Through a lens darkly

Jul 16, 2003 at 12:00 am

Sigmund Freud called her sexuality a “Dark Continent,” a source of mystery that continues to elude us. But the “she” he had in mind wasn’t anyone in particular — rather, she was Woman, that living, breathing, disturbing category. Most often seen without being heard, “she” is the object of desire plastered all over the cultural marketplace, and rarely does she take over the photographic controls enough to guide her own image very far into the darkness.

Three women who’ve done just that — seized the means of production to make pictures that explore femininity outside the bounds of the glamour industry — are on view through Sept. 13 at Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale. Claude Cahun and Francesca Woodman were 20th century artists whose posthumous reputations now far exceed any notoriety they knew while alive. Justine Kurland’s renown didn’t begin until after her 1998 solo debut at Artists’ Space in New York, making her a truly 21st century phenomenon. But what connects them and makes their sharing of Hilberry’s space such a perfect match is their evocation of a femininity largely repressed by public decorum.

Of the three, Claude Cahun (1894-1954) is the groundbreaker whose audacious self-portraits made her involvement with surrealism a logical step. Her long-term friendships with surrealists André Breton, Robert Desnos and Henri Michaux, her encounters with the likes of Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan and Man Ray, etc., were the backdrop to an image-making project that was part diary, part self-analysis and part autoeroticism.

Imagine American punk novelist Kathy Acker morphing into a seductive Gertrude Stein on the way to redefining the photographer-model relationship. In pictures that act as her mirrors, Cahun is both perceiving subject and exhibitionist object, an androgynous chameleon who goes from coquettish to rough trade to come-hither to bizarre in the blink of a camera’s eye. At various times in her life, she shaved her head and recorded the results in ambiguous shots that anticipate both death-camp starkness and hard-core punk seduction.

As a surrealist, Cahun helped demolish the notion of the avant-garde as a good-ol’-boys’ club — and as a member of the French Resistance, she, along with her lifelong companion, Suzanne Malherbe, fought the Nazis until they were arrested by the Gestapo and then rescued by the invading Allies.

This obsession with revealing the hidden feminine self, floating on an undercurrent of barely repressed violence, connects Cahun’s work to that of American photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). Woodman was a prodigy who ended her own life at the age of 22, after a brief but astonishing career of autobiographical invention.

From the age of 13, she began photographing herself in setups involving her naked body, abandoned buildings and various fetish objects and props — but the specific contents of each photograph often took a backseat to her use of timed exposures that gave the shots an ethereal sense of mortality. Though Woodman’s body was her prime subject, it was often seen only piecemeal or blurred to the point of fading away. In the psycho-dramatic Space2 (pictured), it’s as if she’s imprisoned in a tank by another naked figure. The air above her is dark with portent and her own presence has become a nervous wisp of smoke.

Before Woodman’s darkness overwhelmed her ability to process it, she set the stage (along with Cahun’s visionary output) for more recent self-directed work by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin.

With a new millennium comes a set of greater expectations, and in Justine Kurland’s photographs of young women we get a sense of 20th century limits displaced by something powerfully utopian. Feminine self-awareness — so much in the foreground in Cahun’s and Woodman’s work — now makes way for an adventure combining old and new dreams of gender.

Kurland’s photographs at Hilberry are from a suite shot in the wilds of New Zealand involving a group of adolescent girls from a private school. The locations include forest, swamp, desert, mountain and seashore — and the girls, wearing what look like school uniforms, interact in ways that both remind us of the games young women have always played and jolt us with a newfound libidinal freedom. These “lost girls” seem like characters in a feminine version of Lord of the Flies, but one in which idealized affection replaces sadism as the dominant drive.

Kurland’s work — so rich in historical and fantasmatical reverberations — is the prime occasion of this wonderful show. But it has given Susanne Hilberry an inspired excuse to offer us a look at two other modern women. Indispensable.


“Claude Cahun, Francesca Woodman and Justine Kurland: Photographs” is at Susanne Hilberry Gallery (700 Livernois, Ferndale) through Sept. 13. Summer hours: Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 248-541-2700.

George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]