New York

Hannah Wilke

Ronald Feldman Gallery

“Since sexual issues still frighten, and male superiority still flourishes leaving cunt queens quite lonely . . . could we possibly find a better name for my kittens?” Hannah Wilke charmingly asks this in reply to Art-Rite’s recent question to several women artists: “Do you think there is a shared female artistic sensibility in the work of female artists?” Nancy Graves, Sylvia Stone, and Joan Jonas said “No!”; Laurie Anderson and Judy Chicago hedged; and Agnes Martin rejected the question. But Hannah Wilke’s answer is the one I remember. It’s the one I tell friends. And that’s the point. I remember it! Like it or not, I can never look at Wilke’s sculpture in the same way again. Irrespective of whether it’s her earlier large latex wall hangings, or her present small terra-cotta and lint folds, or her video gesture pieces, her rhetoric has stuck on her art. She may, or may not, live up to her claim to be a “Pubic Princess of the new movement Pubism,” but every time I see her work I think of pussy.

I don’t give a shit about radical differences between men and women’s art—the more androgynous the better—so I enjoy immensely Wilke’s outrageous and witty rhetoric and the way it enlivens quite traditional sculpture. Just as I like her narcissistic infatuation with her own unquestionable good looks in her video here. I also remember her going on stage at the recent Joseph Beuys lecture and doing a nice “We should touch each other more” number as she held out her hand to him—The American Feminist meets The German Socialist! Great theater! To me Wilke’s rhetoric and personality are inseparable from her art. The more personality she can get in it the better. Myth, I’m gradually learning, is not outside artworks to be ignored but actually part of looking at them. Perhaps the more myths artists get round their “dumb” objects the better?

What’s interesting about Wilke’s present show is how her rhetoric changes the work. Knowing what she’s said, what are you to make of her beautifully made, pink, ragged edge, “one-told-gesture” terra-cotta sculpture, of which there are 176 equally spread over the floor? Looking like hollow cabbage forms with turned-over edges, the group of single pieces occupies a floor area about 8' x 12'. Ranging in size from finger to palm scale, the pieces can be read two ways. You can either read them as metaphors for genitalia or as Process sculpture—one fold, two fold and so on. Wilke would clearly like both.

Wilke explores aspects of the terra cottas in an even more Process way with her double-fold lint pieces, of which 12 are in a soft line, again on the floor—although I don’t know whether I should read anything into that. Subjugated kittens perhaps? Unlike the hard single-fold terra cottas—only soft in a Bernini-like appearance sense—these lints look soft, and feel soft. You can, if you like your kicks vicariously, play around with them, because they’re just two bits of lint loosely draped in crotch forms. Made, I understand, from lint collected from red and pink towels from Wilke’s clothes dryer, à la Joel Fisher, each piece of lint is a beautiful faded pink or red. The lint folds are nice, casually fragile, sensuous things.

Although there are other things in the show, I like the terra cottas and lints best. I don’t understand the rationale of the geometric layouts. A parody of the regimentation of women as sex objects? Seems too obvious. Obviously what interests Wilke most is the idea of folding, although I don’t know what comes first, folding in art, or folding in life. Clay, lint, erasers and even cookies are all folded with loving care. But there is a problem with disembodied folded genitalia in art—as in life. If Germaine Greer is right, people persist in loving people not shapes. And to be erotic sex should have a context. Cunts without women and cocks without men tend to be boring. You avoid all the interesting questions Like “Who?” “Why?” “When?” etc. Although Wilke’s objects are a step in the right sexual direction, the most erotic questions are still raised verbally.

Erotically, Wilke’s video Gestures were more successful—or “hornier” in America, and “randier” in England—than the sculpture. Why? Well she’s actually in them for a start. The video is probably the best thing in the show, because by being in the pieces, using just her head and hands, she gives the folding gestures, particularly, more meaning. Stroking, kneading, preening and slapping her face were interesting but the folding mouths gestures were the naughtiest. Because she’s sensuously breaking a cultural rule and that’s one definition of erotic. Pushing at her lips and then folding them back to expose the under-side, very slowly, and deliberately, as well as pushing her tongue out were powerful images. Using her mouth as a surrogate vagina and her tongue as surrogate clitoris, in the context of her face, with its whole psychological history, was strong stuff! Like a tasteful 42nd Street ‘spread snatch,’ but thankfully at the other end of the body. Hannah Wilke with the video appears to be moving into areas of sexuality hardly begun to be explored.

Wilke’s position in the art world, then, is a strange paradox between her own physical beauty and her very serious art. She longs to fulfill her sexuality in an most Marilyn-Monroe-like way; but her attempt to deal with this dilemma within the woman’s movement has an air of touching pathos about it.

James Collins