Barbara Hammer

New York

at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Barbara Hammer: History of the World According to a Lesbian, 1988, video, 16 minutes, 23 seconds; at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

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The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s compact retrospective of Barbara Hammer’s work in experimental film, video, photography, drawing, collage, and installation frames visibility and eroticism as central concerns of her practice. For this legendary lesbian feminist artist, the representation of queer desire is an urgent political tactic, fraught with questions of who can be seen, who is looking, and how.

Hammer is perhaps best known for her films, which are represented in the show by a number of significant works from the late 1960s through the early 1990s. Throughout these works, she employs avant-garde techniques of montage and layering, among other strategies, in order to generate a lesbian cinema. Her aim was to depict, and thus culturally validate, the ways in which queer women lived, loved, and created. Dyketactics (1974), which Hammer has described as a “lesbian commercial,” offers sensuous, soft-focus scenes of nude women cavorting in a field. Multiple Orgasms (1976) is, as its title suggests, more explicit: in extreme close-up, a finger stimulates a clitoris, with footage of the natural world layered atop to create an abstract, earth-goddess porno. Other films combine erotica with nonlinear narratives or performative historical retellings, as in History of the World According to a Lesbian (1988). For Hammer, sex is pleasure, politics, and history; separating these threads of queer life simply would not make sense.

Bodies abound in the show: they recline, they fuck, they pose. A concurrent exhibition of Hammer’s work at Company Gallery comprised black-and-white photographs from the 1970s depicting still more bodies, performing nude or wrestling or simply smiling for the camera. These are straightforward documents of intimacy and community. But Hammer later moved away from such portrayals of women’s bodies, spurred in part by critiques of her films as either essentializing gender or reproducing the logic of the male gaze. The collage series “Charlene Atlas” (1998), on view at the Leslie-Lohman, features composite renderings of the artist flexing and posing in parodic ads for bodybuilding publications, her head grafted onto images of the male bodybuilder Charles Atlas. Hammer’s later photographic works approach representation less directly. The series “What You Are Not Supposed to Look At” (2014) comprises X-rays layered with close-up shots of body parts; the resulting collages elegantly evoke the strangeness and precarity of embodiment.

Installed near the X-ray collages, several works directly take up the artist’s experience with breast cancer. The installation 8 in 8 (1994) invites viewers to touch breast models—pinkish silicone teardrops that are slowly coming apart from wear—to locate a “cancer node” within them; pressing the node triggers one of several video interviews with cancer survivors to play on the adjacent monitor. Though somewhat corny in its presentation of a medical crisis as interactive art, 8 in 8 nonetheless underscores important themes of Hammer’s art: a sense of humor regarding her body (and her own mortality); the centrality of touch to her practice and to the lesbian cosmos it both represents and generates; and a feeling of community, in which we’re all implicated in each other’s pleasure and pain.