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Important Art by Hannah Wilke
Wilke created a provocative advertisement to promote her first solo exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in the early 1970s. The photograph depicts Wilke in her studio in Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles, wearing a sweater, high-heeled boots, and thin hosiery. She is shown from behind with one leg planted firmly on the ground, while the other foot rests on a chair. Her position looks neither natural nor comfortable, and the effect is deliberately sexualized and confrontational. The photograph was taken by Wilke's partner at the time, artist Claes Oldenburg, and is the first of a lifelong series of photographic self-portraits taken by people close to Wilke under her direction.
The image is complex and contradictory. It shows Wilke with her back to the viewer, as if she is working hard on her art, taking her practice seriously. However, while it presents a woman-as-artist, it also presents a woman-as-object. As Amelia Jones puts it, "she is absorbed in something on her desk and her defiance is marked by her ass-in-your-face pose and her seemingly complete lack of interest in or concern for the viewer's potentially devastating 'male gaze'."
Wilke's absorption appears to give the (implicitly male) viewer uninhibited access to this highly sexualized image of her. This reading is complicated, however, both by the fact that the image was staged by Wilke herself and by her complete lack of interest in her to-be-looked-at-ness. Even at this early stage of her career, Wilke demonstrates an awareness of the duality of women's roles, both as sex objects and as active agents in society.
In this half-hour video, Wilke uses her own skin as sculptural material, exploring her own facial features with pats, slaps, and strokes while also kneading and pulling at her skin. At times, she uses her head and hands for various expressions and gestures. The length of the video sometimes makes it uncomfortable for the viewer as these acts of self-exploration feel almost too private for the camera; the viewer becomes a sort of voyeur. At one point, Wilke smiles so hard that her face turns into a grimace.
The video seems to underscore femininity as a performance - as much pleasure as pain. She described it as "the pathos past the posing." As in all of her works she is purposely putting herself on display, becoming both artist and art object, but here going through the process of exploring her face for the viewer who cannot do it themselves.
This is one of Wilke's best-known works; it constitutes a series of photographs of Wilke posing topless much like a glamorous pin-up girl in which she parodies traditional representations of "femininity". The difference between these photographs and typical glamor shots is that Wilke has created tiny sculptures out of chewing gum and stuck them to her body. The gum is formed into vulval shapes, a shape that she explored in other media throughout the 1960s. The title, "Starification" is a neologism that refers to a concept of creating a "star" or celebrity. The term also recalls "scarification," which could refer to the coming-of-age scarring rituals undertaken in some non-Western cultures or the numbered tattoos on Holocaust victims, while also suggesting a relation between women's bodies and wounds/vulnerability. By juxtaposing ideas of celebrity and scarring, Wilke points to the complexity of responses to images of women's bodies. This piece continues the theme underlying most of her works in which she is shown as both an object for viewing and as the agent of the objectification. Her goal, therefore, is to bring attention to depictions of women in popular culture, thus dismantling stereotypes about femininity and disrupting the pleasures of the male gaze.
Wilke's series received a mixed response. Many feminist critics in particular condemned Wilke for being narcissistic, and for confirming the conventional male gaze by using her own traditionally beautiful body as her subject. However, later interpretations see Wilke's work as openly questioning the representation of women. Joanna Frueh, for example, sees the Starification Object Series as evidence of Wilke "representing herself as a woman damaged by female embodiment in a culture that subordinates woman to man."
Wilke who also made independent sculptures from chewing gum, explained her use of this ordinary and everyday material: "I chose gum because it's the perfect metaphor for the American woman - chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece."