Men watch women. A woman ‘Watches#’ herself: Reflections in the works of Francesca Woodman and Michele Abeles from their recent London Exhibitions
Frequently I find concurrent art exhibitions communicate with each other; exiting Francesca Woodman: Zigzag, at Victoria Miro and entering Michele Abeles: Find out what happens when people start getting real at Sadie Coles feels as though passing into an adjoining room in the same house, the works have a palpable correlation.
Initially I decided that the obvious associations, beside the gender of the artists, their medium and subject, is their investigation of Lacan’s notion that ‘we are beings who are looked at in the spectacle of the world.’ But the power of the gaze is put into question, for it is the gaze of the camera which fixes knowledge. Exercised directly in every photograph, it terminates movement and freezes the female figures, it is not active and rampant, transforming these subjects into a form of stasis.
Francesca Woodman On Being An Angel, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976 Gelatin silver estate print. 8 x 10 in.
Within the works exhibited, Abeles ‘surveys the body as a vessel of style’, and Woodman presents herself as nude. Nakedness reveals itself, nudity is placed on display, and is itself a form of dress. Simultaneously invoked are issues relating not only to who is looking/photographing but the focus of their gaze. For Woodman it is true that women learn to see themselves photographically, in the guise of the photographic image, via their acute awareness of being seen. While Abeles maintains a clearly anonymous approach to her photographs, scrutinizing the female form from a zoomed in CCTV angle. Reliant on the perception that women present themselves to be seen.
Michele Abeles, Watches #69, 2014
Of course these images are themselves innocent, it is the viewer who supplies the femininity through their social and cultural knowledge, the voyeuristic aspect is applied in reading the image. I am aware of Abeles’ women status, as props, as mere shapes. And Woodman’s self-objectification. Both exhibitions present the photographs in ‘a round’, Woodman’s monochrome images, intimate in scale, large in number, appear to follow a narrative, to document self-exploration. Whereas Abeles’ poster size, full colour, ‘Kodak gloss’ prints, affirm each other, they’re corporate, consumerist and capable. For her the photographic settings are incidental, ubiquitous, but for Woodman the intimate spaces used are appropriate settings for reveries, vulnerability is exaggerated. Mechanisms of photography revel the mechanisms of culture, the ontology of the medium is as an index of reality.
Abeles images each appear in the guise of another particular image, perhaps just the one displayed to the left, or the one to the right, perhaps one from a magazine or a police image, taken with a stolen gaze, not the willed gaze of Woodman, presenting herself to be looked at, the photographic transactions are completely contradictory. While the photographic surfaces, though physically very similar, smooth and flat, are in fact disrupted by the imagery they contain. In the one exhibition seamless and glossy and in the other roughly disrupted, full of hard lines and monochromatic contrast. The photograph itself is fetishistic, the consciousness and the body within the image experience things disparately, the image may be a phantasm.
Francesca Woodman, From Angel Series, Rome Italy, 1977-78. Gelatin silver estate print 8 x 10 in.
The foregrounding and cropping of the images echo back and forth, female faces are rarely if ever seen in either of the exhibitions, body parts are reframed and refocused. The female is a sexed entity, an embodied subject, her bodily fragmentation hovers in a state of flux, between its previous entireness and its potential for becoming whole again. However, the notion of ‘woman’ resists singular definition, she is neither universal nor unified. The history of woman’s portrayal alludes to her being silent, still and statuesque, however in this case the fractured perception of Abeles’ and Woodman’s images can be constructed through imagination and speculation. Perhaps the wholeness that we seek is unattainable and ultimately the photographs possess an uncanny surrealism.
This group of images by Abeles actually depicts mothers and daughters shopping, their bodies portrayed as roaming display. What do they have that we covert? These everyday mannequins on the everyday runway, elevated to virtual, anonymous, invisible, celebrity status. The viewer, and we assume the artist, is simultaneously connected and detached from these figures. With palpable irony they’re mostly untitled Watches #. Watches sit on the wrists of these unsuspecting faceless models, and with this inscription the artist reminds the viewer that they themselves are posited on ‘watches’, for we are eternally reminded that men watch women and women watch themselves (As taught by John Berger).
Michele Abeles, Watches #75, 2014
Between the exhibitions there are recurring surreal visions and symbolic imagery, lines and angles strengthen the compositional motifs. Woodman’s own body appears numerously, often as a ghosted exposure, often reflected, mirrored, duplicated. Art history extensively discusses the obsessive documenting of female artists such as Woodman who explore fragmentary versions of themselves, as part of a quest for a unified self perception. In opposition to Abeles’ who I understand suggests we take these subjects as substitutions, understudies for our own figuration.
Bodily landscape formulated a preoccupation within both sets of images, the negative space stretching between the legs in Abeles’ images and the horizontal corporeal terrain which can be so clearly distinguished in Woodman’s work. Especially in the image below (Untitled, New York), the mountain rising up and the valley dipping down, the depth of this image is enhanced by the inclusion of the small imperfections in the composition the baggy bed sheet for example, completely at odds with the slick editorial arrangements created by Abeles who obliterates depth in favour of pure surface.
Francesca Woodman Untitled, New York 1979-80 Gelatin silver estate print. 8 x 10 in.
Both exhibitions deliberately compromise the point from which the images are viewed, especially as a conspicuous feminist theme involves the constant discussion of identity. Feminist art describes the production of art by women occupied by the notion that they are representing an alternative, as these two artists might.
A single female figure, however she is fragmented has no need of the voyeur, although he has need of her. A body alone turns out to be a threat, but femininity, which is outlined, is inherently fractured.
Written by Alison Humphrey
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