The blurb in the New Yorker calls Louise Bourgeois’ latest show at Cheim and Read a coda to the exhibition conceived by the Tate Modern, which traveled to Europe and the Guggenheim, New York. For me, the series of haunting sculptures and gouaches were a continuation of my experience of the larger retrospective. However, Bourgeois’ work has a tendency to emphasize isolation, usually of the human condition, but it is an isolation echoed in sculptures and two dimensional works themselves. Even for the uninitiated, the works in Echo are moving and intriguing, and need no prior knowledge of Bourgeois' life-long concerns.
The most compelling room of the exhibition displays six pieces of old clothing that have been stretched, sewn, folded and draped before being cast in bronze and then painted white. Each occupies its own concrete square on the floor, and where the Personages of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Quarantania (1947-53), were grouped into families, the vertical forms of Echo are isolated, alone, cold, haunted. The bronzes are not immediately recognizeable as clothes, and at first glance they are abstract, anthropomorphous forms, resembling the heavy, sagging, stretched and distended vaginas, wombs, and breasts of old women. In this these eerie forms continue Bourgeois' lifelong obsession with the female body, and simultaneously, its representation in the fabric of the domestic sphere – and she reiterates this domesticity in the sewing, knitting and hewing of the material. In typical Bourgeois style, the works are filled with impossibilities and contradictions: the clothes — sweaters and pants — do not fall limp without the body to give them form, but rather, they stand upright, becoming the body that no longer inhabits them. And so, aged body parts and organs take the vertical form we conventionally associate with the masculine. Some of them could even be mistaken for penises.
The contradictions of the cast clothes continue in another room of a series of red gouaches on paper. The paintings might be abstract, but they also represent red breasts leaking red blood. No longer is the breast nurturing or loving, an icon of symbiosis between mother and child. But in Bourgeois’ aged world, it is violent, bleeding, poisonous, and isolated against their white background, in a white frame. Just like the body parts of the sculptures, we find body parts that no longer function as they were made to. Similarly, the misshaped breasts echo Bourgeois’ life long interest in motherhood, and particularly, her preoccupation with fertility and nurturing as a double-edged sword.
Images: ECHO IV (2007); Installation view. Courtesy Cheim and Read.