect to it in some way, that it makes them think, that they talk about it and that it makes them happy,” says Mitchell, adding, “That’s really what it is. I want it to be like, ‘Wow.'”

The opening reception for The Fluff Stand Alone runs from 7pm to 10pm on Fri, Jan 30. Check out Mitchell’s studio, as part of the Gladstone’s Come Up To My Room event, on Sat, Feb 14 to 15 at 1214 Queen St W, room 6. See story on opposite page, Joyous Montreal Stripper, for info on naughty bunny Sasha Van Bon Bon’s upcoming burlesque shows.


Tue, Jan 27-Feb 21.

Paul Petro Gallery.

980 Queen St W.

(416) 979-7874.