Reviews

A Near Miss with Zombie Formalism in the Work of Hannah Whitaker

By Brad Feuerhelm on March 9, 2015

Hannah Whitaker’s “Peer to Peer” with Morel books could easily be subsumed into the category of “zombie formalism” with its easy abstraction and playful dialogue of purist abstraction and aesthetic formal nuances.

By Brad Feuerhelm, ASX, March 2015

Hannah Whitaker’s “Peer to Peer” with Morel books could easily be subsumed into the category of “zombie formalism” with its easy and playful dialogue of purist abstraction and aesthetic formal nuances over that of criticality. The difference, which leads her work out of this conundrum ,much like Jessica Eaton’s work, is the emphasis on the history of painting.

Though sort of slow regurgitation of works, from Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”, to paintings by Malevich, Braque, and Albers; the works do not pre-supose a grand order of critical inquiry. What I mean to say is that they do borrow quite heavily from formalism, but tend to maneuver past this by contemplating the history of Twentieth Century art without reference points that are too obtuse or trying too hard to be conceptual. This, ironically, is the same tactic that posed a real threat to modernist photography in the early twentieth century. Photographers like Arnold Genthe, early Edward Weston and most notoriously, William Mortensen used painting’s techniques and aesthetics and co-opted their attitude into that of photographic practice. One need only look into the pages of Camera Craft to see vociferous exchanges between Beaumont Newhall, Ansel Adams, and the “mature” Edward Weston with William Mortensen, notably. It was a terse dialogue about why photography should or should not be indebted to painting’s history over that of the art of the photographic medium itself. The end of this result was that Mortensen was literally exiled from the historiography of photography until very recently.
PEER to PEER jpeg pages95 (Custom)

@ Hannah Whitaker, courtesy of Morel Books

PEER to PEER jpeg pages93 (Custom)

@ Hannah Whitaker, courtesy of Morel Books

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One need only look into the pages of Camera Craft to see vociferous exchanges between Beaumont Newhall, Ansel Adams, and the “mature” Edward Weston with William Mortensen, notably. It was a terse dialogue about why photography should or should not be indebted to painting’s history over that of the art of the photographic medium itself.

In Whitaker’s work, one senses that her interest does indeed lie in the history of painting and that the formal structure. Here is a sincere investigation into abstraction and non-representation, mostly. Many of these abstractions are made in-camera and the modern grid over which she does eventually place her bodies/sitters beneath, becomes and interesting obfuscation. This adds quite a bit of depth to the idea of the portrait or nude. She also re-arranges the body or face in such a way as to create a new and perhaps more grotesque overture of the sitter’s original countenance. The bodies/sitters become fragmentary and illusionary. They are skillfully crafted and exhibit a pictorial plane somewhat bereft of heavy critical posturing. As with the arguments over pictorialism and modernism, the viewer is left to decide whether or not that is a bad thing. It is tread ground that it is relevant today. It is also being covered by Whitaker’s contemporaries Sam Falls, Lucas Blalock (what’s up with the fucking hot dog in photography these days, really), and of course Jessica Eaton, whose “Cubes for Albers “ probably bears the closest resemblance to the trends in Whitaker’s work. In all, its not work I have a lot to say about, but I do not decry its aesthetic value over that of intellectualism, nor will I abide by the notion that the work is overtly conceptual. They are pictures for pictures sake, indebted to art history.

Hannah Whitaker
“Peer to Peer”
Morel Books

(All rights reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Hannah Whitaker.)

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