Critics’ Picks

“S.O.S.—Starification Object Series,” 1974–82. Copyright © Marsie, Emanuelle, Andrew and Damon Scharlatt, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.

“S.O.S.—Starification Object Series,” 1974–82. Copyright © Marsie, Emanuelle, Andrew and Damon Scharlatt, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles.

Los Angeles

Hannah Wilke

Solway Jones
5377 Wilshire Blvd.
January 10–February 21, 2004

In the black-and-white video Gestures, 1974–76, Hannah Wilke suggestively uses her hands to manipulate her eyes, mouth, and hair. From rarely seen early ceramic and latex sculptures to the confrontational photographs for which she is best known, manipulation is the connective tissue running through this succinct survey of Wilke’s diverse career. The (nude) body becomes a site—for sculptural activity, for ideological discourse—and the viewer is always implicated. In the series “S.O.S.—Starification Object Series,” 1974–82, the artist assumes a labile variety of poses (starlet in sunglasses, veiled temptress, Annie Hall drag), her body adorned—or scarred—by labial chewing-gum sculptures. (Is this a crafty critique of the arguably more palatable Pattern and Decoration movement?) Anticipating the complex semiotics of Cindy Sherman and the confessional shock tactics of Tracey Emin (to name only two obvious examples), Wilke’s loaded images dare viewers to measure out victories and losses for the artist and for feminism in general. The confrontation continues as cancer—first her mother’s, then her own—becomes her subject matter, used unflinchingly and without self-pity until the artist's death in 1992. Wilke’s place in postwar art history is secure, in large part because of the insecurity her work still engenders. This timely survey also suggests that her influence goes beyond feminist discourse, which was perhaps the point all along.