To try and identify a ‘feminist’ and a ‘formalist’ in K8 Hardy and Ulrike Müller’s joint exhibition, ‘Feminism Formalism’, would miss the point. Despite the different appearances of their shows, the artists’ shared backgrounds, political agendas and interest in ambiguity made any division of content and form futile. In fact, breaking down such binary systems is the purpose of Hardy and Müller’s endeavour. As members of the New York-based collective LTTR (which has stood for anything from ‘Lesbians to the Rescue’ to ‘Lacan Teaches to Repeat’), the artists have edited a journal and organized events to act out a queer feminist ethics that rejects feminism’s exclusive identification with femininity, in favour of more plural and permeable notions of gender.
This interest in community-building based on shared personal experience manifested itself in the performance Hardy and Müller staged on the opening night. Walking through the crowd, they told a story about a woman who is increasingly failed by her body: shitting her pants on the subway, getting sick in a cab, tripping, stumbling and fainting – all the while straining to keep up appearances. The performance climaxed with the artists shouting: ‘Maybe you meditate, maybe you are straight, maybe you critical think [sic], but this is a performance – it’s how I communicate.’
Queering the familiar to open it up to novel ways of reading was also at the core of Hardy’s and Müller’s solo presentations. By adopting the vocabularies of fashion and Modernism, respectively, the artists challenged semiotic systems conventionally employed to represent the gender binary. At Galerie Sonja Junkers, K8 Hardy showed work from her ‘Position Series’ (2010), photographs resembling fashion snapshots in which the artist (or occasionally her sister) performs various social and cultural archetypes. We see her, for instance, holding a yoga pose; kneeling on a stool in garter belts, mimicking a cat; or swinging from a lamp post in bright red tights and a neon orange wig. From the stuff of other people’s closets, multiple personas are conjured, and all of them – or none of them – are K8 Hardy. Because the artist manipulates the images in the developing process, some photographs feature cuts or splits, and/or negative shadows of the artist’s body in different postures blocking the light during exposure. It appears as if the female form were haunting this masquerade of identities, reminding us that, while there is no innocent viewer, Hardy’s looks aren’t innocent either. The direction of the gaze was complicated by the presence of four mannequin busts on pedestals positioned in the entrance of the gallery. Painted, made up with wigs, glasses, bizarre jewellery and headgear, these ‘heads’ (2010) looked out the window, at Hardy’s photographs, and at an enamel work by Müller hung on the wall.
Müller’s show at Steinle Contemporary addressed the question of style and representation on an entirely different level. Her series ‘Vienna Paintings’ (2010), like the majority of works on display, could be described as abstraction with a twist – or, perhaps more tellingly, an itch. Carefully composed of minimal lines, circles, curves and rectangular forms, Müller’s work audibly converses with Modernist abstraction, yet it voices its own opinion. Where Modernism opted for purity and unambiguousness, Müller’s imagery deliberately puts ambivalence to work. In her 2007 series of drawings, ‘Paraphilia’, titled after the term for repeated sexual arousal by unconventional stimuli, the repeated encounter of round shapes and slightly irregular lines creates a play wherein abstraction flirts erotically with representation. ‘Heatwave’ (2010), a new group of paintings in baked enamel on steel, translates this innuendo of form into a medium formerly associated with sign production. Consequently, and in line with the requirements of the technical process, the artist’s compositions are clearer and simpler. Sensuality, here, is largely a matter of material quality. Complying with the smoothness and precious shine of the enamel’s surface, Müller takes the work to the next logical level. Also available at the show was a special edition of miniature wearable paintings – some of which played with the shape of the women’s symbol – opening yet another avenue in the dialogue between fashion and art, sexual politics and aesthetics, intellect and desire.