In the 1960s, Hannah Wilke caught the attention of the New York art scene and shocked the public with her frank and sexual sculptures, which forced viewers to confront the body as a site of pleasure and eroticism, death and decay. Wilke is now best known for her “vulva sculptures,” (a body of work readers can explore on their own) but in all of the media that she worked in — drawing, photography, performance, and perhaps most famously, chewing gum — Wilke offered up the naked body as a challenge, directing the shame that’s often associated with it toward the embarrassed spectator.
The political charge of Wilke’s career isn’t immediately apparent from the work in “Early Drawings,” an exhibit on view until October 30 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, but it is present. (Several of Wilke’s pieces are also included in the “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism” exhibit, currently on view at the Jewish Museum.) Viewers entering the show, which highlights Wilke’s drawing from the 1960s and ‘70s, are met with several walls of collage work and line drawings — muted geometric designs that emanate from cutout pictures of puppies and saints. Some of these are clearly tongue-in-cheek; in one series, canvases are carved up into light pastel patterns set against retro imagery. Others, like “Stanley Landsman,” a photo homage to the light and glass sculptor, and “This Was Once My Mother’s Plate,” a simple ghostly tracing, quietly incorporate Wilke’s personal history.