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Hannah Wilke: What It Means to Be a Woman Artist

An exhibition at Alison Jacques Gallery, London, shows how the US feminist changed the art world's view on a woman's body

Controversial and wholly original, Hannah Wilke sought a formal language for women’s creativity, challenging the parameters of both art and feminism in the process. The fifth exhibition of her work at Alison Jacques Gallery, organized in partnership with the Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive in Los Angeles, brings together 26 pieces from the early 1960s through to 1987. The exhibition opens with Gestures (Triptych) (1974–76), comprising stills from the titular video. In a close-up frame, Wilke uses her hands to manipulate her face: she pulls her mouth downwards, stretches it into a smile, pushes her brows together. As in much of Wilke’s art – whether performance, sculpture or sketch – it is the gesture that is most insistent: the deliberate, repeated motion that underwrites each form. 

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Hannah Wilke, Gestures (Triptych), 1974–76, 30 vintage black and white photographs in 3 frames, 102 × 83 cm, framed. Courtesy: Alison Jacques Gallery, London and Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles. © Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon and Andrew Scharlatt, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY/ DACS, London

Folding, the artist’s signature motif, is palpable in numerous sculptures from the 1970s and ’80s, their materials ranging from bronze to chewing gum. The most striking, for me, is a display from 1977–81, which brings together 18 sculptures in glazed ceramic, from the smallest piece in a pale cerulean, its shape open and delicately furled at each end, to a deep-green work that folds over itself repeatedly, almost completely closed. Both abstract and unmistakeably yonic, Wilke’s sculptures are not literal illustrations of the vulva so much as evocations of openness and vulnerability, hidden depths and intimacy. Working from the 1960s up until her death in 1993, Wilke sought a visual language that could speak to what it means to be a woman artist – to live, love, grieve and desire from within a woman’s body. Her works are in dialogue with other postwar movements – the pristine, geometric forms of minimalism, the seriality of pop, the action-based processes of abstract expressionism – but their ultimate concern is with lived, visceral experience.

The artist’s own body is suggested throughout the show – the imprint of her thumb on an eraser; her masticated chewing gum, pulled and twisted, pressed into the shape of a crowning, clitoral fold (S.O.S. Starification Object Series #4, Mastication Box, 1975). In Needed-Erase-Her #4 (1974), its title punning on the artist’s gesture, hundreds of dove-grey erasers are painstakingly kneaded into compact, yonic shapes. These are not the serialized forms of pop art, engaging with mass production and a world flooded with images; on the contrary, in this work repetition attests to physical presence.

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Hannah Wilke, Untitled, 1960s, pastel and graphite on card, 11 × 15 cm. Courtesy: Alison Jacques Gallery, London and Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles. © Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon and Andrew Scharlatt, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY/ DACS, London

Also on view are Wilke’s paintings and works on paper from the mid-1960s. In these pieces, geometric compositions blend with whimsical, organic forms, as in Untitled (Daisies) (c.1966–67), with its phallic pistils and sun-bleached pastel hues. Two untitled paintings (both c.1963–65) juxtapose geometric planes with abstract, corporal forms; though not as explicit as the artist’s later folds, these shapes feel as if they are of the body. Each is outlined by a broken line that also runs through the drawings, recalling children’s tracing books or the undulating path of a needle and thread. Like the folds, these rhythmic lines attest to the artist’s labour: to her focus, persistence and care.

In the gallery’s back room, there are a number of small sketches on card made between 1964 and 1966, which Wilke produced when she worked as a secondary-school teacher. As the artist’s nephew told me at the exhibition opening, these pieces were part of her daily practice – a way of keeping her own work in focus. Realized in graphite and pastel, these rather abstract sketches are often anchored as still lifes – a favoured format, throughout art history, of artists seeking to explore space, form and colour. If women’s work is often read through their biographies, then perhaps Wilke’s challenges us to see things differently: insisting that art is not born of overarching narratives, but lives lived day to day.

Hannah Wilke's exhibition runs at Alison Jacques Gallery, London, until 21 December 2018.

Main image: Hannah Wilke, Untitled, 1977–81, glazed ceramic (set of eighteen), 46 × 38 cm. Courtesy: Alison Jacques Gallery, London and Hannah Wilke Collection and Archive, Los Angeles. © Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon and Andrew Scharlatt, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY/ DACS, London

Caroline Marciniak is editorial coordinator of frieze and is based in London. 

Issue 199

First published in Issue 199

November - December 2018
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