First, an etymological complaint:
We have yet to designate a word for female genitalia that falls squarely between the crass (pussy) and the clinical (vagina, “female genitalia”). We’ve got the upper part covered. Somewhere between tits and breasts, you have your casual, everyday boob (oh shoot, I spilled mustard on my boob [or “bewb” if typing through social media]).
Hannah Wilke’s sculptures of abstracted forms resembling a cootch oscillate visually between those two poles. They have gestural, almost happenstance quality, like a strip of folded clay leftover from a potter’s wheel that just so happens to look like a poon-tang. They are neither shirking from their own hoo-ha-ness nor implicating the viewer via a sense of discomfort that can be channelled into guilt, and ultimately disdain. Feminist art doesn’t have a mandate to make you feel bad, but it often does. It’s surprising that nearly forty years after these ceramic moose knuckles were made, the problem they so humbly and skillfully represent has yet to be solved or even seriously addressed on a more popular level of discourse (tampon jokes in sitcoms don’t count).
The politics of performance and body art are easily circumscribed by how pleasing the artist's body is to look at, and while those very perimeters are often the subject of the whole thing, they can also distract from themselves. The early drawings and sculptures presented here offer more food for thought than some of Wilke’s later video work. The deft charcoal sketches are just abstracted enough to—perhaps in a more neutral context—make you wonder if that’s really a tuna taco you’re seeing, or if maybe you’re just seeing what you want to see. But why would anybody want to see that?
Hannah Wilke, Untitled (HW1212), 1960-1970, White unpainted ceramic with rough surface, 7 x 8 x 10”; Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim
I may be overly impressed with the quietude of work that is also unmitigatingly sexual, given that I had just viewed, in a gallery across the street, a very large, very confrontational daguerreotype of a bearded clam (sans beard, of course) taken by a man (of course) that managed to be both pornographic and sexless. It had the formidability of an Ansel Adams rock formation with none of the beauty and somehow even less humanity. It wasn’t merely that I found it gross, but that the artist seemed to find it so.
It’s hard to talk about, and my mind’s juxtaposition of such disparate representations of the snatch offer little insight about where we’ve come in terms of dialogue about female bodies. Did Wilke’s sculptures seem witty and innocuous to her contemporaries? Is the brutal daguerreotype a decline in the dialogue, or a response to a higher threshold for images of cooters? Why are we still talking about this?
The eyes are the gateway to the soul. The meat curtains are the gateway to an arena of intense legislative debate, fueled on both sides by political and religious concerns, that is ultimately being played out by parties who possess no cha-chas. It’s hard to talk about.
I don’t think we have the right words.
(Image on top right: Hannah Wilke, Stanley Landsman, 1966 , pastel, graphite and photographs on paper, 18" x 24", 22" x 27 1/2" (fr); Courtesy of Gallery Paule Anglim)