ALEXIS HUNTER

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Dialogue held between the Artist Alexis Hunter and Psychologist Madelyn Freeman on 18th February 1999
HUNTER

 

MF: With reference to the photographic series of hands produced by you early in the 1970s', how did you arrive at sequencing these images?

AH: I wanted to reach a wider audience with quite complex theoretical ideas. To achieve this the work had to be shown in narrative form so the imagery could be `read' and understood in the way cartoons, film, mural or religious paintings are understood.

MF: What can you recall as regards story line? Did the series of movements represent a specific concept?

AH: The hands portrayed a ritualistic performance that led to towards a positive conclusion in the last frame of the sequence. The viewer was positioned into the same line of vision as the model to engage with her experiences as portrayed and invited to identify with her way of thinking. A male viewer, too, could become engaged with a female `persona' momentarily and experience her way of thinking and perceiving.

ME Did this create for you, as an artist, a medium or context which developed your own capacity for self-reflection whilst creating the work and thinking about its narrative?

AH: I was making social and political art and exploring my understanding of the complex issues arising in the psychology of both sexes at that time, because of changes in the sexual and economic status of women. The work also references the changes to my own psychology in the making of the work. I did this, apart from observing other people and forming conclusions, by documenting my personal experiences, such as a bloody fight, physical accidents, my own phobias and power plays within emotional relationships. Because of the investigations of the political role of the photograph and `truth' at the time in the writings of John Berger2 and conceptual artists, it seemed important to work with reality rather than `make up' the images. So inevitably, as my own reality evolved through the work the imagery became more complex: in the series on romantic desire the images moved from the hands being pricked by a thorn of a rose3, to the burying of the seeds of a destroyed flower under the ashes of a letters... which covered the gamut of emotions: from a symbol of masochistic dependence to emotional growth through painful experience.

MF: Was something' hermetic' or deeply `internal' happening to you at this stage? Do you recall any such thoughts and feelings?

AH: Working in a detached way, insofar as the hands were those of a `fictionalised' woman and so not my own I still had a personal interest in what was discovered intuitively, by acting out the persona of an unliberated woman, but one who had insight into liberation by the last frame of the sequence. It swept out the vestiges of patriarchy in my own mind and made me realise how deeply set our core beliefs were set in our imagination ... to be rescued from ourselves, by a masculine `other', especially on an economic level. I started to suspect even my stance as a feminist as this work took seven years and I derived no income from it. I also portrayed hands that were identified with different social classes and ages of women and made a few series of male hands. One of the journeys was to discover the meaning of being a female who was not defined by male opinion, i.e. being `more' or `less' female.

MF: This is a very interesting aspect of your work and brings to mind-to-mind Jung's anima/animus theories in which he postulates that a representational model of `contra sexual' identities, or a composite blueprint of the opposite sex already exists in us and is imbedded at birth. In this way it probably serves a biological purpose, he suggested, for us to contain `a priori' knowledge of the opposite sex.

AH: I needed to separate the internal identity between male and female, which also meant not only looking at the world as a woman who was being observed through the eyes of a man. This is a very difficult separation to achieve and it meant working not only as a `female artist' but also as an artist expressing female consciousness. I think the creative force comes out of a primary libido rather than being situated only in social discourse.

MF: Did you have to find a `neutral' space in order to allow yourself to be present both in body and mind without entanglement in predetermined roles or definitions?

AH: Yes, that neutral space which can enable us to take in impressions directly without having to filter them through `male' or `female'. In any event by 19811 had started to paint Greek mythological archetypes such as the Harpy, the Witch and the Goddess. By re - imagining females who previously were defined as foolish, spiteful or envious, into independent pleasure - seeking females, they were removed from the boundaries based on old patriarchal projections and I could redefine what we might look like to ourselves.

ME In regard to the photographic series of hands did the rage and hostility erupting against you in the press at that time re- focus your thoughts and energies about what you were doing?

AH: It surprised me to see just how upset people were about the imagery in the sequences. They were, after all, made with a sense of irony, which was not apparent to British critics then. Lucy Lippard, the American writer, said that she could see the black humour behind the content, but thought I was walking `...too near the edge' in order to make the work 6, especially after producing a series about being attacked late at night. I was, after all, a conceptual artist and certainly not the only artist using real life issues in artworks so perhaps something else was occurring.

MF: What were you tapping into in the public mood and perception of your work?

AH: It must have been very disturbing for men to be coerced into looking through the eyes of a woman. Perhaps men thought about the kind of things they might wish to achieve if they were female - like acts of castration - this imagery was not in my work but perhaps superimposed on it by releasing deeply unconscious fears in men. My imagery opened up a Pandora's Box of disturbing pathological fear of women. This reaction surprised and disappointed me, not understanding the real source of the animosity directed at the work by male critics.

NW: Were you 'scapegoated' since, as you know, primitive animalistic drives can emerge from the limbic or stem region in the brain, which evolved initially as survival mechanisms from our earliest primordial beginnings. Internal conflicts it is suggested get `discharged' onto others which is a well - documented state of mind, known psychologically as `projection.'

AH: Yes, I heard talk of ` The Feminist Mafia', and some people were frightened to meet me as if I was going to judge them in some way or was able to cast spells and slice them up with razor blades. But something else was happening: it is one thing to speak of the unconscious, as in `stream of consciousness' writing, or what the Surrealists called `Automatic Writing'- or painting from the unconscious - but it is another matter in reality to become that unconscious, which was happening to me because of the work -method of intuitive conceptualisation. Working from the unconscious for years you eventually leave ordinary life behind and have no pleasure it. Virginia Woolf, I suspect, could not come out of her creative unconscious, and so weighted her pockets down with stones and walked into a river and drowned. Sarah Lucas's work has an atmosphere of the deep feminine unconscious about it, but in today's art world she can be seen as an artist without the `only female' label and she has a tomboy persona, which might protect her.

I always started a sequence with a subconsciously intuitive, personal image, thinking out the concept only later, but by using myself as a vessel or cipher I depleted my inner resources and eventually ran out of the psychic energy that was needed to subsidise the work.

MF:... with no apparent confirmation too as regards the actual heroics involved of delving into the collective mindset in order to encourage society to question, explain, redefine and create more reality based feminine identities, and in the fullness of time contribute to women's independence and to liberation from fixed role models and belief systems.

AH: Emerging from the underworld I was taken up by a Dealer Gallery and although the sequences had started to sell, I knew that I could not work like that again. Having achieved the reputation of a notorious Radical Feminist, I had nothing to lose by exploring the fear of the Revenging Goddess intellectually in painting and make work that was truly feminine.

MF: And in doing I imagine that you also utilised these hostile projections successfully and created images of primal female power.

AH: Yes, the paintings were well received and also in time became a metaphor for feminism itself, like the image Considering Theory which was used on the cover of the Feminist Dictionary.

1 Approaches to Fear 1974 to 1978, narrative sequences made from photographs or Xeroxes. 2 Ways of Seeing 1974 John Berger

3 He Loves Me... 1976, colour Xerox

4 Approach to Fear 1: 1977 Collection: Zurich Museum of Contemporary Art, Switzerland 5 Approach to Fear: Effeminacy: maintenance 1976, Collection New Hall, Cambridge, UK