Exhibition FORUM GALLERY, New York

Exhibition FORUM GALLERY, New York

By Jessa Crispin

This show was originally going to be titled Disobedience. It was originally going to be titled a lot of things. When you’re trying to come up with a title, with a word that will explain your intention, your philosophy, your perspective, a lot of words get tossed up and out. “Disobedience” was floated, and then ushered out the door.

But for me, it lingers. Even though even the painting that originally carried that name has since been retitled “On Fire,” when I look at this collection of paintings, the word is still in my head. What does it mean to disobey? What does it mean to refer to these figures, none of them wilding out or throwing bombs or having a tantrum. Mostly they are looking. You are looking at them and they are looking at you. But as I looked, and as I was looked at, the word seemed to fit. Disobedient.

The women of the painting once called “Disobedience,” now titled “On Fire,” are holding tools. The hammer and the chisel are tools that can either be used for creation or destruction. We can look to their faces to tell us which they have in mind, but their faces are impassive. Their gazes are steady. Whatever their specific plans are, they are keeping them from us.

It is the determination in their faces that that tells us whatever act they are about to commit is not one of rebellion – quite often a passionate, attention-seeking gesture that is rarely thought through thoroughly – but disobedience.

To disobey is to know the rules but to reject them. It is to act by a code higher than that constructed by the state, by the economy, by traditions of etiquette. And anyway, etiquette is always merely an impossible list of behaviors those in power would like you to exhibit to show your deference and make them more comfortable with your intrusive and unwelcome presence. You eat with the correct fork not because mixing forks up would ruin the pleasure of the food on your plate but to show to your hosts, who decided for all of us which fork is the right fork, that you are willing to play by their arbitrary rules and not upset them in any way.

So yes. As I looked at the subjects at Hausner’s paintings, and as they looked back at me, the word that kept coming back to mind was “disobedience.”

Maybe it had something to do with the amount of space they are taking up on the canvas. They are quite pressed up against us, filling the air around us with their bodies. It is an indiscreet encounter.

The worlds they occupy are unknown to us, peeking out from the borders of the painting. A whole world exists just outside the frame, giving the paintings a suggestive and appealing pull.

Hausner does not meet her subjects where they dwell, creating biographical work that reveals the inner world of her models; she instead creates a mise en scene for them to inhabit and a character for them to embody. These are portraits, but they are portraits of characters, and the result is somewhere between the model and the character Hausner constructs for them. They are themselves, they are not themselves. They are pretending, they are dead serious.

There is an ambiguity to the scenes, and the mood of the paintings keeps shifting. We can tell these “Women in Trouble” are on a train, but their destination, their intent, remain unknowable. They are in trouble, that we know from the title, but are they heading toward it or away from it? Are they making their big escape or are they in transit to dangers that only we, the audience, can sense? The glass looks like water, becoming a visual representation of their danger and our dread. One woman is immersed within it, one is struggling to keep her head above it, the third with her arms up, waving or signaling. They do not see us. And while we see them, there is no intervention we could make.

In “Dancer in the Dark,” the women move along an urban environment, caught between two advertisements for competing (yet complementary) ideologies, one for Mao and the other for Disney. One woman supports the other, her arm around her. Is the woman laughing or grimacing? Is she being held or is she being dragged? We are witnesses to these figures only for a moment, how their situations resolve (or refuse to) all happens outside the frame.

Maybe it is this character work and Hausner’s previous life in the theater that has me thinking of films when I look at her work. I see “Emergency” and think of the Romanian Film Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days, and the last shot, as the woman who has just been through a tough day to procure an illegal abortion for her friend in communist Romania, having scrounged up the money and been forced to trade sex for medical care and having destroyed evidence of the crime, looks directly into the camera in one final, exhausted, shot.

I see “Agent Provocateur” and think of the films of Margarethe von Trotta, the German New Wave director, and her movie about a woman who robs a bank in order to help fund the nursery school that is on the brink of closing. Or her movie about a woman who loves and helps a member of the Red Army Faction and stands up against the police and media who harass and demonize her for it. I think of their gentle defiance and their certainty that what they are doing is right, even if the consequences are great.

Which means that I’m thinking about disobedience again, and these acts of care and support that have been rendered illegal, unacceptable, criminal.

Ever since the birth of the idea of the “male gaze,” feminist art criticism has been dominated by this idea of the gaze as oppressive. The act of looking at something turns a subject into an object, making the gaze an act of violence. With nothing but respect to Sartre and Mulvey, who worked out the first flashes of this idea, this idea never quite seemed right to me.

According to early Renaissance thought, the act of looking had the most profound effect on the viewer, not the subject. That which is taken into the eye, it was thought, is also taken into the brain and into the body, into the very core of being. To gaze, then, was to be transformed. To gaze upon the beloved is to become more like the beloved and take on their qualities. To gaze upon a monstrosity is to become a little monstrous yourself. And to hold eye contact, to be held in a mutual, reciprocal gaze, then one enters a contract or an agreement to transform each other and be bonded by a new acquired likeness.

This is a much more powerful theory of looking, one with much more potential for empathy, for change, and for connection. To see someone, to see their reality and their humanity, then becomes an act of compassion. Something is exchanged, not forcibly taken.

Hausner commented to me that working with live models is “very tiring.” “For a person sitting and being stared at, they are exhausted from being looked at intensely.” In so many of her works, the subject is not merely being looked at, they are actively looking back, at Hausner, at us. In each instance, we are, all of us, changed.

If we disobey this theory of the gaze as act of objectification, we free ourselves from it. We can see sight as a humane act, although that requires us to welcome the change rendered by sight. And freedom, ultimately, is what disobedience is for.

Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days, dir. Christian Mungiu
The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, dir. Margarethe von Trotta
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, dir. Margarethe von Trotta
Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Ioan P Couliano

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