Nadia Hebson’s solo exhibition at Drop City – a recently launched roaming space set up by a collective of artists and curators, including Hebson herself – continued the artist’s project of ‘subjective biography’. This is Hebson’s term for considering her own artistic process through the work of other women artists – all painters to date – who exist on the margins of art history. Titled ‘Can you forgive her?’, the show comprised a body of work – including sculpture, objects, paintings and photocopied photographs – produced in response to paintings by US artist Christina Ramberg.
Ramberg, whose career largely spanned the 1970s and ’80s, overtly resisted categorization as a feminist, despite the recurrence in her most iconic work of the (truncated) female form in foundational garments.
Abstract objects predominated in Hebson’s show, though there were also two portraits of young women. (It is interesting to note that Ramberg’s corseted females never have faces.) A clear visual language as tightly edited as Ramberg’s own restricted palette emerged, with Hebson repeating diagonals, asymmetric angles and semi-circles across the works. A pair of rattan panels (Rattan Screen, all works 2014), instantly evoking the ’70s, suggested both Ramberg’s attention to patterning and the props used in the photography of David Hamilton, notorious for its soft-focus sexual objectification of very young women. Hebson has previously referenced his work in her own. The screens used in Hamilton’s photos were often curved and fan-like: here Hebson’s panels had been sliced across the top at a jagged angle. Fan-like shapes appeared elsewhere: in delicate wall-mounted objects posing as architectural details (e.g. Collar), which could equally have been abstract representations of the titular elements of clothing, and cut out of a panel partially covering an abstract pattern of carefully applied brushstrokes (Fan).
The rattan panels and the Hamilton reference seemed to be in dialogue with one of the portraits, an unfinished painting on linen of a young woman, lips parted, looking over a bare shoulder. Her 1970s-style glasses brought to mind Ramberg herself, who was often pictured wearing similar frames. And then there was Hebson’s text, appearing as part of the show’s press release – a fragment of first-person narrative concerned with items of clothing and the ways in which they can enhance both a sense of self and the perception of the other women. But the woman in Hebson’s portrait is not Ramberg – the work’s title is Portrait (MH).
One piece in the show did not share the visual language of the other work: a vertical strip of rough black and white photocopies showing the same image of a hand with bangled wrist meeting its reflection in a mirror (Hand and bangle). Hebson’s text again seems relevant: ‘I have these African bracelets too, black banding over pastel colours, sympathetic, gradated sections like some of the striated surfaces in C’s paintings.’ The image might be a comment on Hebson’s ongoing project of engaging with the work of artistic predecessors to produce her own – as though researching another’s legacy is always a form of return to the self: autobiography through biography. This notion of searching – a process of working out and through while making – was most clearly conveyed by the work Yes, yes, no (2014). Sheets of paper in various sizes spray-painted salmon pink, pondlife green and a range of greys, in contrasting textures, were laid over one another on the floor. Arranged on these, two cut-out cartoonish arrows suggested diagrammatic notes-to-self for how this provisional arrangement might be rearranged. In ‘Can you forgive her?’ Hebson invited viewers to consider the work as part of an ongoing process that began in 2013 with her solo show ‘MODA WK’, at Lokaal, Antwerp, which was made in response to the ‘expanded legacy’ of artist Winifred Knights. On display here, alongside catalogues of Ramberg’s paintings, was a copy of MODA WK, a publication Hebson produced as part of both the original show and a subsequent group iteration at Vane, Newcastle, featuring two further artists – former students of Hebson’s invited to respond to Knights’s work.
A recent essay by Ashton Cooper published in Hyperallergic, ‘The Problem of the Overlooked Female Artist: An Argument for Enlivening a Stale Model of Discussion’, makes the case for resisting the narrative of the ‘Overlooked Female Artist’; such recuperation, Cooper argues, does little to challenge established orthodoxies. Hebson’s project makes an eloquent case for the construction of a personal canon; it will be fascinating to see how her argument develops from here.