Gabel constructs domestic contexts with wit and fabric

Art | by Gregory Beatty


Brette Gabel: Home Is Where You’re Happy
Sherwood Village Gallery
Until June 1

My bus to Sherwood Village Gallery takes me through north-central Regina where my family lived for a time when I was a boy. The neighbourhood’s changed a lot since then, obviously, but passing through still conjures up feelings of nostalgia.

Coupled with two earlier stints in small towns before we moved to Regina, my parents lived in 12 houses in seven communities during their life together. So my idea of a “family home”, to put it mildly, is a little amorphous.

In contrast to my experience, Brette Gabel’s parents never moved, and instead occupied the same farm house near Abnernethy where she was born and grew up. I can’t imagine having that level of engagement with a family home, but for Gabel it was a reality — until recently, anyway, when her parents sold the farm and moved out.

I don’t how much of a trigger that was for Gabel in this exhibition of wall hangings, embroidered “drawings” on paper and cotton muslin and a 3-D cotton muslin sculpture, but the interconnection between home, family, memory and nostalgia definitely figures prominently.

Some of the works depict Gabel’s family home rendered from memory. It dates to 1910, and is what’s known as a “kit house” made of wood that you could order from the Eaton’s catalogue and assemble yourself. “Like a pioneer version of Ikea,” is how Gabel described it at her artist talk.

Gabel studied theatre with a minor in visual art at the University of Regina, and followed that up with an MFA at OCAD University in Toronto — where she continues to live as a professional artist. For some time now, textiles have been part of her practice.

Feminist and queer artists in particular have for decades used textiles to validate concepts such as the feminine, domesticity and the decorative that too often get short shrift under patriarchy. Gabel’s in that tradition too, with nods to her grandmother and mother from whom she learned craft techniques such as embroidery and dyeing.

One wrinkle, though, is that she’s using textiles to reference a wooden house.

At first glance, that might seem like a stretch. But when you think about it, cotton and wood are both made from plant fibre. There’s a parallel between the needles and nails you use in the “construction” process too. Metaphorically, the inherent softness of textiles, and their association with comfort and care, effectively embody the idea of house as “home”.

The terms aren’t interchangeable, after all. “House” refers specifically to the physical structure you live in, while “home” encompasses a much broader (and more emotionally fraught) ideal.

That tension is conveyed in the show title. Perversely enough, Home Is Where You’re Happy is named after two songs — the first a tender ode to love penned by Willie Nelson, the second a hippiesh/revolutionary rant about following your heart by Charles Manson that he recorded before the Tate mass murder and released on a 1970 album called Lie: The Love and Terror Cult.

Take 10 different people and ask them what home means to them and you’ll surely get 10 different answers depending on where they lived, what type of childhood and adolescence they had, and how honest they are in confronting the reality of their family dynamics.

In a perfect world, everyone would have a happy home life. But as we all know, that’s not always true. When abuse and deprivation are involved, the situation can be truly horrific. But even in homes that qualify as happy, struggles inevitably crop up as parents and children cope with various stages of life from growing up and growing old to everything in between.

Houses age too, of course. Gabel received a shock during a 2013 artist residency in the upstate New York hamlet of Wassaic where she happened across a kit house similar to her parents’. Unlike her home, though, this house had been abandoned and was in disrepair (a casualty of the 2009 subprime financial collapse).

For Gabel, the sight inspired thoughts of an alternate universe where things maybe hadn’t gone as well for her family as in “her” universe. That’s represented in a diptych called Sisters which consists of two embroidered renderings of the house on cotton muslin. In one, the lines representing the walls, roof, chimney and other structural elements are all intact, while in the other loose threads dangle from the canvas to suggest deterioration and decay (with a hint of roots possibly mixed in, which speaks positively to the idea of growth and attachment).

The Sisters diptych is installed on opposite walls of the gallery. Located between them is a sculptural recreation of the house titled Not How I Remembered It. Here, the cotton muslin is inflated with air to keep the form intact, which could be read as parodying the current fetish we have for all things house and home, as they relate to wealth and status in our society.

Yet the sculpture is hand-dyed with locally-sourced plant material which offers a direct link to the land Gabel grew up on. It’s installed on a tabletop too — which is the quintessential prairie metaphor.

It’s even block-quilted, which recalls the pioneer tradition of quilting bees and people coming together to help each other out.

Furthering the narrative of family, love, connection and endurance is a new work, Distress Call, which consists of six wall hangings of dyed baby blankets which spell out MAYDAY in maritime signal flags.

Gabel and her husband just became parents, you see, and so the cycle of life continues in their home in Toronto.