Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Eva Hesse Studiowork


Eva Hesse Studiowork
The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
5 August  – 25 October, 2009

The past few years have seen a surge of textile exhibitions about the creative process. Sketchbooks, prototypes and samples have all found their place in the gallery. While exhibiting unfinished work sounds interesting, in reality the results often disappoint. This exhibition of work by the German-born American artist Eva Hesse (1936-1970) is based on this popular premise, with the significant difference that it does make fascinating viewing.

Art Historian and co-curator Briony Fer’s handsome exhibition catalogue opens with the transcript of a conversation with Hesse’s friend and fellow artist Sol Lewitt in 1981 in which Lewitt notes which objects were “not a piece” and which were intended to be seen as finished works. Fer questions this type of black and white categorisation by renaming the objects exhibited under the democratic term “studiowork”. The gesture creates a space for each object to be considered as more than simply scale models and begins to reveal the importance of a number of works by Hesse that had been previously received little attention.

A textile sensibility is apparent throughout this exhibition, which may explain why Hesse is often celebrated in textile circles. Regardless of material (plaster, latex, painted wood, metal, fibreglass, rubber, plasterboard, cardboard, cotton, polyester resin, cheesecloth, wire, string and nets all make an appearance here), there is always the suggestion of flexibility. But a further benefit of viewing these modestly sized works is that many lack the saturated discolouration now present in Hesse’s larger works. While much has been made of fragility of the materials Hesse chose to explore and the brevity of her own life, the reality today is that much of her work has changed colour to an extent that can be distracting. The modest scale and variety of materials included in this exhibition means we are able to enjoy works that have escaped some of the inevitable damage seen in her large works.

The folding of skin is also apparent throughout, both the second skin of the textile membrane, but also the literal and vulnerable second skin of our selves. A series of works made from layered paper, for example, exhibited on a long table in the upper gallery, captures the translucency of porcelain. Even when working in metal and wood, such as the two small wall pieces from 1967 exhibited alone on the walls of the downstairs gallery, there is a honeycomb quality captured in hard materials. Curiously, it is now the materials that have not aged, such as the metal screen partially wrapped in cheesecloth shown on the catalogue cover or the black net bags in the upper gallery, that strike the eye as odd. But I wonder if it is a little unfair to read the brevity of Hesse’s life in all of these fragile works? However fragile they now look, they have now long outlived the artist.

The installation is typical of the venue, considered and concise. My only quibble may be the emptiness of the upper gallery. One of a series of eight large panels, Contingent (1969) may have benefited from viewing in this space, although perhaps it posed conservation concerns if sited in the brighter of the two galleries. Fer admits in the exhibition catalogue that the works on display are difficult to define: “There is no wishing away the fact that it is hard to know what to make of these things… Their awkwardness needs facing, not evading.” Awkwardness, if any exists, is not present in the objects themselves, but in the traditional categories they have previously been forced to occupy. Fer has removed these boundaries to reveal that Hesse’s process was not about modest iterations in the creative journey, but huge experimental leaps made in one tragically brief career.

Camden Arts Centre, London (11 December – 7 March, 2010)
Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona (13 May – 1 August, 2010)
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (10 September, 2010 – 2 January 2011)
University of California, Berkley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (26 January – 24 April, 2011)

Selvedge Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2009: 91)