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Body I Am at Alison Jacques Gallery, London

“I become my art, my art becomes me.”
- Hannah Wilke, 1975

Feminist thought was prevalent throughout the early 1970s – women were attempting to claim an artistic and sexual identity previously denied to them.  In the men’s club of the art world, Birgit Jürgenssen, Ana Mendieta, and Hannah Wilke all individually developed a strong female voice using their own body as a canvas.  Nude women have been artistic subjects since the beginning of time, but these three artists bring an assertive and challenging attitude that helped to re-evaluate how we, as a society, look at the female body.

Hannah Wilke is regarded as one of the most prominent American feminist artists working in a variety of media, including sculpture, video, photography, and performance.  Body I Am includes several early sculptures by Wilke that though made of terracotta appear to fold and unfold like flesh.  The vulval imagery would become a central component of her ouvre leading to works such as S.O.S. – Starification Object Series.  Also on display are several text-based works that use works by male contemporaries, includling Ed Ruscha and Ad Reinhardt, as a starting point.  In one piece, So Help Me Hannah: What Does This Represent/What Do You Represent (pink), Wilke creates a self-portrait wearing only a pair of heels that deconstructs the archetype of feminine objectivity and vanity.

Birgit Jürgenssen lived and worked in Vienna.  Some of the most beautiful and strange works in the exhibition are a series of Polaroid self-portraits.  Death masks and animal skulls obscure the artist’s face and reference stereotypes of Austrian folklore and the romanticising of the female corpse (such as Ophelia).  References to ritual and fetish permeate Jürgenssen’s work as seen in the self-portraits as well as in her sculptures and drawings.  Pregnancy Shoe is a sculpture that initially looks like a flesh-toned and soft high-heeled shoe, but upon closer examination it becomes apparent that instead of a buckle or other decoration, the top of the shoe swells with a fetal-like form.

The gallery space at Alison Jacques is divided into the large main gallery with a smaller side gallery.  This division of space is consistently used to full advantage, and with Body I Am includes two similar films by Ana Mendieta.  Mirage and Mirage 1 are set in an Iowa plain and have Mendieta seated amongst the grass and wildflowers.  What ought to be a calm image is filled with anxiety and climaxes with Mendieta stabbing a prosthetic pregnant belly revealing piles of feathers.  Mendieta’s work has a more violent tone than the work of the other two, and this is seen also in a series of self-portraits depicting the artist splattered with blood.

Body I Am successfully pulls together work from three different artists working in a wide variety of media into a cohesive and interesting exhibition.  Feminist art of the 1970s sometimes has a reputation for being combative and crass, but these women demonstrate that they are strong artists and voices, tackling difficult subject matter, with wit, assertiveness, and beauty.

Emily Sack

Body I Am, 22 January until 16 February, 16-18 Berners Street, London, W1T 3LN.  www.alisonjacquesgallery.com

Credits:

1. Untitled, 1978-1979. © The Estate of Birgit Jürgenssen. Courtesy Alison Jacques Gallery, London
2. Untitled, 1979. © The Estate of Birgit Jürgenssen. Courtesy Alison Jacques Gallery, London
3. Installation View. Courtesy the artist and Alison Jacques Gallery, London

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