Hannah Whitaker, Lifelike @Marinaro

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 photographic works, on display in the upstairs and downstairs galleries. 28 of the works (all upstairs) are UV printed on MDF with hand painted edges, made in 2019. These works are each sized 21×15 inches and are unique. The show also includes 1 archival pigment print triptych and 1 archival pigment print (downstairs), made in 2020. Both are made from 51×40 inch panels, and are available in editions of 3+2AP. In the unfinished area of the downstairs, 5 archival pigment print mounted on MDF and light fixture works are shown on the floor, each made in 2020. These works are variously sized from 17x8x8 to 42x28x32 inches and are unique. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of the upstairs body of work is forthcoming from Image Text Ithaca Press.

Comments/Context: Artistic innovation is often a function of investing energy in a methodical, iterative process – of taking an idea, trying it out, improving and evolving the results into the next baseline, and then continuing to turn the crank again and again, incorporating the relevant learnings. And if we look at Hannah Whitaker’s photographic career over the past decade, this is largely what she has been doing. Whitaker’s central framework embraces analog technology and uses in-camera masking and multiple exposures to build up her compositions. Over the years, she has experimented with elemental black-and-white and vibrant color, investigated the strict geometries of diamonds, circles, squares, and angles as well as the fluid gestures of swirling lines, and mixed industrial patterns and materials with silhouettes of hands, feet, and bent arms, always finding her way to layered compositions that are rooted in graphic abstraction.

So it is somewhat of a surprise to find Whitaker returning to single exposure “straight” photography in her new show at Marinaro Gallery. If we look back (with the benefit of hindsight) at her 2017 gallery show (reviewed here), we can perhaps see the seeds of the changes to come in her broader interest in silhouetted gestures and body parts, which she then used in repetitions and arrays. In her newest work, she places the single silhouette of a woman at the center of each composition, using this feminine form as the starting point for her iterations and experiments.

With this silhouette as the primary focus, there are only a limited number of additional variables that can be changed – the position of the figure (and anything she may hold), the backdrop, the lighting of the figure, and later, the color of the painted edges of the frame. And with a very few still life exceptions (a plastic toy tiger, a glass head, a shell, etc.), the body of work (in which the woman is named “Ursula”) emerges as Whitaker plays with different combinations of these aesthetic options.

Whitaker’s backdrops provide an opportunity to introduce color and pattern, and in her choices, she overtly plays with commercial aesthetics and bright 1980s era color palettes. She employs two-color gradients (largely transitioning from pink, blue, or green to yellow), horizontal striping like thin window blinds, dense arrays of perforations lit from behind, and even a few projected images of tinted clouds, mountains, and starry skies. The resulting mood oscillates between retro cool and mechanized futurism, the central figure never really grounded in anything approaching or approximating reality.

Ursula is thin and bare shouldered, her hair up in a tight bun like a ballet dancer, and we generally see her head and torso in dark shadow. She turns to the left and right, sits in contemplation, raises her arms above her head, sticks out her tongue, and in a few cases, holds a small ball in her bent arm, each pose slightly different from the next, creating an elongated parade of alternate moments. Whitaker then uses colored lighting to further enhance and amplify the scenes, bathing Ursula in primary colored swaths or stripes, or spotlighting points on her body (particularly her eyes and face) with circles, spots, or bands of colored light. Isolating a single eye in magenta or drawing a vertical rainbow down her face takes on the appearance of surreal computerized makeup, her body becoming a blank canvas which is then decorated with light.

The aggregate portrait of Ursula that emerges from these photographs is both wholly anonymous and fleetingly personal – we see her as a feminine presence with tiny flashes of personality, but not much emerges that we can really hold on to. Whitaker conceptually connects this framework to a broad range of contemporary technologies increasingly given feminine attributes – avatars, digital assistants like Siri or Alexa, AI personalities, even sex robots – each with details that can seem hauntingly real or emotional, but are manufactured, manipulated, or simply artificial. Whitaker’s compositions offer a faint aesthetic echo to the silhouetted dancers in Apple’s iPod advertising from the early 2000s, but the ultimate message isn’t that we’re all celebrating our bursting-out individuality. As a muse, Ursula deliberately blurs the line between technology and humanness, creating a kind of sleekly idealized feminine void that can be used to represent (or soften) any number of mechanized underlayers.

While we might be tempted to see a line of evolution taking Whitaker toward more character in these photographs, the works downstairs reinforce her interest in the graphic elements of design. Here she reuses elements of the photographic backdrops in three dimensional lamps, where chunky double sided pieces fit together like links, the clouds, stripes, and rainbow colors now tussling playfully in space.

So perhaps what is happening in this show is a simultaneous walk down several artistic paths, the methodical iterative work of the past few years bearing the fruit of ideas leading in related, but distinctly different directions – her elemental graphic explorations now jumping into three dimensions, while also providing a platform for works with more potential for human story and aggregate narrative. As such, Whitaker’s show feels like a crossroads in the possibilities of her artistic road, with more than a few investigative steps taken down each potential avenue.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The prints displayed upstairs are priced at $4500 each, while the two works downstairs are $7000 and $21000 (for the triptych). Whitaker’s work has little consistent secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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