Somerset

Louise Bourgeois, Legs, 1986, rubber, each 10' 3“ × 2” × 2".

Louise Bourgeois, Legs, 1986, rubber, each 10' 3“ × 2” × 2".

“Unconscious Landscape”

Hauser & Wirth | Somerset

As it turns out, one of Ursula Hauser’s favorite pieces in her extensive collection of modern and contemporary art is mine, too. Louise Bourgeois’s Legs, 1986, closed “Unconscious Landscape: Works from the Ursula Hauser Collection,” hanging simply and solemnly by the exit. Legs they are, and in Bourgeois’s customarily uncanny and discomfiting style, they are made strange—made of black rubber, impossibly straight and slender, more than ten feet long, here hovering just above the ground. Bourgeois was the linchpin of “Unconscious Landscape,” with works in almost all five rooms. Central to her oeuvre are themes of the body, materials, and process, and these themes also underlie the diverse practices of the other eleven artists in the exhibit.

One saw bodies in pieces and parts: bodies that spilled out of themselves, leaked and oozed; bodies distorted and contorted. The works featured bodies of bronze, fabric, fur, resin, rubber, polyurethane, paint, marble, glue, and wire: bodies summoned in anatomical fragments, reconstituted to be seen anew. Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers, 1936, seemed about to waggle the varnished red nails that protrude from their caramel-furred ends—naughty partners, perhaps, to her famously hirsute teacup. In four colorful paintings by Maria Lassnig, figures struggled against and abstracted themselves, shed limbs, writhed, stared. The Austrian artist described her method as “body awareness,” meaning that she painted only the parts of a body that she could feel, rather than what she could see: an interior mapping made exterior. Six sculptures by the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow were made from composite casts of her body. Fused together uncomfortably with aluminum wire, latex, polyester resin, and polyurethane foam, they captured, in pieces, the pain and deterioration of the lived body. Stéle (Stela), 1968, whose title means “funerary monument,” is a dark slab of foam from which pale knees and a mouth dripping with black protrude, as if she who has been buried is horribly suspended between life and death.

“Unconscious Landscape” took its title from a 1967–68 Bourgeois bronze but suggested the guiding principle behind Hauser’s mode of collecting, which privileges intuitive connection and emotional attachment: the immediate identification one might feel with the work of an artist. Hauser’s mother was a seamstress, and her daughter clearly inherited her interest in textiles, as evidenced in mixed-media pieces by Sonia Gomes and Sheila Hicks, as well as two rare and buoyant reliefs by Eva Hesse, made in 1965, when the artist worked in a disused textile factory near Essen, Germany. These pieces were also anarchic: Material disobeys aesthetic convention and dimensionality. Likewise, sculptures and paintings by Heidi Bucher, Carol Rama, and the greatest of all refusers, Lee Lozano—respectively, a pillow holding a rope coated with mother-of-pearl, deflated bicycle tires dangling flaccidly from a screen splattered with nail polish, and eroticized machine parts roiling across a painted triptych—disrupted conventions of form and representation.

Only Sylvia Sleigh’s quiet portraits of women were out of place in their seeming normality. Perhaps the artist herself, known for her vivid feminist takes on classic art-historical paintings and her campaigning for art-world gender equality, logically kept company with the other heavyweights on show: women whose work displays a powerful unease with givens, who moved across continents and between “movements” to make wayward and often uncategorizable work. As Lucy Lippard said of Lozano, “She was always a figure who slipped between the stools.” At the end of the show, when I arrived at Legs, I could see a whole world in those crooked black feet, with their irregularly shaped heels and drooping toes, their rubber weight that seemed to insist, with such gravity, that they might one day reach the ground—but also that they were just fine where they were.