Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 27, 2015
Exhibition schedule: Contemporary Arts Center Gallery, School of the Arts, University of California, Irvine, January 10–March 20, 2015
New Cuts, K8 Hardy. Installation view. © 2015. Courtesy UCI University Art Galleries.

In K8 Hardy and Wynne Greenwood’s video installation New Report: Morning Edition (2005), viewers watch two female newscasters, Henry Irigaray (Hardy) and Henry Stein-Acker-Hill (Greenwood), listlessly deliver news of their everyday lives. Dressed in all black, turtlenecks topped by berets, they sport the costume of revolutionaries: the Black Panthers, Patty Hearst, Che Guevara—Audrey Hepburn, in Funny Face. Otherwise covered up, one has exposed her breast, the other her crotch, to live-feed cameras. Monitors on either side of the central projection broadcast these feeds zoomed in and close-up. Neither salacious nor erotic, this full disclosure self-surveillance, this technological intimacy effectively dissociates these parts from their wholes, making them bland and matter-of-fact, like photographs in a medical textbook or network news footage of war. Strangely, one notices the newscast before these accessory images, and only later does one begin to reassemble, to trace the logic of these digitally cropped parts back to their bodies.

Calm and plodding, Irigaray and Stein-Acker-Hill speak of friends, feelings, taking a bath. They sit behind a folding table, as if attitude and intent alone will draft it into service as a news desk worthy of prime-time viewers. A giant pink foam microphone emblazoned with their fictional station’s call letters, “WKRH—Pregnant with Information,” comically bulges between them. Its sickly violent hue and roughly hewn exterior produce the most palpable excitement in New Report, as these anchors lackadaisically shuffle off their monologues. Recalling the slow burn of public access television as well as its ability to blandly interrupt the status quo of more calamitously yammering heads, New Report points to the possibility of more feisty styles without enacting them. While nothing too exciting happens in New Report, one imagines the jungle broadcasts of guerilla revolutionaries or the twenty-first-century kidnappers and pirates who likewise film in less than high-definition resolution. Low-fi but full of insurrectionist potential, New Report aptly introduces New Cuts, an introduction to artist K8 Hardy’s output since 2002, curated by Rhea Anastas. Repeatedly pictured in her own work, in an inspired variety of guises and get-ups, K8 Hardy is nothing if not a dynamic persona. Recalling the unflagging labor of Cindy Sherman, Hardy imagines and images whole identities in the time it would take most of us to change shirts.

Hardy’s art models exuberant and palpable feminist politics. Pictured again and again throughout the show, Hardy enlists her body as a powerful tool, demonstrating its great capacity for variety and surprising meaning. Viewing such DIY dynamism enacted, we remember our own potential, the change we all might enact every day. Lit only by spotlights or video glow, Anastas’s crisp treatment makes the white cube into a theater and casts performance as Hardy’s primary metaphor. In this dark space one sees New Cuts through the lens of performance, from digital recordings projected or played on monitors, to publications, photographs, and sculptural costumes.

At the gallery’s far end, Hardy enacts the stocky choreography of a cheerleader in Beautiful Radiating Energy (2004). Another digital projection, the video appears above a humble stage of thin wood supported by slats. It suggests the storage of a painting studio or the opportunistic recycling done by art students and thrifty curb pickers. Weakly destabilizing with its blank shadow, Hardy’s moving body interrupts a slideshow of urban landscapes suggestive of urban artists enclaves like Greenpoint, Brooklyn, or Logan Square in Chicago. Again and again, Hardy’s shout “ready?” is heard. At first apparently a question, it accrues into an accusation, an unfortunate interrogative that hovers over and unsettles all of New Cuts. Confronted by the obnoxious mystery of Beautiful Radiating Energy, one thinks of problems, such as gentrification, but comes up with no solutions.

By bookending the entire exhibition with New Report and Beautiful Radiating Energy, Anastas undertakes the challenge of re-presenting performance. Indeed, the status of documentation remains a central question for performance work, both for its senders and receivers. In New Cuts, Anastas restages virtually by insightfully combining digital recordings with the physical objects that remain from these performances. Projected to relatively life size, both New Report and Beautiful Radiating Energy suggest the scale of a live performer rather than the diminutive preciousness of other forms of documentation. In both installations, architectures and artifacts of the original performance are retained. Visceral objects, Report’s live feed monitors, and Beautiful Radiating Energy’s stage (designed by Klara Lidén) suggest the site and texture of the original event, becoming meaningful material frames for the exhibition’s digital replays. In turn, New Cuts evades the meta-mediation that often dulls exhibitions about performance as much as it defines them.

Yet performance is not Hardy’s only mode. Her works demonstrate a variety of other roles: director, photographer, designer, writer, publisher, activist, and more. Apparently a joyous amateur in whatever role she plays, these works privilege criticality and productive output, blowing off the trappings of mastery or cultivated craft. In A. L. Steiner’s photograph Untitled (K8 with mask) (2007), Hardy appears as confident model. She lounges in what may as well be the same lush grass as that graced by French painter and artist model Victorine Louise Meurent, although her cotton tank and underwear paired with paintball mask and the shin guards of a baseball catcher scramble any easy Edenic or academic readings. Somewhere between Jean-Antoine Watteau and Donna Haraway, Hardy’s elastic sense of self captivates the camera.

Nearby, a pink jersey romper with exaggerated genitals, like a hot dog bun attached to its crotch, outshines every other object in New Cuts. This untitled performance costume is both formally entertaining and conceptually succinct. Copies of LTTR, a zine published in collaboration with the feminist genderqueer artist collective (whose members also include Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Ulrike Müller, and Emily Roysdon), appear both as aesthetic objects on a shelf as well as on a coffee table beside a couch, ready to be held and leisurely considered. Such a dual presentation is crucial, as they would be short-changed to be presented as either/or. All of New Cuts demands this dual understanding. Everything here is both evidence of a past and grounds for a present.

At the heart of New Cuts, one finds Hardy’s Fashionfashion zines (2002–6). Donning berets, sailors hats, overalls, suspenders, caftans, knits, and bold color blocking with great aplomb, Hardy triumphs as not just model but muse. Printed at super-sized scale and installed on drafting tables, Fashionfashion assumes a sculptural presence. Endlessly inventive as a self-stylist, Hardy appears on page after page in a rainbow kaleidoscope of flamboyant thrift store finds that compellingly challenge and rechart the territory of taste, especially when interrupted by images like a wet or bloodied crotch or other visages generally omitted from Vogue. She reassembles clothing and accessories with radical conviction. What was surely tired and unfathomable before she found it becomes novel, possible, and desirable again. Like a top-tier creative director, Hardy wields fashion’s alchemy to startle viewers into desire.

The idea of holding on to a single stable identity evaporates with a laugh in Fashionfashion. From digital avatars to genetic design, Hardy looks ready for infinitely malleable identity regimes, not to mention the doomsday ingenuity that aims to survive political or geothermal catastrophe. Unlike Beautiful Radiating Energy (which largely feels diminished here), Fashionfashion draws strength from reproduction. A volatile multiple, Fashionfashion inserts a glitch somewhere between teen zine and Condé Nast. If Fashionfashion stumbles, it is into language. A far cry even from My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase, Hardy’s handwritten prose tires, casting doubt on the project. Able to pierce the well-behaved veil of fashion marketing as well as stubborn codes of gender, behavior, and polite society, one hopes projects like Fashionfashion have a life beyond the gallery, short-circuiting the local newsstand or even the dentist’s office waiting room. With these works in mind, one wishes New Cuts included Hardy’s larger-format photographs, more examples of her immense wardrobe, or possibly attempted to represent her 2012 Whitney Biennial contribution, Untitled Runway Show.

New Cuts takes gender, beauty, and style hostage to demand that we return to considering the body’s possibilities and limits, especially as it interfaces with fashion and entertainment as an object of digital spectacle. The exhibition insists on the ecology of the entire performance, reminding that the talking head extends from a more complex body. Hardy reigns over her own lifestyle brand, one that argues for an insurrectionist feminist renaissance as not only socially urgent but fashionable too. One cheers for this within the current cultural climate, when the almost unbelievable hashtag #WomenAgainstFeminism can animate the crowd. But like several other recent occupations, New Cuts demands are vague, hard to isolate into tangible goals. Are its tactics outstripped by their competition? In this dark space of possibility, New Cuts leaves the next act up to the viewer. One hopes to see this Hardy spirit outside the gallery too.

Grant Klarich Johnson
Dornsife Doctoral Fellow, Department of Art History, University of Southern California