For the Poésie Balistique (‘Ballistic Poetry’) season at La Verrière – the Brussels art space operated by the Fondation d’entreprise hermès – curator guillaume Desanges invites the Caribbean-born artist hessie (b. 1936, living and working in France since 1962) to present her first solo exhibition in Belgium.
Entitled Soft résistance (‘Soft resistance’), the solo show is a rare opportunity to experience the work of this elusive artist to full effect in the generous space of La Verrière. Since the 1970s, Hessie has developed her seductively beautiful yet rigorous and painstaking practice, drawing on minimalism and the craft tradition to create compositions of geometric motifs in white or coloured thread, on unbleached cotton canvas.
This is the second exhibition in the Ballistic Poetry series, devoted to exploring the disconnect between the programmatic intent of selected artists’ work, and its impact. Or more precisely, the disconnect between intention and intuition in certain forms of radical abstraction.
‘Embroidery constitutes the major part of Hessie’s practice, but her work – which has attracted renewed attention in recent years1 – embraces a broader scope than is at first apparent. Caribbean-born, and based in France since 1962, Hessie has developed her signature practice since the 1970s: seductive, rigorous compositions of abstract and geometric motifs in white or coloured cotton thread on unbleached cotton canvas. More rarely, her works feature stitched-on buttons, holes, or typewritten letters dispersed across the fabric support, together with collages of objects or materials on paper. Her repetitive techniques are the basis for a strict formal repertory, expressed in series of works with functional, descriptive titles: Grillages (grid forms), Bâtons pédagogiques (teaching sticks), Végétation or Machines à écrire (typewriters). Paradoxically, this pared-down visual vocabulary gives rise to a subtle semantics of manifest intensity, expressed in magnificent works of varying sizes and formats, playing on delicate, sometimes almost imperceptible nuances of colour. Drawing on minimalism and the craft tradition, Hessie’s extraordinarily precise work is readily classifiable as ‘programmatic’. The exaltation of form through slow, serial repetition is achieved thanks to a kind of (paradoxically) liberating labour, as implied in the title she has often given to her own work: Survival Art.
This solo show is the second in the Ballistic Poetry series, investing the space at La Verrière with an expansive survey of Hessie’s work covering the whole of her career. These occasionally damaged fabrics bear the traces of their story, marked by a kind of creative clandestinity, but their visual power remains undimmed. Each work is a ringing assertion of freedom in a regime of artistic constraint. From the shadows of Hessie’s solitary practice to the light-filled space of La Verrière, the exhibition’s original scenography reveals the full subtlety of her delicate but decisive variations in motifs and colours, on their fabric supports. Seen as a whole, Hessie’s work follows the logic of synaesthesia, forming a visual score of ample movements, recurrent phrases and cesurae, unfurling in time and space like a serial melody. Hessie’s art prefers the mute abstraction of a rigorously applied method to the overly directive dictats of meaning.
1 - Following the exhibitions email@example.com, organised by Camille Morineau in 2013, and Cosmogonies, organised by Sonia Recasens at Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre in 2015.
Power, discretion, concentration: rarely has an abstract œuvre emanated so directly and sensitively from its maker’s personal and professional trajectory. The urgent necessity and simplicity of Hessie’s forms echo the forces that have shaped her daily life as a black woman artist, migrant, and mother of five children, married to a well-known painter2 and living in the French countryside. Hessie has pursued her career on the margins of the art scene, though her work attracted attention from the outset and has been the object of major acquisitions and exhibitions (including the ARC at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Iris Clert Gallery, and the A.I.R. Gallery in New York). Hessie’s art is characterised by an accumulation of ‘minimalisms’: its own minimal visibility, and the minimalism of her motifs, colours, materials and autograph intervention. Hard-won sparsity, so fragile – both visually and materially – that we feel it may disappear at any moment. A precise, precious technique of camouflage creates evanescent motifs in self-coloured cotton threads that vanish into the canvas support. Not forgetting the slow disappearance of the canvases themselves, badly stored in a converted mill in the French hamlet of Hérouval, north-west of Paris3 , and recently saved from destruction4 – as if the act of their making was of greater importance than their conservation. And yet, paradoxically, these accumulated fragilities only serve to heighten the intensity of Hessie’s work.
Historically, 1960s minimalism (and American minimalism in particular) was associated with a certain authoritarian monumentality. By contrast, Hessie’s practice takes a lighter, post-minimalist approach5, rigorously non-authoritarian in form and spirit: simple, soft pieces that have no need to assert their presence by force. Her discreet forms are nonetheless generous and effective, based on a strict economy of minimal means for maximal effect. These are works of organic elegance: scientists have calculated that if unfurled, the delicate, tightly convoluted pulmonary alveolae of a single person would cover seventy-five square metres. In the same way, the reserve surfaces in Hessie’s work (alveolae in their own right) play on the potential multiplication of their points of contact with the world, unfurling and ventilating the surface with biological vitality. More generally, Hessie’s motifs resemble organic deposits, spreading across the cotton surface like a contaminating virus heeding a logic all its own. We witness the organisation of a chaotic mass into invasive communities of sticks or cells, often reminiscent of honeycomb structures, or chromosomes: precarious, hesitant forms that play on the inherent tension between chance and necessity underlying all biological systems.
2 - Miodrag Djuric, known as Dado (1933-2010).
3 - Hessie and her family have lived in Hérouval since the 1960s.
4 - We salute the invaluable work carried out by Arnaud Lefebvre and Aurélie Noury over the past two years, for Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre.
5 - As seen in 1966, in the exhibition ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, organised by Lucy Lippard at the Fischbach Gallery ? New York, including works by Eva Hesse, in particular.
The discreet power of Hessie’s work resides in its radical autonomy. Stitching is a universal, democratic practice that requires patience and determination rather than technology or virtuosity. In the 1960s, revolutionary forces swept the art world, overturning the prevailing ‘hierarchy of representation’: stitching spearheaded the feminist reappropriation of utilitarian or leisure (and in all cases ‘minor’) practices associated with femininity. Stitchwork-as-art was part necessity, part tribute and part ironic commentary. The French feminist art historian Aline Dallier-Popper described
the work of the ‘new Penelopes’: ‘Midway between subjection and revolt, needlework today allows its women practitioners to analyse their oppression and sexual repression, and to transform them into [...] creative forces.6’
6 - In ‘Les travaux d’aiguille’, Les Cahiers du Grif, n°12, June 1976, p. 53, quoted by Fabienne Dumont in ‘Aline Dallier-Popper, pionnière de la critique d’art féministe en France’, Critique d’art, spring 2008.
The ‘authority’ contested by Hessie and other artists of her generation extends to the notion of creative ‘authorship’ too. The artist shows considerable physical investment in the hand-making of each work, but does not extend this to anything resembling a manifesto, or to the deliberate embrace of a particular, expressive style. In graphic terms, while Hessie’s motifs constitute an autograph script of sorts, her encrypted algorithms or ‘stitchwork Morse code’ reflect a determination to write universally legible forms, and more precisely, forms accessible to all or none. A language that can be appropriated ad infinitum, beyond the spoken word and cultures, based on the universality of signs.
But make no mistake – Hessie’s modest materials and refutal of authority in all its forms (aesthetic authority included) are also an affirmation. Her works bear the mark of an act of stubborn resistance to the accepted order. The mass of work accumulated over the years sheds new light on her repetitive practice as an ambitious, highly personal, ethical and aesthetic work in progress. A living ritual, rolled out over time or folded and shut away, but which constitutes an undeniably powerful work in its own right. Preserved from the public gaze and art-world hype for many years – in spite of itself – Hessie’s work has flourished in its own way – in spite of itself – finding its own urgent necessity, its own resources, its own pace. Its creative breath.’
Born in the Caribbean, 1936. Living and working in France since 1962.
Hessie came to prominence with the French feminist movement of the 1970s, through the writings of art historian Aline Dallier-Popper, and the exhibition Combative Acts, Profile and Voices – An Exhibition of Women Artists from Paris, organised by Dallier-Popper at New York’s A.I.R. Gallery in 1976. She was given a solo exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1975, and featured more recently in the re-hang elles@centrepompidou (curated by Camille Morineau) at the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Paris, 2009), following a gift of her work by the French collector Daniel Cordier.
She is represented by Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre (Paris).
2016 Silence, curated by Perrine Lacroix, La BF15, Lyon, France. Hessie, Collages et papiers, Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre, Paris, France. Art Brussels Art Fair: solo show by Hessie with Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre.
2015 Hessie, Survival Art 1969 - 2015, Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre, Paris, France. FIAC Officielle Art Fair: solo show by Hessie with Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre.
Hessie, Photo BF15, Lyon
2015 Autoportrait, Galerie Arnaud Lefebvre, Paris, France
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