Eva Hesse: Visual & Visceral

An exhibit of small, compelling works called "Eva Hesse: Studiowork" is showing at the Berkeley Art Museum until April 10, 2011. I knew I would like them on some level, but I found the works strangely moving when viewed in person. Hesse managed to form the simple materials of cloth, latex, metal screening, papier mache, found objects, and rubber tubing into mysterious organic-looking objects that feel more important than they seem at first. Her choice of flesh colors—pinks and browns—add to the feeling that these pieces are part of a body, not in any morbid or grotesque way, but as extensions of human beings in general.

The works are, for the most part, nonrepresentational. What they are, I can't say. My literary brain wanted each piece to be accompanied by a small text, to flesh them out, to put them in context. Context=with text.  Context: con (together) text (to weave). But then the left brain calmed down, and I realized we are not meant to have an intellectual connection, we are meant to have a visceral one. In the accompanying booklet Briony Fer, the co-curator for the show, writes, "Hesse's work is full of allusions to the body without being a conventional depiction of the body." Fer's words reinforce the idea that the works are not literal in any way.

When I think of books, I instinctively want words inside. But after seeing this exhibit, I now wonder what kinds of colors and images can produce meaning on a level just under the surface, maybe resonating somewhere in the body. In Oakland, at Mills College Library in the Special Collections department you can visit and request to see a book by Brighton Press called The Blue Vein which has a similar quality. The pages are hand dyed in blues, browns, and greens by Merilyn Britt, with etchings by Michele Burgess, and the book contains a minimum of text, a few lines on a page of a poem by Sandra Alcosser. The variegated dyes and the rich etchings are satisfying on that deep level. You can see pictures and read a description of it here. (But much better to see it and hold it yourself if you get a chance.)

I am always pleased when I leave an exhibit energized, my fingers itching to make something. I finally spent time in my own studio this past weekend and was surprised at what I made there after pulling out canvas, muslin, acrylic inks, linen thread, and heavy gel medium. Eva Hesse's  small works gave me two challenges: to make silent books using texture and materials to speak, and to make books that are an extension of the body.

Handle with Gloves: Twelve Readings, 2011