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Hannah Wilke
Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Lisa Danbrot

Hannah Wilke's political and art historical tenor, blended with the underlying hum of a dirge, was the result of "Performalist Self-Portraits," a Hannah Wilke retrospective at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. The show compiled video work from 1976-1985, recording Wilke literally posing for a new born spectator, the virgin viewer who had recently become acquainted with women and nudity in art, and who now was challenged to contextualize an indisputably beautiful woman in heels within feminist intent. How perplexing was this notion early on--I can't imagine, as my teen years paralleled the uprising of the institution named Madonna. It was a bottomless pit of contemplation as I, viewer, grappled with seeing i, object (Hannah Wilke, founder of this challenging mutiny) as though I could separate her work from myself, and my work. These speculations are nothing short of proverbial, and need not be elaborated upon, which is a relief, because in this exhibition, it seemed that the nature of time transcended all other contexts.

The blending of watery piano music belonging to "So Help Me Hannah," a multiple video performance, sounded nostalgic--like the music from the ballet class down the hall at the Joffrey Ballet School when I was seven. Seeming more in the atmosphere than on the ten monitors, Wilke moved slowly in her nudity and heels, romancing a gun, in conjunction with a soundtrack of her voice quoting a selection of statements by politicians, poets, critics, philosophers, and other artists. The gun, the quotes, and the heels appear and reappear like notches along the spine of this body of work.

In rayguns, a display of objects encased in glass on the floor, the metamorphosis of a gun begins with anything gun-shaped, moves through anything vaguely L-shaped, and ends with anything at all, broadening the definition of "gun" to include leaves, telephone cord, and Mickey Mouse. Within these examples, the gun, a symbol of power, war, and the phallus, has been deflated to the status of a throw-away. Consequently in snatch shots with rayguns, Wilke is seen in 48 black and white photographs, performing spy-like missions, glamorously. She is nude, in heels, hair flowing, sexpot-posing, and gun-wielding. The deflation of the gun happens here again, but this time its role is that of a captive or hostage, as Wilke holds it under her control. A selection of six photographs from this series are enlarged and displayed with appropriated text, again from 100 quotes. In one, Wilke squats over a toilet. This image is paired with the quote "His Farced Epistol" (Joyce). In another she poses, looking over her shoulder as Claes Oldenberg's words "Annihilate, Illuminate" become the caption.

The installation that these appropriated quotes derive from, "So Help Me Hannah--100 Quotes," is a dizzying matter. The statements range from Hitler ("Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong"), to Susan Sontag ("An Object Worthy of Contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject"). These and 98 others appear typed on individual index cards, making an overwhelming square on the wall. They are a backdrop for artist and viewer alike to bounce questions of identity, and purpose around on, offering a staggering spectacle of range. On the opposite wall from this academic monument, is portrait of the artist with her mother, selma butter (from the "So Help Me Hannah" series), a silencing image of mother--scarred and cancer-ridden, and daughter--angelic and youthful, side by side. The fateful nature of the piece, and its remote fusion of the doleful and the divine are immediately felt in the belly.

In through the large glass, the commanding performance of a striptease behind Marcel Duchamp's large glass: the bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even, Wilke performs calculated mannequin photo shoot movements. She sports a dauntless pout, and plays on chic, as she sheds a man's suit, but leaves the fedora on (á la "So Help Me Hannah" heels). suit suite, eight photographs of the suit worn in through the large glass display the suit on a hanger, or having returned from the drycleaner. Again, in i object: memoirs of a sugar giver, Wilke is confrontationally sensual, draped over a rocky terrain with clothes strewn about. She has either taken her clothes off, or is posing with the clothes as items meant to be taken off. through the large glass, in this exhibition, is the unlikely roommate of the later sculptural work why not sneeze, a small animal cage filled to the brim with pill vials, and syringes prescribed to Hannah Wilke in her last days before succumbing to cancer.

This exhibition ran the gamut of vulnerability and invincibility. It is the work that foreshadows the documentation of death, but doesn't quite go there, as portraits of mortality pepper the deconstruction of woman as object and idol. I felt stared-down as Wilke uses her gaze like she uses her gun, though clearly, her strength far exceeds her defiance. Wilke exposes audacity and confrontation to be the true allies of tenderness, and I wondered if Lucy Lippard ("Hannah Wilke, a glamour girl in her own right . . . is considered a little too good to be true when she flaunts her body in parody of the role she actually plays in real life . . ."), ever felt burnt.

Lisa Danbrot

Brooklyn, New York

1997

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