New York

K8 Hardy

Reena Spaulings Fine Art | New York

That K8 Hardy, one of the founders of the queer feminist art collective LTTR, wants to screw with our assumptions and expectations about how she should represent herself—or her multiple selves—to the world was loudly broadcast in “To All the G#%$! I’ve Loved Before,” her first one-person show in New York. With a post–Riot Grrrl intensity, neo-punk-inflected irreverence, and a dose of acidic wit, Hardy endeavored to provoke with a series of photographic (meta)self-portraits (and supporting props) that exploit campy visual tropes of gay cruising imagery, restaging gender/sexual identity as a fundamentally fluid, plural condition. Her post- (or trans-)medium-specific practice might be considered a lively, idiosyncratic kind of activist art production, although Hardy might cringe in response to this description (which is, after all, proposed by a heteronormal critic).

From the start, we were in a masquerade that could have been a send-up of the cliché of art-as-a-masquerade: K8 Hardy as the anti–Cindy Sherman. A collection of variously wigged mannequin heads plus accoutrements welcomed us (Head Posse D-L, 2009), anticipating the theatricality about to unfold. Untitled (Texas), 2009, taped directly to the wall above the gallery’s sofa, features a thong-clad woman in bed (Hardy?), her ass and legs extended toward us. She holds a knife over her asshole and vagina; her other hand reaches out to touch a flag of Texas (Hardy’s birthplace) on the wall in front of the bed. The most sexually charged picture here, it suggests the interpenetration of sex and violence as a possible locus of seduction, while the subject’s lack of identity generates a disturbing slippage.

A carpet led to a small, empty, stagelike structure in the center of the gallery, whose function remained ambiguous: Perhaps it alluded to Hardy’s past performance work, the notion of self-portraiture as a performative process, the implication of the viewer’s participation in meaning construction, or to live events that might be staged during the show’s run. Nearby, a photo showed the artist, scantily clad, with a flowing gray wig, crawling on all floors, mouth open, performing the codes of sexual predation. Utilizing a photogram technique, Hardy has laid a bleached-out hand into the foreground, which gives the bird to the viewer; the work is titled Fuck You, 2009. At the front of the gallery, several photographs from the “Position Series,” 2009, had been placed in an open white wooden display structure (Trough, 2008): back-room inventory entering the main space of spectatorship in an almost obligatory gesture of deconstructed commerce. Only the image at the front of the leaning stack was visible, revealing a disheveled, half-naked Hardy standing in front of a bramble of dead branches. A mannequin head (painted blue and black, adorned with frizzed-out hair, and poised on a clear plastic pedestal) was installed opposite this and cast its gaze upon the photograph—a surrogate for all observers.

Additional photographs on view from the “Position Series” featured Hardy in various states of gender-bending self-transformation in what might be considered an inventory of dyke “positions.” A low-tech, DIY aesthetic foregrounds the conditions of the photographs’ manufacture, and there appears to be a strategy of including both successful and unpersuasive images, as if to deliberately undermine notions of quality. Deploying parody against her own language, Hardy represents (or de-represents) herself as, for instance, a somewhat manly woman, in bed, proudly displaying her underarm hair and padded undies to prospective viewers (or takers); a butch Hardy standing with a hard-assed expression on a ladder with short-shorts, black cowboy boots, white tank top, and what resembles a boxing champion’s belt; and a bad-postured, frumpy, nerdy Hardy wearing horn-rimmed spectacles. (A woman identified as the artist’s sister Halie in the gallery’s press release appears as a substitute model in a few pictures.)

This loose index of alternative desire and sexuality might just be a trap Hardy has engineered for us to reproduce normative modes and rites of image reception that she is at once contesting and reinscribing. Ultimately, though, it’s refreshingly entertaining material, with Hardy transmitting a degree of skepticism about her own use of subaltern codes of ambiguous gender and transsexuality even as she casts doubt on the idea of a “one-person” show by showing identity as such a radically fragmented, mutable thing.

Joshua Decter