wed 07/12/2016

Bruce Nauman: Mindfuck / Eva Hesse 1965, Hauser & Wirth, London | reviews, news & interviews

Bruce Nauman: Mindfuck / Eva Hesse 1965, Hauser & Wirth, London

Bruce Nauman: Mindfuck / Eva Hesse 1965, Hauser & Wirth, London

Nauman's mind-body split, and a period of feverish change for Hesse

Eva Hesse, 'Oomamaboomba', May 1965Courtesy Hauser & Wirth; Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich

Bruce Nauman is a great synthesizer of art forms, melding the language games of conceptual art with the physicality of post-minimalist sculpture and performance art. Where the minimalists duplicated the serial and repetitive industrial world around them, Nauman’s use of repetition and order have a linguistic basis. Inculcation, jokes, paradoxes and puns form the logic of much of Nauman’s work and these games grew out of his choreographed minimalist performances. Given this trajectory, the psychoanalytical angle taken in this exhibtion feels grafted on.

Filling one of Hauser & Wirth’s huge Savile Row spaces, this small survey of Nauman’s work, called Mindfuck, seeks to “highlight the enduring mind-body split in Nauman’s work” and takes a psychoanalytical approach to its meaning. What we really have here is a giant of post-war art who, true to form, forces us to reimagine what our criteria of judgement could be. Meaning itself is the subject of Nauman’s work.

The first structure we’re confronted with is the massive Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallelogram, 1971 (pictured right): two narrow, tapering green-lit passageways lead to a pallid green-lit room. This environment bonds the perceptual and the physical though its optical trickery in the use of light. It supposedly represents the body-focused aspect of Nauman’s work, but there’s a cerebral element too; there’s no attempt to disguise the structure of the freestanding work. To walk around the wooden walls gives the work a knowing transparency.

We squeeze through the other side to be confronted with Sex and Death / Double “69”,1985, a sequence of multi-coloured neon figures continually alternating in oral copulation, one of three neon works which blink frantically in the semi-darkness. Meanwhile, Carousel (Stainless Steel Version), 1988, pulls the cast remains of animals around in a wide orbit. A dog rears with its head thrown back and its front paws aloft off the ground, perpetually reluctant yet dead. Two pieces of carcass float by, one with “1/2 Deer” scrawled on its cleaved surface. Robert Hughes famously called Nauman “dumb”, and there’s certainly something ineffable about this absurd parade of fragmented life. This is horror without the horror, like a  phantasmagoria without light. Like the green room, it appears more dreadful for being so transparent, the central motor as much emphasised as the animal remains it carries.

Good Boy, Bad Boy, 1986-87, bears the same name as his earlier seminal video work and spells out the 100 phrases of its script in coloured neon lights. The phrases are repetitious in the manner of a language lesson: “I LOVE, YOU LOVE, THIS IS LOVE. I PAY, YOU PAY, THIS IS PAYMENT” and so on, the mundane mixed with the scatological. Sequentially the words are lit to form random combinations in different colours. The phrases light up in sets and at one point all at once, throwing a spectrum of light across the darkened gallery. In its melding of language, instruction, repetition and light, it is the most compelling of the works in the show, and has a raw, visceral power which the deadpan jokes of the other neons don’t match. It shares much in common with the parallelogram and the carousel: it’s all there to see, its logic is simple, open and exposed. It’s brutal.

Eva Hesse overleaf

Next door is Eva Hesse 1965, a fascinating, museum-class show which centres on the pivotal year in the development of the German-born American sculptor's work. In 1964 Hesse and her husband, Tom Doyle, took up a residency in Kettwig an der Ruhr, Germany, in an abandoned textile factory. Among the scraps of machinery and materials, Hesse began to explore new textures and forms and this show forensically catalogues her artistic development during this crucial period.

Eva Hesse, An Ear in a Pond, 1965The first four untitled paintings have a mural-like quality. They are compartmentalised into zones bearing sometimes interconnected objects that are neither figurative nor fully abstract. Resembling body parts, vessels, or tools, they feel part-realised and suspended on the surface in a state of becoming. The work echoes the senseless anthropomorphic machines of Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. Sometimes sticking materials to her surfaces, mostly woven cords to add texture that are then painted over, the colour scheme is of whites, greys and a distinctive yolk with black delineation.

The drawings mine a similar vein of imagery, but the variegated daubs are replaced by clean, confident lines. Some drawings bear the arrows of instruction books and flow diagrams.

Her constructions produced from scavenges in the factory evoke toys, cocoons and stamens. One work, Eighter from Decatur, 1965, bears a Ferris wheel-like structure attached to its bottom right corner. Waves made from yolk-coloured rope radiate from its centre. It’s an off-kilter and homespun piece of work, and it’s too easy to think of Hesse as a “feminine minimalist”. There’s a different kind of aesthetic sensibility here, something unique. A cord dangles from An Ear in a Pond, April 1965 (pictured above), and wavers in the breeze from the front door of the gallery. It is made to feel incomplete; the work is, to put it metaphorically, left hanging. That is what is most radical and distinguished about Hesse’s work: her ability to sustain that sense that things haven't quite slotted together. Like the forms in the paintings and drawings, these three-dimensional objects are partial and irresolute.  

Included in the show are later “mature” sculptures (Hesse sadly died young, in 1970, aged 34). These are geometric but also soft and corporeal. Sans II, 1968, is a unit of open boxes in a textured, translucent resin; it looks like the scab of a Donald Judd sculpture. But it’s more open-ended than that: it leaves you with an uneasy feeling of wanting that a Judd would satisfy. As you progress, it’s wonderful to see the forms clarify while the underlying visual and poetic ideas bloom.

It’s wonderful to see the forms clarify while the underlying visual and poetic ideas bloom

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