Whitney Hubbs, Woman in Motion

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Hesse Press (here). Softcover perfect bound, 64 pages, with 62 color images. Includes texts by Nikki Darling and Carmen Winant. In an edition of 500. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As a heterosexual male art observer, try as I might to be wholly impartial and objective, I am to some extent guided by the proverbial “male gaze” that has overrun art since prehistory. Even when I consciously make myself aware of the inherent biases and failings of this gendered viewpoint and attempt to correct for them both visually and theoretically, and then knowingly wade into the thicket of appropriately thoughtful discussions and opinions around the male gaze, genetic reproductive urges still at some point rudely intervene. They subtly remind me that regardless of the inappropriateness of the circumstances and as much as I might try to intellectualize things, the curve of a woman’s hip (and many other body parts from head to toe) can be genuinely seductive, at least to my eyes, and this reaction undeniably influences my perception of the art being considered.

At a high level, I think it’s safe to say that the heterosexual female gaze, at least when applied to men, should in theory offer some of the same primal reactions to physicality, ranging from mere head turning attention to more powerful desire and lust, depending on the situation (in both art and life) and the participants. And the same can be said for mutual homosexual gazing between men or between women – the base level human attractions are similar, regardless of the body types.

But it’s when we get to the heterosexual male gaze toward men and the heterosexual female gaze toward women that we encounter something altogether different. Here the recognitions of beauty, elegance, and other characteristics of affinity are no less strong or persuasive, but the instinctive gut-level desire is largely absent. What replaces it is in many ways a sense of knowing curiosity, of measuring and understanding one that it is in some ways like us, of seeing ourselves reflected in the physical minutiae of others. In this subtle calculus, we can see how attraction could occur for others, but for us, this urge doesn’t come into question.

With all of this definitional stage setting as background, given my personal vantage point, I might be tempted to say that Whitney Hubbs’ studio portraits of women were perfectly designed to systematically frustrate the aggressive root tendencies of the male gaze, but if I did so, I’d be brusquely inserting men and their viewpoints into an artistic dialogue where they were not invited. What makes her works durably intriguing is not that she is “sticking it to the man” in some clever aesthetic way, it is that her portraits are an insightful dialogue between women without regard to men, pictures made of women by a woman and so rooted in the nuances of that specific female to female interchange.

Woman in Motion is a thin volume of photographs, bringing together groups of pictures from roughly half a dozen studio setups. Like countless sessions across the history of the medium, a nude or partially clothed female model has been posed in a simple, rather makeshift arrangement, with colored backdrops, platforms, stage props, and other objects added to the compositional mix. In each case, Hubbs has made a series of exposures, with the model subtly changing position several times. On the face of things, none of this is particularly unexpected or even notable.

As we look closer, it becomes clear that these images don’t function in the ways we might have expected. Two of Hubbs’ setups – one in yellow, the other in red – can help explain what’s going on. Both offer a reclining nude on a rolled paper backdrop, the lounging position a variation on what we might call a boudoir or odalisque pose. While there might normally be other lush fabrics or flowers to help set the mood of such a scene, in this case, the model simply holds a large rectangular card (in one case, it is pock marked by random cuts), and puzzlingly (at least for the heterosexual men in the audience), she has placed it right in front of her face and upper body. By the way, the model isn’t exactly nude as I mentioned before, she’s alternately wearing full lenth tights or shorts, covering up parts of her lower body. So the whole construct of seduction, arousal, and/or titillation that would normally accompany such a pose has largely been undermined. We can’t see the model’s face, and any glimpses of her body are blocked or fleeting, and all  these interruptions are executed in a matter-of-fact way that deliberately releases any tension in the air. Instead, there is a different kind of visual exchange/collaboration going on, and the male gaze isn’t particularly relevant to that dialogue.

Another pair of setups further explores the idea of the frustrated reveal. In a green staging, the nude model stands inside folds of green paper, her face and body hidden. The main feature of the pictures is her outstretched arms, which incrementally remove blue rubber gloves (the kind used for dishwashing or cleaning the toilet, not ballroom dancing). In the red staging, the nude model sits on a chair, enveloped by cascades of red silk, her legs and shoulder exposed but the rest of her body otherwise covered by the fabric. In both cases, the expectations of the male gaze (the seductive strip tease, the provocative slow taking off of gloves, the peek-a-boo glimpses of female bodies within fabric) are upended, and done so in a quietly mocking manner that deems them predictable distractions that can be managed with ease. Even the shapely legs perched on bricks are largely disembodied, becoming formal echoes of the bends and folds of the textiles.

When Hubbs’ introduces additional props, the poses of the models deviate even further from the traditional norms of studio portraiture. In a brown setup, a model in a nude leotard interacts with a tall stack of wooden boxes, her bent leg and flexed arms positioned as though she was in the process of moving or restacking the forms. And in a blue scene, we see a nude woman from the back wearing tights pulled up to her midsection, her hands carrying a heavy cube that strains her arms as she brings it above her head. Both series have echoes of Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century motion studies of nude women carrying water buckets and walking up stairs. Again, the male gaze part of the equation here is entirely unimportant, even with plenty of female flesh on view.

What I have found repeatedly of interest in Woman in Motion is how my mind turns once the male gaze is so purposefully extinguished. Hubbs’s interests in sculptural/formal elements, in shadows, in variations of color, and in the nuances of musculature become much more visible, even in such humble set pieces. In many ways, she has taken the familiar (in this case the female body) and made it unfamiliar once again, and with that comes a sense of liberation. Once the smothering effect of the male gaze is lifted, the everyday nuances and uncertainties of the female body can be seen more clearly, and Hubbs has created a thoughtfully pared down visual formula for unlocking these many possibilities.

Collector’s POV: Whitney Hubbs is represented by M+B Art in Los Angeles (here). Hubbs’ work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail is likely the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Whitney Hubbs, Hesse Press

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