Barbara Astman

Emergence, 1998


Emergence, by Barbara Astman, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the admittance of women into the legal profession in Canada.  The work consists of collages which have been scanned and printed onto canvas.  It combines archival images of these early pioneers with photos of Osgoode Hall Law School.  Emergence grew out of a fascination Astman had with a specific photograph, labeled "Women's Law Association of Ontario, December 14th 1946," showing a dinner party of one of the first graduating classes.  Fragments of this photograph are interspersed with architectural shots of the Osgoode Hall interior.  The collaged women, surrounded by archways, cornices, and chandeliers, seem to be emerging from what was, for a long time, a prohibited space.  The rectilinear framing of the pillars reinforces the rigidity of the newly conquered social sphere - a space which Astman describes as masculine, since all of the portraits in the main hall are of men, except the Queen.  Emergence comments on and documents an aspect of our collective history by creating contemporary "portraits" of women who were among the first to graduate, opening the door to one of our most important institutions for subsequent generations.  


“Barbara Astman’s career has spanned more than 23 years of photo-based media innovations, but has always been about more than the lure of new technology. Astman’s staged and sequential work suggests issues of identity, systems of representation, gender perspectives and the anti-narrative of popular irony.” - Ihor Holubizky, art/text 1998


“In the early 1980s, there was a clear delineation between what was considered photography and what was classified as art, and I felt I didn’t fit into either category. That is when I started calling myself a camera artist--one that was working within the contemporary art world as a whole.” - Barbara Astman

Whether household wares or store-bought novelty items such as key-chains, mugs, and ashtrays, much of Barbara Astman’s work involves the use of objects. Imbuing these with memories and histories by means of her artistic process, she dematerializes the material and makes personal the impersonal. In installations such as Clementine Suite (2006) and Enter Through the Giftshop (2011), or series such as Newspapers (2006) and The Red Series (1981), she explores the role that mundane objects play in forming our personal and collective histories while commenting on our consumer culture. Astman was one of the first to utilize the polaroid in her art, treating the medium more like a three-dimensional, malleable material than a flat, two-dimensional surface. She often photographs self-portraits that have been carefully choreographed, so that her image becomes removed from reality: a symbol of a constructed memory. Then, in a process of scratching into, enlarging, Xerox-ing or printing over, the photograph is further removed from a document, becoming closer to an object itself.

Barbara Astman creates photographic series that target the personal world through recollection or revelation. Her early work responds to contemporary feminist issues by incorporating humor and stereotypes to challenge the roles of women domestically and in the work place. Her large-scale photographs from the early 1980s are striking in their bold, unusual use of color and scale.


Throughout her career, Astman pioneered the artistic use of both analogue and digital reproduction techniques. She is among the first to discover and explore the technological practices and concepts that are key signifiers in contemporary art.


Born in Rochester NY, Astman studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the late 1960s when multi-media practices were the hotbed for artistic innovation. Astman came to Canada in 1970 during the wave of draft dodgers from the Vietnam War. Since the mid 1970s she has been a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.