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Women's hand clean, get dirty. It's a small world says one of Barbara Kruger's recent photo-works, But not if you have to clean it. The Marxist's Wife, says an Alexis Hunter work, still does the housework. Dirty women's hands wrote Alexa Johnston, discussing Taboo-Demystify, 'disturbs deep-seated expectations of woman's physical and moral cleanliness'.
In other works, women's hands finger grease nipples, get rubbed with ointment, or get covered in blood. Razors, pencil sharpeners, cut them, cats scratch, thorns prick, so that blood flows in several of these sequences. Women's hands smear paint over the image of a man with a tumescent cock, they write messages in menstrual blood. These photographs depict the hands of someone already a painter. One whose medium is matter which flows from or is rejected by the body, whose marks make us want to ask, with Julia Kristeva:'Why does corporeal waste, menstrual blood and excrement, or everything that is assimilated to them, from nail parings to decay, represent - like a metaphor that would have become incarnate - the objective frailty of the symbolic order?' They are the marks of a woman whose art, with its wit, anger, and sensuality, targets the objective frailty of sexual identity and gender definition in a male dominated culture. Blood to her connotes pain and violence, but also 'the inevitable cycle of life/death, birth/rebirth', and certainly not pollution or filth. Hand, eye and ear - Hunter's photo-narratives appeal to all three, but with results which make up a strange mix. The titles are direct, snappy. They speak of serious issues, but in voice which would like to parody advertising language.
The titles to Approaches to Fear series (1976-1978) suggests questions put (to a woman) and answers supplied by the artist (also a woman). For instance, Approach to Fear 1: (Question: are you a victim of ) Violence(?).... (Answer: Identify with Aggressor. Or, Approach to Fear XIII: (Question:) Pain (?)....(Answer:) Destruction of Cause. Or Approach to Fear XVII: (Question:) Masculization of Society (?)... (Answer:) Exorcise.
The eye, by contrast is presented with a sequences of images freeze-framing an imaginary moving picture, and imparting to it an almost palpable slowness. An anatomy of an action; an action which feels as if it is at once further from and closer to hand than we imagine it originally to have been. Hunter's photographs want to picture touch. As the skin of a finger, or of a hand, comes into contact with some object, it conceals from sight the touched surfaces. Grease or blood seem then an expression (literally) of those surfaces, of their meeting, and the sign or trace of the touch and its progress.
However, photography in itself offers little to the touch and everything to the eye. So the endlessly repeated photographs of hands repeatedly returned Hunter to a contradiction her concept of the photo-narrative had embraced from the start. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she resumed painting in part because she missed the physical aspect, its kinetic and tactile satisfactions. On the other hand, a full response to these works relies on this contradiction, on the interplay of sight and touch, distance and closeness, that makes it up.
The hand in Hunter's works is erotic. What it seeks to touch is another body, whether it is the form of an image, or a piece of machinery, whether that body is its own or another's, whether it is a man, woman or beast. The fingers which, in Pain-Solace, rub the foot inside the shoe, release it from bondage, massage its big toe, caress it do day: no more pain from these ridiculous disco shoes, no more playing narcissist just to please the male gaze. But that is not all. They speak as well of the erotic pleasure to be found in solace, and how pain is somehow a prelude to it. This they can say because of the 'slowness' of the images - the woman doesnÍt throw her shoes off, not at all. Because the touch is secret, hidden. And most of all because the camera insinuates that this dismembered hand, or foot, might as well be the viewers own - she could be taking the photograph with her free hand. It's as though it were wired to a body of desire very like our own. And we were drawn to the foot as an eroticised object, a fetish. But wait up. I almost forgot myself; when I say we, I really mean she.
Of all Hunter's photo-narratives, Gender Confusion: Incubus/Succubus (1978) seems the most disconcerting. Mice are vermin. Carriers of filth and disease. To find one in the bed! For it to crawl across her naked thighs, its whiskers tickling the skin, for it to nose around her nooks and crannies, looking for its hole. What nightmarish thoughts! How the sallow, jaundiced cast of colour xerox and those ambiguous body closeups induce hallucination! The mouse is an Incubus, a male demon who tries to have sexual intercourse with women while they are asleep. He's a figure of a nightmare. Hunter has a certain fondness for him, however, for he appears in Landscape Incubus (1986) and more notably in Conflicts of the Psyche - The Struggle Between Ambition and Desire (1984) where the sleeping woman resists him. In actual fact, the figure in Gender Confusion seems neither afraid nor threatened by the demon-mouse; to the contrary, she plays with him, tweaks his tail, as though he were a pet, a sexual toy, another fetish. Enter the Succubus, its female counterpart, the cat. Looking for an unsuspecting male to violate. The narrative concludes with the woman considering whether or not to let it kill and eat the Incubus. Since she's in control there is no real confusion. Hunter's photo-narratives seem to be about, among other things, how to maintain an erotic sexual identity that is more than a construction of male desire and fear, that must be able to deflect both to be sure of itself.
Alexa M Johnston,
Signs of the Times: Alexis Hunter's Photo-narratives, In Fears/Dreams/Desires,
Auckland City Art Gallery, 1989.