Artillery, January 2011
A "spectre" is a form without substantive shape, body or physical influence, yet its presence is verifiable as the space it "occupies" is often charged with energy, electrical impulse, and sometimes the vaguest trace of light. Spectres are by their very nature ineffable and cannot be defined literally. The nineteen loosely representational oil paintings that comprise Eva Hesse' recent exhibition of "spectres" at the Armand Hammer Museum could be a strange and magical memorial describing the artist's own personal hauntings, willfully discordant moments of deep personal recollection. Luanne McKinnon, who organized this exhibition, describes Hesse' working process as "Looking inwardly and outwardly and with paint as her guide, she began to paint herself out and away and aheadŠThe procession of paintings under examination here represents a rupture that, once completed (not as a formal solution but rather as a psychological denouement), settled back into solving the problems presented in abstraction, eventually evolving into the constructions that Hesse is lauded for." McKinnon's description of Hesse' process presumes an interiority that at some point breaks apart into the broader exterior of the artist's life, and each of the paintings in this exhibition attest to this complicated and necessary progression.
The fact Hesse did not title any of these small paintings is further testament to the artist's process, the constant mitigation of a deeper inward experience with the outward appearance of that experience, without attributing to it any literal meaning; this was the means by which Hesse enhanced and refined her own personal connection to the world. Ultimately, anything that is purely visual cannot be categorized or easily defined, but must be allowed to swell and deflate in its own time and space. Most of the paintings included here are figurative, and Hesse seems to privilege the isolation of the figure even among multiple figures in a single picture-plane. There is a deepening sense of sadness and anxiety that speaks directly to the artist's need to wrest these images from herself, drawing them out into the open where they might be wrangled, if not tamed entirely. Certain works illustrate this sense of isolation more profoundly as a single figure seems nearly to cling to the edge of the frame, its body an amorphous mass of dull, muted color. Neither do any of these faces betray a singular human vision or emotional response. Whatever it is they've sacrificed is nonnegotiable, and each tight, eyeless gaze reflects this. In one painting, the figure's face fills the frame entirely, the deep reds, oranges and yellows creating what appears to be an oddly compelling, if not frightening mask. Again, the eyes reveal nothing but emptiness and a vague, unsettling vulnerability.
Still other images are even less recognizable and appear almost like strange gargoyles or alien-like apparitions. These images in particular could be seen to be self portraits of the artist, however their singularity, as with the images containing multiple figures, can only be understood only through isolation. Ultimately, they remain alone and apart even as they stand together. Movement is also central to these images, and while many of the larger self-portraits appear quietly solitary, there is a distinct undercurrent of violence and pathos here, a kind of brimming obsessive energy on the verge of erupting. The large heads in particular illustrate this tension. The faces appear to be coming at us from below, rising up as if from some dark forbidden internal lair. Again, the eyes gaze out, unformed and without pupils, further emphasizing the sense of loss. In one image a little girl with a bow in her hair stares out at us, yet her eyes rest on nothing in particular, extending their focus outward, yet drawn from a deeply private internal world.
Hesse proffers these darkly luminous "spectres" up to us as a means of self-scrutiny, but also, and even more importantly, as a point of mediation between herself and her audience, creating a strange connective tissue between the inside and outside worlds, wherein we can follow her down, only to rise up again.