Hannah Collins

The large-scale photograph tacked to the wall seems to picture a woman with hair covering her entire body. Her bare feet step over shafts of wheat. Here Hannah Collins portrays a scene which is both more and less than it appears to be. The photograph is a piece of evidence rather than documentation, demonstrating process rather than definition. In Hair (all works, 1989), reflection reveals that the subject is not necessarily a woman; by denying the viewer a glimpse of the face—covered with hair and photographed from the back—Collins puts the question of gender up for grabs. Collins focuses on the ambiguity of the image and its resistance to categorization. Unlike Joel Peter Witkin, whose images jolt the viewer, Collins’ works require us to decipher the nature of the subject itself. If there is anything blatant in these photographs, it is their hermetic quality. Occupying a border zone between abstraction and figuration, enigmatically resisting simple identification, Collins’ images are visual conundrums which the viewer must solve.

In Life for Life, the image can eventually be read as a group of ants covering a balloon. Collins uses a magnified close-up—a strategy which is repeated throughout the exhibition—to challenge the viewers’ grasp of the image. In this case, the surface upon which the insects crawl becomes illusory and phantomlike, as the contours of the balloon take up the entire frame. Just as the gender of the subject of Hair is denied, here the subject’s form, its roundness, is denied. Only by the inclusion of the balloon’s knot and attached string can we intuit the form. The paradox is that we do not see it.

We are consistently presented with objects that resemble other objects—balloons that look like melons in Grapes, eggs that look like clouds or popcorn in Food. The titles themselves rarely name or fix the subjects. Dirty Hole in the Ground features the closest connection between title and image. In the middle of a freshly dug hole sits a group of marbles. The earth in the center of the image is quite dark, especially in contrast to the dirt and leaves on the periphery of the frame. The image, despite its seemingly descriptive title, has a theatrical, artificial quality. While the marbles in the dirt recall the childhood game of buried treasure, they also represent an engima. They are the elements that must be deciphered and integrated into the larger context of the work and its myriad implications.

Michael Tarantino