Allyson Mitchell transforms Stride into a plush-covered pussy palace

Stride’s front windows are curtained off by a swath of pink fabric tucked and gathered in all the right places to look distinctly vaginal. Crowning these crafty labia at the entrance to Allyson Mitchell’s pussy palace a tuft of faux fur peeks out from the folds like the super-furry clit of one of her gigantic lady sasquatches.

The mixed bag of works in Serious Fur is a primer on Mitchell’s knack for scrounging wicked flea market finds and assembling these dusty relics of a bygone esthetic into clever cohesive installations. Her series’ curvy pin-ups and lady sasquatch collages are pieced together from fun fur and backed by an enviable collection of flocked wallpaper in swelling feminine patterns. The wall hangings construct every detail using plushy fabric of every colour and texture: a teddy bear snout and eyes become features on a lady sasquatch with a bushy pelt of various brown synthetic furs while a group of nude figures is rendered in a shorter shag. There’s no doubt that she has rescued many a discarded plush toy from the dusty bins at Value Village but the works are more than the sum of their cotton batten filled parts.

The Michigan Three Lorraine and It Ain’t Gonna Lick Itself are an extreme makeover on the pin-up model and the sasquatch myth: her lady sasquatches are lesbian giantesses of the forest with unruly sexual appetites. Her pin-ups are fuzzy Technicolor portraits of women who recall poses of soft-core porn models yet they’re almost always Rubenesque big and beautiful or curvy. Mitchell is not afraid of calling them “fat.” That’s part of her broader practises as an artist performer zine maker and academic in which she’s an outspoken third-wave feminist with big ideas about women’s body politics and lesbian identities. Other projects have included the Pretty Porky and Pissed Off collective that she founded to challenge fat phobia with sassy and intelligent performances and several articles on radical feminist queer and fat politics including her dissertation on fat women power and space. Her website is an excellent resource for anyone interested in this confluence of hot topics.

Also on view are three demure squirrel-like creatures with big eyes. They’re patched together from various pink toys and perch inside macramé plant hangers that slowly twirl down from the ceiling of the space. The matted pink fun fur tiny rows of tufted nipples and thick white ropes have a glimmering stickiness that’s characteristic of synthetic fibres and the backcombed tassels of macramé have become poofed-out mounds of fur electrified with static. It’s enough to make a wheezy asthmatic tear up with kitsch-induced delight.

The wonder of this show is Mitchell’s merry-making with discarded materials fabrics craft supplies and bits of cultural detritus that are otherwise relegated to the junk bins. Tufted orange and blue throw pillows and a wall-hanging of 1970s vintage that we see on the way to the Project Room are unadulterated reminders of where her materials come from. Just don’t get the sense that she scoffs at this kind of folksy home craft of yore: her materials pay homage to an era of domestic crafts and explosive second-wave feminism. Sholem Krishtalka’s fun text accompanying the show discusses these links with cheeky descriptions of her work and connections to the era of bra burning Steinem’s invasion of the Playboy mansion and the ’70s’ ubiquitous rusty orange olive and brown palette.

Mitchell’s Project Room-cum-discotheque is less polished than the main space — the work in the centre of the room recalls the large bed with pillows that she exhibited in The Fluff Stands Alone at Toronto’s Paul Petro Contemporary Art. This piece demands more than Stride’s project room can offer but still manages to be totally fun (as the many girls who writhed in playful mock ecstasy on the bed during the opening will attest).

Serious Fur is the latest addition to a roster of amazing compulsive lady-craft exhibitions at Stride. Indeed it speaks to a strong current in the gallery’s ongoing program: Stride is one of the only Calgary spaces to consistently present a few really raucous contemporary craft exhibitions each year. Think back to Linda Sormin’s mammoth-sized sculptures of broken china ceramic latticework and unfired tubes of clay Mariko Paterson’s autobiographical wall works and kitty litter box full of ceramic turds not to mention Cindy Baker’s installation of hand-sewn panties by the hundred. The gallery would do well to keep up with this trajectory as Serious Fur is one of the most exciting shows Stride has put together in the last year.