HAIRY EYEBALL In 1979, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive received a generous and somewhat unusual gift from the sister of the late German-born, pioneering American sculptor Eva Hesse: an assortment of small experimental works, made by Hesse herself, in materials such as latex, cloth, wax, fiberglass, wire mesh, and masking tape. What made these objects so unusual was their very indeterminacy. Should they be thought of as proper Hesse pieces? Were they studies for the large-scale sculptures that came to define Hesse’s output throughout the 1960s, or standalone technical experiments with different materials and processes? Alternately, were they intended to simply be as is — Hesse had given away similar objects as gifts and kept others arranged throughout her studio.
Hesse, who tragically died of a brain tumor in May 1970 at 34, left little to no indication. “Eva Hesse: Studiowork,” the stunner of an exhibit currently up at the Berkeley Art Museum, is then a homecoming of sorts for many of the pieces on display. Originally curated by Hesse scholar Briony Fer and Barry Rosen of the Hesse Estate for Edinburgh’s Fruit Market Gallery in 2009, this testament to the benefits of gutsy scholarship and cross-institutional support boldly embraces the precariousness of Hesse’s curious objects head-on and encourages us to see them on their own terms.
Entering the gallery space, you immediately encounter a group of previously unseen paper works arranged out in the open on a low plinth, like scattered autumn leaves. The forms vary in thicknesses and degrees of curvature: a worked shape of adhesive-enforced cheesecloth resembles a sunken pumpkin; a crinkled piece of tissue thin papier-mâché a bowl or shard of skull. The slightest breeze could send it flying. Hesse purposefully used fragile or impermanent substances — much to the bane of conservators — as a way to imbue her sculpture with a self-sustaining mutability, a means to continue the processes her initial crafting set into motion. In this sense, time is also one of her materials, as evinced by the caved-in latex bricks and box-like containers that have oxidized over the decades to a rich mahogany color.
The delicacy of the paper works is offset by the three large vitrines in the adjacent room each filled with a variety of objects that alternately read as: replicas of exotic coral or dried chili peppers; dirty jokes; rudimentary toy prototypes; or, more directly, obstinate lumps, variously crafted from latex, wax, painted wood and rubber tubing. The soft, round, protuberant forms of our bodies are evoked everywhere, and yet to call a fold of latex “vaginal” or a coil of tubing “intestinal” somehow feels inadequate to conveying the uncanny physicality of these pieces. It’s as if someone had made you a model of your own hand to hold.
“There is no wishing away the fact that it is hard to know what to make of these things because they are intractable in some way,” cautions Fer at the start of her warm and deeply perceptive catalog essay. Rather than function as a limitation, this interpretive resistance posed by the studio works invites us to un-see them as sculpture and to view Hesse’s careful making and undoing of material as posing a perhaps unnameable but immanently enriching possibility.
DOWN ON THE STREET
My first glimpse of Katy Grannan’s street photography was a startling color photo included in Fraenkel Gallery’s 30th anniversary show “Furthermore.” The picture was of an elderly woman wrapped in a mink stole, her face obscured by windswept gray hair as she walked down a sun-bleached street. When viewing it next to the other portraits in “Boulevard,” Grannan’s third solo show at Fraenkel, I realized it wasn’t so much the woman’s “odd” outward appearance that attracted the photographer, but the sense of purposefulness conveyed in her frozen stride.
It would be quite easy to dismiss the pictures in “Boulevard” on the grounds that Grannan is a latter-day Diane Arbus, inherently exploiting her “singular” subjects in the act of photographing them. Many appear to be regular denizens of the street — the homeless, addicts, hustlers — or are folks whose self-presentation defies established norms: an aging Marilyn Monroe impersonator, a trans woman with a 100-yard stare, an extremely hirsute biker-type.
Such a charge is unfair, and I suspect, likely the work of our own unease at looking at people who we would normally turn away from, or perhaps stare at furtively, if encountered on the street. Grannan, though, seems to want to give them their moment without overextending the encounter. Hence, a photograph. She doesn’t pose her subjects and none look directly at the camera. It’s as if, as with the fur-wrapped crone, she stopped them midstride, got her shot, and they went on their way. She respects their anonymity as well (each photo is titled after the city, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where it was taken). The discomfort in looking at Grannan’s work — she extends her gaze in The Believers, a related solo film installation at 1453 Valencia — partly comes from how technically accomplished and flawless it is: she shoots midday to capture her subject’s every wrinkle, blemish, and faded tattoo.
It feels off and disingenuous to call Grannan’s work “beautiful,” but it’s hard not to look and keep looking at the people in her neighborhood, some of whom are our neighbors as well.
EVA HESSE: STUDIOWORK
Through April 10, $5
Berkeley Art Museum
2626 Bancroft Way, Berk.
KATY GRANNAN: BOULEVARD
Through Feb. 19, free
49 Geary, SF