Whitehot Magazine

March 2009, Hannah Wilke: Gestures @ The Neuberger Museum of Art

March 2009, Hannah Wilke: Gestures @ The Neuberger Museum of Art
Hannah Wilke, The Red One, 1980s, Painted ceramic sculpture on painted wood base

Hannah Wilke: Gestures at The Neuberger Museum of Art
735 Anderson Hill Road
Purchase, New York
Running to January 25, 2009

Hannah Wilke’s Kinetic Aesthetic

"Gestures" is the perfect title for the Hannah Wilke exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art. Wilke’s sculpture allows us to imagine how she moved when creating her pieces, adding a kinetic aesthetic to her work. Wilke used a plethora of materials including clay, cookie dough, erasers, bubble gum, lint and latex. The very handling and shaping of the material leaves the essence of Wilke’s moves subliminally embedded in her work.

Wilke (1940-93), was a feminist art pioneer who created conceptual, abstract work strongly referencing the vaginal form. Included in the show are over 60 works that Wilke created from the early 1960’s to the late 1980’s. Her work politicizes female vulnerability and exposure and redefines a woman’s body as a something other than a beauty object.

Her own body was often her canvas. “S.O.S. Starification Object Series (Veil)” (1974), is a photograph of Wilke, bare breasted, head wrapped in a moolah with mouth covered, her chest and face dotted with small, delicate, clay vaginal forms. Wilke’s message reflects society’s double standard of woman as visual gratification with a silenced voice.

“Pink Champagne” (1975), is numerous flesh-colored latex petals fanning out horizontally from the center, posing surreal, multiple labia while doubling as liquid effervescence – hence the title. Small metal snaps dotting the piece are incongruent gravity points countering the “waviness.” 

Gestures defined how Wilke worked not only with her sculpture but in her performance art. In the 1974 video “Gestures,” Wilke faces the camera and becomes a living sculpture: kneading rubbing and pulling at her skin as if remolding, or slowly, subtly changing facial expressions, and obliquely angling her head to abstraction. For Wilke, sculpture was never a static phenomenon. In “Early Box and Six Phallic and Excremental Sculptures” (1963), seven ceramic sculptures made from terracotta and plaster of Paris, are earthy, organic - you can just feel Wilke digging her fingers into the dense clay, working finer shapes that others

As part of the “S.O.S. Starification Object Series” Wilke experimented with chewing gum stuck on rice paper. Knowing that Wilke chewed to soften the gum, then handle and form it, moves her creative “gesture” to another dimension. That her saliva has been exorcised into these petrified, tiny gum pieces creates a sensory duet of the tactile ‘gooey’ and the taste of ‘sugary.’ These tiny shapes are at first androgynous objects but echo thick labia-like collars scarves.

The show has numerous floor works mounted on painted wood bases of all sizes - we are coaxed to look down, walk around, kneel and peak inside the folded forms.

In “The Red One” (1980’s), crimson ceramic pieces are on a red, five feet square wood base. The female genitalia forms are randomly placed as small boats in a monochromatic sea of indeterminate currents. Nearby, a larger floor form is “Chaya” (1984), the name of a bird Wilke adopted to fill the void of her mother’s death. The form, with one flap open, is now a burial vessel, an inner-sanctum for decomposing and evaporating into afterlife. The exterior is lavishly painted with broad red and pink brush jabs - a massive surface energy contrasting the quiet, inner dark space.

In 1987 Wilke was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent extensive treatment including a bone marrow transplant. In the years before her death in 1993 her work had an international following with New York City shows at The Whitney Museum, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Sidney Janis Gallery. She was a recipient of numerous artist grants including the Pollock-Krasner Grants for Art in 1987 and 1992. In the last years of her life she created “B.C.” a series of watercolor self-portraits and “Brushstrokes,” drawings made from her own hair that fell out from chemotherapy.

Wilke is a tremendous reminder of some of the first, energized stirrings of America’s feminist art movement, an era defined by a brash new energy of female-centric messages. Her radical approach to women’s role as artists was widely embraced and is now, more than a generation later, part of the core of the creative, feminine landscape.

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Abby Luby

Abby Luby is a journalist in New York.


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