Hannah Villiger

Blancpain Art Contemporain

Hannah Villiger’s art combines a sculptural fascination with volume, space, light, and texture with an interest in photography’s mediation of perception. Beginning in the mid ’70s, Villiger made Minimalistinspired sculptures out of wood or Plexiglas while photographing process-oriented phenomena, such as the trajectory in space of a burning palm leaf or the action-reaction of metal balls hitting each other during a game of pétanque. Since 1980, she has concentrated primarily on photographing her own naked body with a Polaroid camera. Villiger enlarges these images to a uniform format, mounts them on aluminum plates, and presents these works either individually or in gridlike blocks of between two and fifteen photographs. Retaining her sculptor’s eye in her representations of the human form in space, Villiger takes her own body as an architectonic structure, which, due to the inherent physical limitations of photographic self-portraiture, is broken down into elementary shapes and configurations.

For this exhibition, Villiger presented eight of her most recent works, all but one from 1995. While most of these are the artist’s body-based photographs, she also included a few strangely cropped images of public monuments. As a whole, the exhibition was indicative of Villiger’s steady progression, over the past several years, toward a total abstraction of her body through exaggerated fragmentation and the manipulation of focus and lighting. In one diptych entitled Block XXXVIII 95, the two panels, hung one above the other, served almost as a diagram of this shift. In the lower panel, the bottom half of the artist is depicted from the back, one leg bent forward with the foot flat on the ground, the other extended to show the sole of her foot; her buttocks form a circular shape that serves as a counterpart to a round shape in the panel above. In the top panel of photographs, this washed-out circular form—perhaps a bent knee seen from head on—emerges from the dark background at the picture’s bottom edge—a glowing afterimage of the recognizable limbs below.

This tendency toward abstraction is even more evident in several other works in the exhibition, particularly in a single photograph titled Skulptural 95 that shows a blurred reddish-yellow mass enveloped in darkness. Villiger completely severs the final image from its human source and presents it as an autonomous shape. This act of separation—both from the source and from the support of any surrounding images—can be read on two levels: as an attempt to deny the erotic or narcissistic overtones of many of her photographs; and as a final blow to the viewer’s propensity, often fueled by the artist’s multipanel pieces, to look for a narrative structure.

Villiger’s art is firmly rooted in traditional photographic and sculptural practice, recalling in style the nudes of Edward Weston and in presentation the rigid limitations of Minimalist sculpture. While on the surface her work might be read as part of the current discourse on the social and political body or as an offshoot of “body” art, Villiger’s fidelity to an entrenched Modernist esthetic, affirmed by her turn to increasingly abstracted images, indicates a desire to circumvent such (mis)interpretations.

Elizabeth Janus