The persevering, feminine gaze
It is her first real museum exhibition, now in Museum Helmond in the Netherlands and later in De Garage Mechelen, and yet it almost seems like a retrospective. Karin Hanssen shows old to new work in "Returning the Gaze", where the main tone is clear: a critical, feminist and rebellious view on painting and art, but also equally a warm and a virtuoso manifesto.
Vaut le voyage.
The work on the invitation card actually tells it all. "ABC" (2008) shows a young woman in a short skirt, as unsuspecting as she is beautiful and self-conscious, walking through the street, painted in warm colours. Behind her is an elderly woman, fairly grey and with her back slightly bent, who predicts how the girl will look half of a century later. I see this with the gaze of a man: my attention goes to the girl, I see the older woman after a second reading.
Karin Hanssen (° 1960, Antwerp) is a self-proclaimed feminist artist. Hanssen draws and paints not just with the gaze of a woman who looks at and responds to the predictable male gaze, she also writes about it, she even did a doctoral research on the subject "The Borrowed Gaze – in dialogue with time" and received her PhD of Arts in 2016 at the Antwerp University College. But that feminine gaze, whether it is the "borrowed" or a "returning gaze" is emancipatory essential. A feminine gaze is really different from the male gaze, and that certainly stands out in this exhibition. The exhibition that is currently running in Museum Helmond in the Dutch eponymous city - for the Belgians: 20 kilometers above Eindhoven - and which will later move to De Garage Mechelen proves that Hanssen is right on all counts. As source material Hanssen uses (mainly American) images from the glossy film and magazine world of the fifties and sixties from last century, when people for the first time were able to go on holidays and to consume to their heart’s content. A time when an optimistic society arose with everyone owning a house and a car, but also with a message to women: just stay in your kitchen. In the back of the exhibition space in Museum Helmond the movie "The Thrill of it All"1963 is playing in which the unsurpassed Doris Day performs the role of a doctor's wife, who for a short while dreams of TV fame, but ultimately chooses for her home, garden and kitchen life (she makes her own ketchup!) because of her man who feels threatened in his masculinity by her success since apart from other reasons, she earns more money with her TV work than he does. An incredibly sexist, paternalistic and right-wing film. But in
those early sixties those films were the daily feed from the Hollywood factory (I saw the film with my mother in a long-gone cinema in Antwerp - now an auction house! - and was not aware of any harm, I was eleven at the time).
And that is what you see in this beautiful exhibition: you being aware of no harm is not enough.
It starts in the main room with the first image at the expo: "Reflecting" (2005-2006)
shows the head of a woman staring at something , as if she is thinking deeply about something, but she doesn't look into our eyes. "Mirror Mirror" (2018), the last image in the exhibition, does, but this woman seems to be looking in a mirror. And when you walk back in the exhibition, the last image becomes the first. The two works, beginning and end, mark a trail through the exhibition. You start with the recent works, gradually the paintings get older. Make at the end a u turn and you go from older to newer works. Moreover it reveals the artistic power of Karin Hanssen: how in that older work she was searching, sticking to standard painterly views, to develop along the way her own, incredibly recognizable - just by those mysterious, almost ominous vagueness - style. A good example of this is the painting "Kids on a boat" (2016), that looks like a picture from a holiday on the Belgian coast, but it could also be an American "Jaws" picture
and above all: a fucked-up image of a family snapshot. In "The Raft" (2009) you see
how a man and his son maneuvering a raft through a river while the woman just sits down. They paddle through a dark forest. Active men, a passive woman. The cliché. Elsewhere, other works illustrate Hanssen's discomfort too: in Arcadian mountain landscapes for example, in "Picnic" (1998) in which the woman is a caregiver and the man plays a playful role, in "Boy Wonder" (2018), in which a baroque pastoral painting cliché is being put through the mangle, with the shepherd boy that will grow into a big artist, thanks to an older man who will become his patron.
Hanssen's critique on the male gaze can also be seen in other series of hers, such as those that are shown in Helmond in smaller rooms, and that subtly push the viewer towards the film projection "The Thrill of it All" (a must see because then you understand a lot about Hanssen's artistic drive). The series "Die Gebildeten" (1994) for example, which shows portraits of male scholars and already from the manner of depiction their "importance" is being emphasized. Or the "Models" series (2006), in which male models in outfits from the fifties-sixties are headless, while the women have a head, because there "sexual seduction" is added.
And of course there is the series of paintings, based on a work of the 17th century Dutch painter Gerard ter Borch, that is called "The Gallant Conversation" (it is part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam), but that could just as well be called "Paternal Admonition". Hanssen took the girl figure and isolated her: you no longer know if you are looking at a conversing noble lady (or perhaps a prostitute), then at a young woman who is listening to her nagging father.
And that is the core of Hanssen's work in this exceptionally beautiful exhibition: with that female gaze, you involuntarily look at each work in a different way, other than what you would do with (male) artists. As a man, you feel caught. Like in the work "A Room of Her Own": a girl makes a drawing on a chalkboard. With this she creates her own mental space, as Virginia Woolf meant in her eponymous essay. Everyone, so women too, has the right to create his / her own space, that must be respected by each one of us.
Karin Hanssen, "Returning the Gaze" until June 10, 2019 in Museum
Helmond, F.J. Van Thielpark, Helmond, NL. Open Tue-Fri from
10 am to 5 pm, Sat-Sun from 12 am to 5 pm. www.museumhelmond.nl
From 22 June on in De Garage Mechelen
Work by Karin Hanssen is also included in the exhibition
"The Collection (1) - Highlights for a future" in the
S.M.A.K. Ghent, until September 29, 2019.