BY Quinn Latimer in Reviews | 01 SEP 11
Featured in
Issue 141

Shana Lutker

Barbara Seiler Galerie

BY Quinn Latimer in Reviews | 01 SEP 11

Shana Lutker, 'A.G.L. & X.', 2011, Installation view.

In the late 1920s, André Breton and Louis Aragon celebrated the ‘50th Birthday of Hysteria’ in an issue of La Révolution surréaliste devoted to ‘sexual research’. In it, they attributed hysteria’s birth – which they slyly and presciently termed the ‘greatest poetic discovery of the end of the 19th century’ – to psychologist J.M. Charcot, a teacher of Sigmund Freud whose work at La Salpêtrière, the infamous women’s hospital in Paris, which had done much to establish the diagnosis, or genre, of hysteria. The Surrealists salaciously cited the ‘delicious’ images of Charcot’s 15-year-old star patient, Augustine, who performed the supposed poses of hysteria for ‘scientific’ photographs that would go on to fill tomes on psychology, neurology, photography and finally, yes, feminism. Augustine was also alternately referred to as ‘G.’, ‘L.’ and ‘X.’ in various hospital papers, which gives viewers of Shana Lutker’s discerning, quietly evocative exhibition – entitled ‘A. G. L. & X.’ – some clue to its provenance and concerns.

For this show, Lutker occluded the windows of Barbara Seiler Galerie with shades, dropping to the floor, in a deep yellow hue the colour of pollen or marigolds. The shades were simulacra of those found today in La Salpêtrière, though one could not exactly say the same of the low platforms that rose from the gallery floor and featured neat grids of small, strange objects that felt directly pulled from the unconscious. At once familiar and uncanny, the small, lovely sculptures – masks, wooden artefacts, tools of uncertain usage, a lasso-like yoke – were less objective correlatives than poetic signifiers in Lutker’s deft, hallucinatory dreamscape. That these objects are based on psychoanalytic and Surrealist relics and artefacts did not dim their aura, which conjured not just to the historical legacy from which they came but a far more personal and forward-looking narrative. The lowness of the support structures, meanwhile, meant viewers had to come close, enabling an intimacy that would have been dispelled by taller, more didactic tables or vitrines.

In the gallery’s small backrooms, Lutker papered one wall in a grid of bleached out, black and white inkjet prints that featured a woman in a stripy tunic enacting a series of poses that can be read at once as calisthenic, erotic and hysteric. Whether the woman is Augustine was uncertain (Lutker re-photographed the uncaptioned images from a book about the invention of hysteria), but the picture drawn by Mockup for Periodos nos. 1–9 (2011) – that all is a performance, even the 19th-century aesthetics and atmospherics that Lutker utilized here – was clear. Rising from the floor in front of this wall were two tree branches (one real, one cast in bronze) whose twisted limbs mirrored the photographs above. A more abstract portrait was drawn in three diminutive and gorgeous bronze friezes (Augustine, Geneviève, and Louise, all 2011) that were more decorative than figurative – they are based on old vent circulation the artist saw during her research at Salpêtrière – yet evoked the same associative piecing together and breaking apart of identity through objects and images evinced elsewhere.

Notably, though Lutker’s exhibition was firmly placed on the terra of early psychoanalysis and Surrealism, her works tread this history softly – and uniquely. Unlike most recent rehashings of Surrealist methods and mores, Lutker appears less interested in the tired erotics and desire-centered targets of that project and more in the mind’s association-spinning machinations. Sex did not stand at the centre here, thinking did. If her objects and photographs glitter with desire, it is less corporeal than cerebral, thereby unwittingly revealing that it was the mind itself that first entranced Charcot and Freud and even Breton a century ago, not simply its (female) bodily manifestations.

Quinn Latimer is a writer. Her most recent book is Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017).