Shirley Wiitasalo: Dissembling Representation (1987)

Shirley Wiitasalo, Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1987.

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Design: Bruce Mau

Design: Bruce Mau

[This introductory text does not appear in the catalogue.]


At a time during the 1970s when other artists were pursuing the image through video and the photograph, Shirley Wiitasalo examined communications media through painting. Thus she prefigured the themes of much of the return to painting in the 1980s. And yet in maintaining her own perspective on painting, she avoided the abstraction of earlier painting and the excesses of its return. This exhibition is to explore that perspective through a near complete survey of her painting since 1981.

While the paintings from 1981 to 1987 seem to present divergent images, a constant theme threads through the works. While each work stands on its own, “narrative” series form groups or “installations” of paintings; at least this has been their exhibition history. Wiitasalo has used painting partly as a commentary on other media, notably modern communications media; and to the degree that one medium reflects another (painting reproducing television, for example), her work plays upon the “frame” that divides and unites the two, as if one was the image and the other consciousness. The frame transmits the formal effects of the medium of painting as well as its subject matter. Internal “frames,” reflecting that of the painting, mediate inside and outside, public and private, personal and social and thus stand for a broader social framing of our experience.

Wiitasalo’s paintings ultimately deal with the relations between the image and subjectivity: how the latter receives or registers the former; how the image helps form the individual. Obviously, they are critical. The subject of a dominating medium has always been aligned to the individual, private or domestic in her work.  This is more obvious where the image is television itself as in the earliest works in this exhibition from 1981. It has lead to paintings where the issues of subjectivity are reflected and those of media disguised in paintings of a cartoonish appearance.  More recently, her paintings have been directed towards landscape, but a landscape that has already been represented and socialized. These landscapes, however, are as imbued with an individual consciousness as the earlier images of a distorted reality, and so while the image seems to have changed with these landscape paintings the aim has not. What is unique about these paintings, though, is the degree to which they do not merely represent their theme or content as an image; but that the divisions we seemed to find mediated through the frame in the earlier work have been brought to the surface of the work as the image itself. Shirley Wiitasalo has been able literally to bring to the fore of painting, to the surface itself, the whole representational practice of painting. By so unifying image, practice and perception, she is able to present images, nonetheless, that are troubling.

Image: Shirley Wiitasalo, Beautiful Garden, 1981

Image: Shirley Wiitasalo, Beautiful Garden, 1981

Shirley Wiitasalo: Dissembling Representation

We start with a description of a painting, Black and White, 1986 (figure 1, plate 15), its title descriptive, to a degree, of what we see. Black and white—a simple statement of the tonal values of the painting; yet we have no reason to think that the title may point to a simple solution, a moral clarity. For what we see is fairly anecdotal, a scene, the record of an outing: three figures, one standing, one sitting and one moving in the depths of a cave. We look out from one cave to the dual openings of another, or from one passage to two others. The foreground figure, back to us, stands just outside the large opening, looking at the seated figure or into the depths, while the two others seem to return his gaze.

Three figures, or perhaps three representatives of “looks.” But as that one foreground figure seems to act for us, introducing us into the space of the painting, so the repoussoir function of the inner frame, the mouth of the cave out of which we seem to be looking, introduces us to the look of seeing itself. It is as if we were seeing ourselves looking just at a distance behind our skull through the orbital sockets of the eyes. If we can begin to make that association and change of scale, what is seen through these eyes is not a scene but another skull, the two entrances becoming the two eyes of a white skull. We are surprised within appearance, and, as a mirror, the bleached skull turns our glance back on ourselves. In a standoff, face to face, an interview takes place between the living and dead, between the living or dead. Within these changes of scale and registers of seeing, we have a complex configuration of looking in and looking out, seeing and being seen. (On the analogy of three figures, what is the third look here? Or are they all captured within another look, not yet defined?)

We look again and, in the blink of an eye, witness another transformation, for that far cave/skull returns to a landscape element, the mushroom cloud of a nuclear blast. This image, created from the light of its blast, presents the conditions by which we see: white against black/black against white. The image is made present by it, by being present in it inseparably. But that seeing is fraught with ambiguity; we no longer have the clarity of black and white. (If that seeing is fraught with ambiguity, so too is the morality implied in the title.)

An ambiguity transforms the image into a contemporary momento mori, the blast and the skull an inextricable conflation in the same form and vision. This is not the clear statement that the black and white of the title resolves itself into. As the skull can also be seen to be a mask, its circumference outlined by the foreground opening, so even in this ambivalence the element of willful deception creeps in. More than the discovery on our part of the mimetic accidents one finds in nature, that transformation above from cave to skull to blast is also a dissimulation: something is hidden within appearance.

While standing in front of a painting we presume a privilege of seeing without being seen, a position already subverted by the return of our gaze within the painting. Now through the image of the mask, the painting itself, as if an other, is brought to the possibility of seeing, while being looked at, without being seen. (The painting does not reveal all we presume it should show.) Or again, the whole surface, circumscribed by its frame, is a mask and therefore a deception. But as the outline of this mask is also the outline of the foreground cave, the latter circumscribes a mask for our seeing, masking our seeing. This mutual circumscription of masks—by a line that defines a duality on one surface—flips in and out of focus as figures within our viewing, as if to demonstrate that what is represented cannot be seen outside our seeing, or cannot be seen outside this depiction.  

We are getting ahead of ourselves propelled by the emblematic richness of this one painting. But Black and White rehearses many of the themes of Wiitasalo’s paintings from the early 1980s, those that were more media directed in their imagery: the themes of seeing and being seen; of inner and outer; both of which are mediated by the frame which is an apparatus for putting things in place (i.e., representation), but which is also the site of distortion—the frame of consciousness in its positive and negative (i.e., ideological) senses.[1] (Wiitasalo has used painting partly as a commentary on other media, notably modern communications media, and to the degree that one medium reflects another—painting reproducing television, for example—her work plays upon the frame that divides and unites the two, as if one was the image and the other consciousness. The frame transmits the formal effects of the medium of painting as well as its subject matter. Internal frames, reflecting that of the painting, mediate inside and outside, public and private, personal and social, and thus stand for a broader social framing of our experience.)

Between the series of paintings from 1981 and Black and White, landscape imagery intervened, the topographic resources of which Black and White exploits.[2] This seemingly radical shift, or escape perhaps, from the demonstration of the societal construction of the individual to landscape imagery is underlaid, nonetheless, by a constancy of themes, which accounts for the transformation, for instance, of the frame of the television to that of a landscape motif, here the mouth of a cave. This is not accidental. But as the imagery of any one painting is related to those of every other contemporaneous work, we should begin a brief description of the paintings that surround Black and White.

The Big Room, 1987 (plate 17), continues the cave imagery, but as with Black and White, a geological form is anthropomorphized, in that the stalactites and stalagmites compose the teeth of a vaguely human mouth. Green Mirror with Sculpture, 1986 (plate 16), similarly reproduces an underground world, but one that has been stylized and shaped by a 1950s design sense as if it was a futuristic living room. Panorama, 1986 (plate 12), shifts the scene to an enclosure above the ground, perhaps a bar on top of a building. Revenge, 1987 (plate 18), depicts a confusing, tangled mass of root-like brushstrokes in front of a brilliant screen. And in Famous Face, 1987 (plate 19), a distorted face of a woman is the watery ground for floating debris.

Within the diversity of imagery and subjects described here, what are the themes that provide a unity to this group? Or rather than themes, what form of content provides us with a way of seeing these works? The form of content is not the inner or outer frame that allows us to see into these works. The form resides in a content inherent within the surface bound to the apparatuses of seeing and depicting. Shirley Wiitasalo is depicting something that can both be seen and not seen, which is representation itself in all its potential of simulation and dissimulation. She shows that one inhabits the other, dissimulation dissembling representation, but also that dissimulation may be the “ground” for representation itself.

Let us, however, first look at the content of these paintings and raise a conjecture based on what we initially see there. Three of the paintings depict caves, at least two of which, The Big Room and Green Mirror with Sculpture, have been denaturalized to the point of human inhabitation or tourist attractions. Panorama cues us to another tourist function, but the view now is not of nature but rather culture—the city and its intersection with nature, the mountain on the edge of the view. Famous Face shows a distorted funhouse face upon whose watery surface litter of that site floats. The famous face makes us look hard to realize that the image is that of Weegee’s well-known photographic portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Meanwhile Revenge seems to act out its title, as a revenge of the other (nature as characterized in horror films, for instance) bursting from the boundaries of the well-lit screen, through the very means of spectacle that (mis)represent it.

All these paintings then partake of the intersection of nature and culture in the spectacle. They are all examples of an artificial framing of the experience of nature. But in that that intersection is what we initially see, we have to interrogate when and where the intersection becomes an interruption, even if that seam is unseen. This intersection or boundary disguises another effect. The outside is brought inside along and through the frame. That border of the seen/not seen is displaced to, displayed in, the frame. This interruption is not simply something that penetrates but rather is an involution of the outside (an outside on the inside) brought in through the frame (even though that frame is in the middle of the image) and spread over the surface. Thus the inner frame shaped by this involution takes on the form of an inversion that can be a looked at as a distortion—the shape of an hourglass, for instance, or the shape of the mushroom cloud of Black and White.

While advertising superficiality, the paintings also present us with images of depth, and these often are given through the device of a reflective surface such as the three caves of Black and White, Green Mirror with Sculpture, and The Big Room; the watery depth behind/beneath the surface of Famous Face; the dark room of Revenge and the infinite potential depth of its screen; and, despite its view out, Panorama, whose enclosure is emphasized by the inner iris framing device (it is the cave’s opposite in the sky). For the most part, as rooms they relate to the domestic interiors of 1981, and to the gouaches of the same period (figures 2-5) that are transformed by the threat of the exterior or by an internal breakdown, often signified by the distortion of the frame. We might want to know, however, as in the earlier works, what frames that depth? what apparatus creates its space? Given the recurrent images of caves, we also might recall other images and metaphors, particularly metaphors that have determined the nature of representation as a certain interpretation of mimesis in Western art and philosophy, namely Plato’s allegory of the cave from his Republic.[3]

Representation has always been constituted in depth as seen through a frame. That which deviates from the correct measure of things in their space, that which deviates from a good and clear representation is a distortion of the truth, a falsity, something seen as if under a spell. We have only to think of Wiitasalo’s The Spell (figure 2) as an image of this distortion.[4]

We have realized that the caves in Wiitasalo’s paintings are complex, that they are not simple spaces, or spaces at all, since they turn into surfaces. Green Mirror with Sculpture, for instance, emphasizes by the insistence of its title not the space per se, but that which can reflect and double it: the mirror.  And so it does; the mirror shows us a space outside the frame of view and also reveals to us the sculpture of the title. The mirror returns that space to a surface in an involution repeated in in the shapes of the sculpture. But that involution is also an internal fold in the centre of the painting where image and “reality” meet to create a third image (a double involute) symmetrical around its dividing and uniting edge. That depiction of space takes place within a reflective surface, an illusion, in other words, a simulacrum, which is ultimately also the painting itself. In that the painting also multiplies those reflective depths, the secure foundations of representation are destabilized.

As if describing Green Mirror with Sculpture, we can think through the following quotation by Derrida:

Imagine Plato’s cave not simply overthrown by some philosophical movement but transformed in its entirety into a circumscribed area contained within another—an absolutely other—structure, an incommensurably, unpredictably more complicated machine. Imagine that mirrors would not be in the world, simply, included in the totality of all onta [things] and their images, but that things ‘present’, on the contrary, would be in them. Imagine that mirrors (shadows, reflections, phantasms, etc.) would no longer be comprehended within the structure of the ontology and myth of the cave—which also situates the screen and the mirror—but would rather envelop it in its entirety, producing here or there a particular, extremely determinate effect. [5]

Wiitasalo’s paintings mirror these other conditions Derrida describes. They variously effect them. The traditional status of representation is unsettled here in the uncertainty, the undecidedness, of the paintings’ imagery, in the to and fro acted out upon its surfaces. We have seen, especially in Black and White, the duplicity of the image in its transformations within various looks. The turns of the image, as the turns of the subject in the 1981-82 gouaches, transform on the surface of the image; the image is a surface, and representation, in spite of the assurances of its framing devices, floats precariously there.

Dissimulation, distortion, deception appear on and through the surface. They are not the intentional effects of the depiction of a subject or space. Distortion distends the volume of a form on a surface (e.g., Famous Face), but that surface can also be pulled out of shape through a frame (e.g., the 1981-82 gouaches).  It is the frame that transforms or distorts, or is distorted itself, and the frame is only the substitute for the apparatus of representation which thus institutes itself (usually unseen) within this distortion as a clear vision. In other words, distortion is a test for the (negative) limits of the correctness of representation. But in that what is unseen is also a distortion (of what is seen, and not shown, in representation), those limits break down and become an active site in the themselves, measureless and unstable, forming images and consciousness positively and negatively.

Wiitasalo’s paintings play out a whole repertoire of effects of surface that alternate between ambiguity and distortion. This may range variously from the distortion of part or the whole of an image as in The Spell, .034 Seconds, Collection (plate 14), and Famous Face. Or the distortion may take place through the integration of separate images on the surface as in Interview (as differing registers of representation; plate 1) or Interior (plate 2) and Appearance (plate 11). The latter two are examples of complications that arise through the ambiguity of inside and outside, an ambiguity between what is the “real” image and what is reflected, to which we may add the ambiguity that reflection causes as in The Glow and the Flow (plate 3): is the image in the television set projected or reflected? All of these produce an ambiguity of reading, but that ambiguity is part of the staggering of seeing essential in works such as Beautiful Garden (plate 5) or Black and White.

It becomes obvious that the frame is a constant, if changing, theme within the period of work covered by this exhibition, and the recent work emphasizes that it cannot be dissociated from surface. Reviewing this work, notice the dominance of the television frame in the 1981 works: Interview, Interior, and The Glow and the Flow; the floating frame of the cartoon bubble or ideological cloud of a second series of paintings from 1981-82: Beautiful Garden, The Dream Goes On (plate 6), Mind Your Own Business, and Untitled, 1982 (plate 7); or the frame which becomes part of the distorted surface in the 1981-82 gouaches: The Price, The Spell, Villains, and .034 Seconds.

How many of the works from 1986 and 1987, like those from 1981-82, still utilize the frame, even if it is not so readable as the television frame of those earlier works? I have already mentioned the frame motif of the mouth of the cave of Black and White, which is repeated in The Big Room and Green Mirror with Sculpture, where it is doubled by the internal frame of the mirror. Similarly, a frame appears in the bright screen of Revenge and in the iris effect of Panorama. (One could say for these two latter works that the frame is produced through photographic-mechanical effects: the projection effect of Revenge and the lens effect of Panorama.)

The only painting of this group where we do not see an internal frame is Famous Face, although the original image was produced through the framing device of a camera and had its source in a mirror. It is thus doubly framed beyond or before the bounds of the image of the painting. But here this work makes evident the effects we have been discussing: it is distortion itself. Not only is the source image a distortion—Weegee’s photograph; its presentation is as well; it has to be read against or within another distortion - the surface of water in which litter is awash. This trash points to a “disposability” beyond itself, to what is disposable to the viewer, namely, the movie star (disposable in two senses of available to and disposing of, but as an image). Like nature, the movie star is an archetypal Other (cf. Revenge); and as a woman, but here available only on the screen, disposable to the male gaze. This returns us to the themes of seeing and being seen, and to the dimensions of the image.

In earlier work, seeing and being seen intersected on the surface of the image, for instance, intertwined in the scrolling of the image in Interview. Now we begin to see what other appears through the image. This appearing through is no longer a by means of, a transparent mode of representation, where a content is delivered clearly to view by that apparatus. Rather it is what surfaces through another image, penetrating it as if from behind, but on the same plane. In Black and White, for instance, what is intertwined in black and white in the image is an interview between the living and dead, an inter-view, a “seeing” that conceals “the dead under the appearance of the living.” [6]

If we take this emblematic painting as a key, a more obvious clue for what happens in these paintings, then we can fix upon that central shape that transforms into other images under our view.  It is not the images themselves with their particular meanings that we want to interrogate, but the form as it appears in these other paintings. I have already drawn out the double involute that appears in Green Mirror with Sculpture where the space meets its reflection in the mirror to create a third shape. This image also appears in the pinched undulation of Famous Face, and in the overall shape of the central image of Revenge, as it thrusts itself into view. Its reappearance cannot be fortuitous. Nor is it lacking in an image like Panorama where the involution is merely inverted, so that the two arcs of the original blast make a circle. This image should then be taken as a counterpart to Black and White whose black sockets are mirrored in negative in the two bright glares on either side of the central image in Panorama (the split light of a reversed nuclear blast). If now we look back to Famous Face we find that it comprises the two, the involute and the circle.

In concentrating on this central image we begin to recognize the features of a face. Notice that what we face so often in this series (the same number of times as the caves, at times literally as the caves) is the human face: Famous Face, The Big Room, and Black and White. What begins to surface from these representations of depth are images of faces. The inner and outer are brought together in these ambivalent images, not through the devices of ambiguity, necessarily, but through the means of representation. It is as if the representation of depth stands for consciousness and the image of the face is the exterior sign for it. But in bringing that secondary image to the fore, by revealing that it informs that image of depth, depth dissolves in the devices of the “secondary” surface, that which is read secondly and is presumed to be secondary as a dissimulation to the good and clear representation. What rises to the surface, as unwelcome as the refuse of Famous Face, is the mask, the mask which denies identity and consciousness in an unlimited repetition that conceals as much as it reveals. As part of a process that is not static, the mask transforms the image, as shown in Black and White. And that transformation is the threat of death, an image we recognize not only in the skull, but in the repetition of the shape of a nuclear blast throughout a number of these paintings. The reprise of this motif cannot now be discounted merely as a formal device to hang the painting or as a mere replay of the frame function in the paintings of 1981. It must be absorbed into the features of death that it begins to delineate.

Wiitasalo’s earlier paintings partook of an analysis of the frame and representation as the agency that determines the seen and unseen. She now takes that exploration to the dynamics of the surface itself, which is taken to be the very basis for representation. This practice unavoidably partakes of the deception it masks and reveals:
The illusionist, the technician of sleight-of-hand, the painter, the writer, the pharmakeus. This has not gone unnoticed: ‘...isn’t the word pharmakon, which means colour, the very same word that applies to the drugs of sorcerers or doctors? Don’t the casters of spells resort to wax figurines in pursuing their evil designs?’ Bewitchment is always the effect of a representation, pictorial or scriptural, capturing, captivating the form of the other, par excellence his face, countenance, word and look, mouth and eye, nose and ears: the vultus [face]. [7]


We know that there is only surface in Wiitasalo’s paintings.  Simply said, her paintings undermine that traditional notion of representation as depth. But her images are more complex. Her paintings ultimately deal with the relations between the image and subjectivity: how the latter receives or registers the former; how the image helps form the individual; what is seen in representation and what is not seen or left out. Moments of consciousness are acted out on the surface of these images, as these images. Consciousness is formed and informed by the modes or apparatuses of representation (these are at once a distorted surface, a means for viewing through, and a form of reproduction). “Consciousness” registers on the surface; consequently it takes place through the distortive aspects of that surface. (Even in the intervening landscapes, such as Papago Park [plate 10], the image is as imbued with an individual consciousness as the earlier images are of a distorted reality, and so while the image seems to have changed with these paintings, the aim has not; every representation of landscape is of a scene that has already been represented and socialized.)

Now to the questioning of the motivation of the frame of that earlier work, Shirley Wiitasalo aligns an interrogation of depth with this recent series of paintings. Here, however, that interrogation is only made more obvious through the utilization of the cave imagery. The frame is not absent; it has been transposed to the surface of the painting itself. In the earlier work, the frame always mediated an interior, domestic space to the exterior, but an exterior that was only mediation by representation. The subject of a dominating medium has always been aligned to the individual, private or domestic, in Wiitasalo’s work. In the earlier work, the frame, in establishing representation, was also a device for misrepresentation; it did not transparently transmit a content, but helped form a consciousness.  

What is unique about the current paintings is the degree to which they do not merely represent their theme or content as an image, but that the divisions we seemed to find mediated through the frame in the earlier work have been brought to the surface of the work as the image itself. Shirley Wiitasalo has been able literally to bring to the fore of painting, to the surface itself, the whole representational practice of painting. By so unifying image, practice and perception, she is able to present images, nonetheless, that are unsettling.


1. Paintings such as Interview (plate 1), Interior (plate 2), The Glow and the Flow (plate 3), all from 1981, or the gouaches from 1981-82 (figures 2-5); see the essay on this work reprinted in this catalogue, pp. 41-43.
2. For instance, Whitehouse, Appearance (plate 11), Papago Park (plate 10), all from 1984 and Untitled, 1985 (plate 9), and the urban imagery of Cashstop, 1984 (plate 8), and Spire, 1985, (plate 13).

3. On the allegory of the cave, see Plato, Republic, VII, 514A-521B. For critiques of the origin of the traditional notion of representation in Plato’s philosophy, see Luce Irigary, “Plato’s Hystera,” Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985); Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981); especially the essay “Plato’s Pharmacy.”

4. Gilles Deleuze would define this distortion more positively as a simulacrum, a pure becoming: “Le pur devenir, l’illimité, est la matiére du simulacre en tant qu’il esquive l’action de l’Ideé, en tant qu’il conteste à la fois et le modéle et la copie.” Logique de sens (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969, p. 10). The simulacrum is an event that plays upon the surface as an effect; thus the distortion itself would be that event. The title .034 Seconds (figure 3) perhaps marks the time of that event.

5. Derrida, op. cit., p. 324. On the anti-Platonic simulacrum see also Gilles Deleuze, Logique de sens, part of which is translated as “Plato and the Simulacrum,” in October 27: pp. 45-56.

6. “The magic of writing and painting is like a cosmetic concealing the dead under the appearance of the living. The pharmakon introduces and harbors death. It makes the corpse presentable, masks it, makes it up, perfumes it with its essence, as it is said in Aeschylus.” Derrida, op. cit., p. 142.

7. Derrida, op. cit., p. 140.

NOTE: This text may not correspond exactly to its published form.