Archive for May, 2011

Housekeeping: Hysterical

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011


From ArtReview:

Hysteria, Laughter and a Sense of Seriousness
Karma International and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zürich

I can’t quite remember the exact year of my feminism-charged adolescence that I first read about classical-era definitions and diagnosis of hysteria, but I do remember imagining the sensation of my uterus, untethered as a balloon, floating freely around my body. If I wasn’t feeling hysterical before, I was certainly feeling it now. Even then, though, the idea of hysteria seemed to my burgeoning consciousness a useful metaphor, made unconsciously manifest in the feminist ‘rants’ that filled my teenage ‘zines. In Elisabeth Bronfen’s landmark book The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and Its Discontents (1998), she notes that 1970s-era feminist thinkers began investigating hysteria to discuss the ‘exclusion of feminine subjectivity inherent in patriarchal subculture’. That that subculture went (and goes) beyond the domestic realm is a given: Bronfen’s thesis suggests reading the self-performance of hysteria as a language that enables the subject to voice personal and cultural dissatisfaction.

The performance of such seismic dissatisfaction was the platform for “Hysteria, Laughter and a Sense of Seriousness”, a sprawling show of contemporary painting that recently took over two galleries in Zürich. That all the painters were women, and that many of their works had a self-conscious stab of domestic delirium about them, underlined Bronfen’s point that ‘[W]ith the birth of the bourgeois family, hysteria bloomed as the language within which the daughter could articulate her discontent.’ But the discontent was not just personal but art-historical as well. The problem of painting itself was the dominant subtext, either manifesting itself in seriously ‘Bad Painting’ taken to the max (Nicole Eisenman’s grotesquely textured puff-paint-like portraits, Ann Craven’s curious soft-focus birds) or aggressive sexual posturing: ‘You can be sure that my fingers are aching but not from drawing and painting’, reads the scribbled text on one of Elke Krystufek’s unsettling pencil-on-paper self-portraits (I definitely still get, 1996).

The macho politik coursing through the painting tradition makes the medium ripe for come-ons like Krystufek’s (whose wide-eyed gaze proves prescient of the self-exploitation of young women peering out all over the Internet), but other work steered clear of such vulnerability. Monika Baer’s excellent abstract paintings hew closer to bathos than pathos: two recent canvases feature pale, denim-blue-like grounds against which a painted, breast-like form appears like an outrageous brooch. Dawn Mellor’s Glenn Close (2010), meanwhile, is a gory take on the actress infamous for her delineation of the ur-hysterical woman in Fatal Attraction, the 1986 film viewed as a camp classic or as a symbol of Hollywood misogyny run rampant. Here, as in that film, the line between camp and exploitation is thin, though some artists sidestep it altogether. Lucy Stein’s lyrical and funny paintings on canvas and paper offer sex sans anxiety, while Ida Ekblad’s kaleidoscopic abstractions casually take male modernists like Asger Jorn as their birthright.

It is interesting that the show’s organisers, Mareike Dittmer and Raphael Gygax, grounded their discussion of hysteria in painting, as perhaps the most contemporaneous art movement to mine this idea is the hyper, gender-tasking, colour-soaked videos of artists like Shana Moulton and Ryan Trecartin (whom Gygax has tellingly featured at the Migros Museum, where he is a curator). But that was this incisive and formally inclusive exhibition’s strength: it investigated painting without ignoring its record of discord, while simultaneously suggesting the myriad ways in which women and queer artists are stoking hysteria-related concerns in other mediums. The uterus is still floating, it seems.

—Quinn Latimer