Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / On one level, in “Flex, Rot, and Sp(l)it,” a penetrating and conceptually cohesive show of paintings at Nathalie Karg Gallery, Heidi Hahn visually chronicles the tension between the unavoidable confinement of the body and the irrepressible expansiveness of the mind. While the so-called mind-body problem is as old as philosophy itself, to Western audiences it is perhaps most resonant in René Descartes’ exercise of systematic doubt, concluding with “I think therefore I am.” In terms of value, this ingrained formulation privileges the mind over the body. While philosophers are left to connect mental processes with gray matter, for painters and others it can be discomfiting to realize that although thinking is supposed to be the essence of being, a person’s mind is often prejudged on the basis of their body’s characteristics.
As a painter, Hahn confronts this distortion head-on. Her artist statement for the show opens with the lament that “my body has been used against me.” Ultimately, she asks, “does a painting of a woman have to be the propagation of the feminine ideal – which typically has been inviting, giving, erotic and comforting – an expectation that perpetuates women as image. Perhaps the paint can be a placeholder for a different acceptance.” From her point of view, figurative painting has become too acquiescent to hidebound tradition, hence too easy. Its constraining orthodoxy has failed to track the prevailing consensus – notwithstanding some notably retrogressive impulses in public and legal discourse – that the body does not, and certainly should not, comprehensively define who a person is.
While Hahn’s complaint reflects a feminist sensibility, it seems more contemplative than philippic – primarily a matter of broad existential frustration rather than targeted political grievance. Thus, in a wry nod to the ineluctability of the body, all nine of her large-scale oil paintings of the female figure bear the same substantive title as the exhibition itself – Flex, Rot, and Sp(l)it – differing only by designated number. She may intend these three (four) verbs (or nouns) to impart simply what the body does prior to any idealization, to wipe the slate clean as it were. (“Split” perhaps adds a frisson of iconoclasm.) Yet visual art is to a significant degree about beauty, and figurative beauty is undeniably associated with the customary female figure. How, then, to compellingly recast that figure without overt resort to its putative attractions? The task Hahn has set for herself is a delicate and difficult one.
Save for one, each painting elides the signature prized features of the female body – pronounced breasts and flared hips – instead presenting hunched figures, thick waists, baggy clothes, bland or covered faces, and warm, neutral colors that obscure them. In the exception to this rule, bright yellow highlights pointed breasts in profile. Perhaps this painting functions as a kind of legend for the collection – an indication of what is generally meant to be left out. Hahn cannot discard the curve, possibly because she sees it as a distilled essence of beauty stripped of socio-sexual baggage. Her geometry is one of enveloping arcs and regimenting angles, allusive as well as elusive, that eschew stark erasure in favor of nuanced sublimation.
She pulls it off. Given the low but steady thematic hum running through the entire set of paintings, the uncomplicated elegance of Hahn’s line within each canvas, and her unerring emotional perspicacity with respect to color, she seems to have done more with paint than just reserve space for a change in perspective on the female figure. Acknowledging art history while moving beyond it, she has helped initiate that change.
“Heidi Hahn: Flex, Rot, and Sp(l)it,” Nathalie Karg Gallery, 291 Grand Street, 4th Floor, New York, NY. Through December 23, 2022.