Alison Jaques Gallery

Disease, as we imagine it, creeps slowly inside a subject, infecting with blackened fingers, and it is difficult to approach Hannah Wilke’s work without feeling that the cold breath of infection is prowling close by. The artist famously depicted her own diseased body in a startling way: unflinchingly photographing her body’s beauty in decay, through hospitalisation and baldness in the Intra-Venus series. At Alison Jacques Gallery, then, it is good to see Wilke’s early work without this context of a premature death, which all to easily contaminates, by way of romance, our approach to an artist’s work.

It is actually Wilke’s naked body in the full glow of health has become a contaminating element bleeding through the work, provoking an uneasy relationship with feminist art and art history. Are the images, like the artist herself, too easy on the eye to remove themselves from the pin-up associations to which they often mock? It is unfortunate that Wilke’s work of this kind has often been justified by pointing towards her Intra-Venus series, as though this stark suffering somehow absolves her of these previous sins. The artist’s visual processes, and methods of attack on a patriarchal art world however, is akin to infestation and infection, and so these themes continue to blossom like a virus throughout the exhibition.

The first gallery space at Alison Jacques features the wall based Ponde-r-rosa 3 sculptures (1975) and a floor square of 159 One-Fold Gestural Sculptures (1973-74). These are both softly and clinically arranged objects, recalling the minimalist syntax of Wilke’s contemporaries such as Judd or Andre, though drawing on an unmistakably feminine set of references. Like faded lace or old curtains, from the nursery-soft colours to the shape that recalls both a vagina and a clitoris, these markers of femininity function like an invasion or infestation on the work and on the viewer. In small white vitrines are kneaded erasers in folds that play on both the notion of gesture and the names of the objects in the Needed-Erase-Her Series (1974) and chewing gum sculptures placed over postcards as though they are invading the landscape like a feminine UFO land art. In the S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1974) little clitoris shapes are made in chewing gum folds that are placed all over Wilke’s body like small scars or bites. Here is a body with a sexuality and gender that cannot be rubbed out with an eraser or spat out like gum.

The second room follows the artist’s turn towards the performative, and there are elements here that inevitably dated by their relationship to a particular vein of American women’s lib. Possibly the most powerful pieces in this exhibition are here, however, from So Help me Hannah series (1978-81) in which Wilke charts not her own, but her mother’s illness. In Dancing in the Dark (1978) mother and daughter are pictured laughingly dancing in a single carefree flashbulb moment in th dark unknown: a deathly abyss which with this work grapples. Another double portrait shows Hannah and her mother during her struggle with cancer, post-mastectomy. While Selma Butters is covered in scars, the only marker on Hannah’s body are bejewelled objects of tiny violence strewn through her hair and on her naked chest. Wilke has made no mistake about presenting herself as a picture of health, with rosy blushered cheeks and a blooming mouth. She is as full of life as her mother is full of death, and Wilke’s bravery with these works far outstrip that with which she approached her own illness. Selma’s illness is her own and Wilke attempts to take none of this away from her mother by creating sympathy for herself and her own loss. Inevitably echoing Wilke’s own death, the images of a mother and daughter in an unending cycle of infection, affection and loss determinedly moves under the skin, and breathes on the neck.