THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE EYE(1)
In Karin Hanssen’s Private Collection (2016–2018) two paintings by Degas and Renoir hang in heavy gold frames on panelled walls. A bouquet brightens up a hallway; books are neatly arranged on a side table. The women in the paintings hang in their golden frames like expensive commodities. We are drawn to them, particularly Renoir’s Young Woman in Black. Her large dark eyes and black hair are offset by the high white collar and flower on her hat. Next to the bed a Degas painting of dancers is a haze of blue tutus and bare limbs.
Hanssen’s painting is based on a 1970s magazine photograph of a wealthy art collector’s bedroom. Hanssen works consistently from such source material, exploring how historic images conveyed and reinforced the aspirations and expectations of society and the dominance of the patriarchy. In this image the framed women are displayed in the most intimate of spaces, the bedroom, eternally present as fetishized fragments to be gazed at by their male owner at will. However, Hanssen’s aim is to destabilise the original message. Renoir’s woman dominates Hanssen’s painting, somehow reactivated as a person (not a model) and now able to return the viewer’s gaze. A blue stripe runs up the wall from the far pillow, grazing the edge of the foreground as it does so. It flattens the interior and turns the walls into colour fields, establishing a palpable tension, a tautness, between representation and abstraction, between denotation and connotation.
Private Collection is one of twenty-five paintings from Hanssen’s latest series, ‘Returning the Gaze’ (2015–2019). In this series she continues her investigation into the subjectivity of looking and display, of frames and fragments, working from her own photo-collages for the first time, adding abstract elements to deconstruct the figurative image as in Drinks and a View (2015–2016) and Transit (2016). All the works in the series revolve around gendered looking as Hanssen attempts to liberate the image of woman from the patriarchal male gaze and allow her to meet the viewer’s eye on her own terms. Creamy White Waxy (2016) is an unashamedly sexual flower painting from the series that lays out her conditions: women want to reclaim the gaze and their freedom (sexual and otherwise) for themselves.
Often Hanssen’s paintings focus on the gendered gaze, the representation of women and the roles men and women are ascribed in period advertisements, films and photographs. Her interest in the gaze dominates her work: we see before we speak, before we write. Seeing grounds us in the world and gives us a sense of place. As we age we bring our expectations to our sight and increasingly this shapes our perception.(2) Siri Hustvedt, in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, puts it this way: ‘We see what we expect to see. We do not passively receive information from the world but are rather creative interpreters of it.’(3) This subjective ‘tuning’ is at the heart of Hanssen’s practice. As Hanssen says, ‘An image has no meaning. It assumes meaning through its context.’(4) Context when it is made and – crucially – when and how it is received.
Hanssen chooses source images that allow her to investigate the construction of gender. In Kids on a Boat (2016) we see girls and boys preoccupied with catching fish. One girl holds a net; another an oar. A boy at the front of the boat bends to propel the boat forwards. They work together, some sitting, some standing, some active, some passive, not yet succumbing to social expectation as to how they should behave. Judith Butler writes of gender as performative: ‘gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.’(5) For these children their swimsuits and hairstyles already indicate a gender difference but they seem unaware of it. Hanssen allows the children to float on in their innocence, fusing sea and sky into an abstract tableau to keep them away from the progress of time (and from growing up).
In Call Box (2016–2017) Hanssen reveals our inherent gender bias when we look at and read images. There are three vehicles in Call Box: a red camper van driving in the middle lane of a motorway and two cars parked on the hard shoulder. The bonnet is up on the white car while the brown sedan’s passenger door is open. A woman in a red dress leans into the car and appears to be reaching for something. There is no-one else around – no-one in the driver’s seat in either car and no mechanic. The woman is the active participant in the scene, sending an unexpected ripple across the image. Were we expecting to see a man helping her? Do we expect her not to be able to cope on her own? In Call Box Hanssen has erased certain information from the source image – additional people, the street and vehicle signs – and consequently manipulated its message. The scene has been recoded to liberate the woman in the red dress who now takes charge of the situation and redefines our expectations.
Roland Barthes, in his writings on the semiotics of imagery, fractured the image into the denoted message – the subject perceived – and the connoted message, the manner in which this particular subject is interpreted by society at a given time. This contemporary coding could not be removed from the reading of the image because it filled the image much as intonation influences how spoken words are interpreted. Connotation didn’t alter what the image displayed but it could totally transform how it was read. The image was then further contextualized by usage, what Barthes called ‘anchorage’. (6) Words surrounding it in magazines, for example, further shaped and controlled the reader’s understanding of what was being shown. However, when Hanssen takes a photograph and recontextualizes it – removing it from its original position and transposing it into paint – it is as if she has pulled up the image’s historical anchor and thrown it overboard again in our world. The muted palette of Call Box and the 1970s cars may date the source but the erasure of other people and the abstract elements serves to alter the original image and allows the woman a more active, fluid presence. Hanssen refers to this as ‘retuning the image’.
Hanssen’s ten-part Retu(r)ning the Gaze (2018) is a series of small–scale works painted on cardboard. The parenthesis in the title allows the gaze to be returned by the women while simultaneously ours is retuned. The women have been scaled to fit the leftover rectangular innards of old cardboard mounts by Hanssen. ‘It says something about what is expected of women,’ she says, ‘that they fit in.’(7) The women walk in pairs or on their own, filming videos, shopping or striding to meetings. Some are dressed for the heat in shorts and crop tops while others cross public squares in trouser suits and mini dresses. They are painted more loosely than her other works, as if the women had to be captured quickly before they walked on by.
Hanssen always strives to create space for women to be free. Her series ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (2011–2014), inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay of the same name, decontextualized two advertisements from the 1950s and created new spaces for the female model ‘mother’ and her ‘daughter’ to work and relax. In ‘The Borrowed Gaze/ Variations GTB’ (2010–2011) Hanssen liberated a seventeenth-century Rückenfigur – a woman seen from behind and used repeatedly as a prop by Gerard ter Borch in his Dutch interiors – and offered her sanctuary in a space of her own. In both these series the liberation of each woman was partial as they remain indoors, static and alone. By contrast, in Retu(r)ning the Gaze women laugh and smile as they move freely through public spaces, relaxed and comfortable, their hair glossy as it falls over their shoulders, their flat pumps practical for sightseeing. Yet all is not as it seems. The source photographs for this series date from the 1960s and 1970s and were taken in different locations: California, London and Istanbul; Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Hanssen’s painted translations the backgrounds are out of focus so there’s no way of knowing which image comes from which city. What we do know is that the freedoms exercised by the women in many of these images don’t exist anymore. Women in several of these regions have since been silenced and cloistered by their own governments and patriarchal societies. By placing this series opposite ‘The Borrowed Gaze/ Variations GTB’ in her retrospective ‘Karin Hanssen: Returning the Gaze’ she suggests this dominant patriarchal gaze is not new but something that has existed in perpetuity across the globe.
Hanssen sees the paintings in Retu(r)ning the Gaze as fragile images, literally and metaphorically, and the transience she captured by painting fast and loose alludes to the women’s rapid loss of rights and visibility. Her paintings point to the fleeting nature of women’s freedom, how easily it can be revoked. Abnousse Shalmani, an Iranian writer living in exile whom Hanssen much admires, has written about dress as a barometer of freedom. ‘How a woman’s body is perceived is a good indicator of the state of law, equality and education,’ she says. ‘Each woman’s body carries the history of her country.(8)’ For Hanssen the bare legs, arms and heads of the women in Retu(r)ning the Gaze and Egypt (2018) speak of personal freedom. In these works the women are moving about outside, in public places, unimpeded. But now, in some of these countries, Hanssen notes, ‘these are shocking images because you can’t show your silhouette in a public space any more. Women can at home but not outside, so it means that you, as a woman, should not be seen in public and if you go out you have to cover your identity. That is a very severe message.(9)’ Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie sees this as being taught from a young age across the world. ‘We teach girls shame,’ she says. ‘Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though by being born female they are already guilty of something.(10)’
Hanssen has explored freedom in relation to dress for many years, for example in Unveiled MG 1 2 & 3 (1995) and Whirl (2008). In Adapting (2018) a young woman pins the hem of another woman’s mini dress. She is altering the outfit, making it shorter, revealing more of the woman’s legs as she does so. Her pose is functional yet subservient – she looks up for approval from the woman in the dress, who in turn looks down and checks the length. They do not invite the viewer to comment or pass judgement – these women are working together and don’t need our approval. They are following fashion, perhaps, but their control of the gaze suggests they are free to do so. In all these paintings hair in particular becomes a metaphor for freedom, for personal expression and enjoyment. The chic bob and long straight hair that falls over the woman’s shoulders in Adapting are unencumbered with clips or coverings. The blonde woman dancing in Scotch (2018), whose pose mirrors that of the dress adapter, has a hairdo that attracts attention from both the dark-haired observers in the bar and the audience of the painting. In Mirror Mirror (2018) a young girl in a tank top smiles at the viewer, her chestnut hair gleaming.
(1) From Abnousse Shalmani, Khomeini, Sade and Me, 2014, transl. by Charlotte Coombe (London: World Editions, 2016), p. 35: ‘I am fighting against anything that submits women – and men – to the dictatorship of the eye.’