hannah wilke elective affinities at alison jacques

8 August 2010 § Leave a comment

Perhaps building on Ana Mendieta’s first UK solo exhibition earlier this year, the Alison Jacques Gallery’s latest exhibition is of American artist Hannah Wilke (1940 – 93). Both are icons of the post-war feminist art movement and with that in mind, notwithstanding a recent visit, I felt that a review would be best posted by the highly perceptive, and above all, very female, art critic and writer Sue Hall. Many thanks Sue!

Hannah Manna 1985-86


It’s easy to miss the so-called ‘climax’ of this exhibition of work from the Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles.  Hidden away, unsignposted, at the top of the stairs and sealed off by a rope, is a field of 76 of Wilke’s ceramic sculptures, Hannah Manna (1986).  Unlike the pieces downstairs, which are largely uncoloured and often glazed, these intensely pigmented porcelain parcels sit randomly, like discarded petals on a fake lawn. The random placement suggests the food from heaven the title refers to, and Wilke gives us her own description in the plaque accompanying the work: ‘womblike blossoms resembling venus mounds, a centrefold evolving from a circular plane…’. There is an exaggerated ambiguity in these little sculptures; an ambiguity which is evident, but less developed,  in the earlier, earthier, ceramic works downstairs.  Perhaps the fake grass has something to do with it: the work was originally installed on the real thing.

Triple Black Swan Irises 1973


The emphasis of Elective Affinities (the title comes from the 1978 work at the centre of the main room) is on Wilke’s less well known sculptural output.  As well as ceramic she used gum, bronze, and erasers to form these folded, secretive shapes but the vulval trope remains constant, from early works such as the messy, marked folds of Untitled (ca.1968),  to the nine neat, small, glazed ceramic sculptures of Untitled (cream), made in the late 1980s. Some of these pieces, and in particular the floor based Elective Affinities, where the sculptures are set in a grid pattern on boards , bring to mind her near contemporary, and fellow New Yorker, Eva Hesse’s use of repetition and seriality as a way to undo or negate some of the orthodox seriality of the Minimalists. Here though the entropic urge so evident in Hesse’s work seems absent.  Both artists use a topography of the body and a hand-made aesthetic but although the sexual imagery of Wilke’s work is more overt, her sculpture is more restrained and somehow more clandestine than Hesse’s. The exception is the latex work, Pink Champagne, 1975, which seems to have aged rather better than some of Hesse’s (admittedly earlier) latex works.  Its fleshy layers and folds once again mimic the appearance of the labia but in a more assertive and unpredictable way. 

S.O.S. Starification Object Series (Veil), 1975


The main space of the exhibition contains only one photograph from the SOS Starification Object Series for which Wilke is arguably best known. In Veil, 1974-75, Wilke poses naked apart from a keffiyeh (a head covering traditionally worn by men) covering her hair and draped over her mouth and neck. Her skin is blemished by the little gum vaginas stuck all over it.  It’s easy to see why this image was chosen; her averted gaze, naked breasts and covered head repeat the ambiguity at the heart of her sculpture. Separated from the others in the series, its message as a metaphor for the commodification of women is diluted; in this room, opposite the Brushstrokes pieces (1992) containing hair that fell out during chemotherapy, it seems more personal and introverted.

Pink Champagne 1975


This juxtaposition of works documenting the depredations of cancer on her body with earlier works is less effective in the side space, perhaps because the two self-portraits from the Intra- Venus (1992) series seem too direct; in spite of the punning title there is no metaphor here.  In the photographs from the So Help Me Hannah series (1978) Wilke again uses her undeniably beautiful body (for which she was criticised by feminist peers) to articulate some of the conflicts she perceived as a woman making art in the 1970s.  Because we see more works from this series, and because it concludes with a ‘performalist self-portrait’ of Wilke sitting naked in the corner, without the high heels she wears in the other photographs, and with the text of Ad Reinhardt’s famous cartoon, ‘What does this Represent/What Do You Represent’ superimposed on the picture, the feminist message of this work is unmistakable.  Its inclusion unbalances the exhibition, although not fatally, and I was left wondering if it was included to remind us that Wilke was a feminist after all, in case we weren’t sure after all that sculptural folding and those pale, pastel colours.

Wilke’s sculptural work is beautiful and some of the pieces are jewel-like in their gorgeousness, but the repeated use of the vaginal trope  was starting to pall by the time I found the stairs up to Hannah Manna.   Whether it was the saturated colours, the word play or the fake turf I can’t be sure, but I’m glad I made it up there.

Exhibition review by Sue Hall 

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