Walker Art Center curator Peter Eleey discusses Hannah Wilke's work and career.
Throughout the history of art women have often been objectified through the male gaze, appearing powerless, passive and above all sexually desirable. In the twentieth century all forms of media from advertising to film have perpetuated these standards of beauty and womanhood while simultaneously cultivating a notion of civilized sexuality.
As one of the first artists to use her body in the creation of feminist art in the 1960's and 1970's, performance artist and photographer Hannah Wilke used her own naked body as the subject of her life's work to challenge these culturally constructed images of the ideal woman. By exploring one of the oldest themes in art, the female icon, Wilke commented on the problematic relationship between beauty and women's conflicting roles in contemporary culture. By photographing herself, engaging in live performance and producing sculptural works she called attention to society's oppressive expectations of women and objectification of the female body.
From New York, Hannah Wilke was born Arlene Hannah Butter in 1952. Her fascination with playing the role of sex object dates back to her childhood when at the age of 14 she began photographing herself often dressed in nothing more than her mothers mink stole. After\ high school she enrolled at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and later taught at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
Her career began in the mid-1960's and continued throughout the 1970's and 1980's right up to her death in 1993. In the 1960's, she exhibited suggestive sculptures of female body parts. For some of these early installation pieces she displayed vaginal forms sculpted out of various materials such as clay, plaster, chewing gum and even dryer lint. Collections of the vaginal replications were then placed on the gallery floor, hung on the wall or sometimes incorporated into performance works.
For "Starification Object Series," she carefully molded pieces of chewed gum into small vulva shapes and posing like a fashion model then placed them all over her naked body. The twisted pieces of gum appear like scars or wounds suggesting the mental and physical scars resulting from the multiple ways in which women try to achieve ideal beauty through dieting, surgery and painful clothing such as corsets and high-heeled shoes.
Following the 1960's equal rights movements and the subsequent increase in the paths women were able to forge for themselves in a world dominated by men, Wilke drew attention to the unrealistic expectations that are placed on women. In the early 1970's, for the first time, women were expected not only to be mothers and wives, but also to pursue careers outside the home and simultaneously remain passive and sexually desirable.
By photographing herself dressed in nothing but high heels and a large white diaper loosely fastened about her waist, she challenged these conflicting expectations embedded in the culture. As an extremely attractive female, Wilke attempted to confuse viewers by juxtaposing the eroticism of her body posture and facial expressions with disturbing attire.
In the late 1970's she photographically documented her mother's struggle with breast cancer while working on "So Help Me Hannah," a series of 48 black and white self-portraits that were exhibited with framed quotations from artists and critical writers. Although her husband Donald Goddard actually took the pictures for "So Help Me Hannah," it was Hannah who composed the seductive yet searing depictions of power. Again appearing in nothing but high heels she holds a small handgun reminding the viewer she is in control. At the height of her career however, Hannah Wilke relinquished control of her body when she was diagnosed with cancer. She chose to incorporate this devastating event into her work with a series of photographs documenting her struggle with the disease and her death.
The thirteen larger than life color photographs of the "Intra-Venus" series are a testament to her fearlessness and ability to retain dignity in the face of such a devastating illness while simultaneously exploring themes of beauty in art. Rather than hide from the trauma she confronts it directly and without shame deliberately exposes the gruesome reality of disease. Like an unexpected blow to the stomach, the photographs transcend her in-your-face approach to making art.
Although sex and nudity were not new to the art world, Wilke's graphic imagery and controversial method of presentation was. As a striking and almost dangerously beautiful woman, her work was often judged as narcissistic while critics accused her of being an exhibitionist, citing her traditional beauty as an excuse to disrobe.
However it was her final exhibition of large format color photographs documenting her seven-year battle with lymphoma that hauntingly captures her message of power struggles. There were many women involved in the 1970's body art and performance art movement, but none dealt with such personal and emotional subject matter as Hannah Wilke. Through live performance works, sculptural installations and photographic documentation she tackled timely and difficult subjects through controversial yet pioneering works challenging the relationship between gender, culture, politics, sexuality and the female nude in art.
Page author: A.E.