Alexis Hunter

Approach to Fear XIII: Pain - Destruction of Cause

1977

Not on display
Artist
Alexis Hunter 1948–2014
Medium
8 photographs, C-print on paper mounted on board, 2 panels
Dimensions
Displayed: 1018 x 960 x 25 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2013
Reference
T13926

Summary

Approach to Fear XIII: Pain – Destruction of Cause 1977 is comprised of eight photographs mounted in two columns of four on two vertical panels. Reading from top left to bottom right, the images depict a silver high-heel shoe as is burns. A hand with painted fingernails and a bracelet holds the heel, turning the shoe in order to show the progress and destruction wrought by the flames.

This is one of a number of photoworks made by the artist Alexis Hunter in the late 1970s, all of which are titled Approach to Fear but each with a different subtitle. Originally from New Zealand, Hunter moved to London in 1972 to progress her career. She was politically active and deeply involved in the emerging feminist scene. Between 1972 and 1975 she was a member of the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union, and was a member of the Women’s Art Alliance from 1976 to 1977. Her work of this period, which predominantly took the form of photo-narrative sequences, focused on feminist politics, and she used the visual language of advertising and commercial art to address issues around sexual violence and the construction of gender.

Hunter’s experience of working as a freelancer for commercial film companies informed her appropriation of this commercial visual language. In the Approach to Fear series, for instance, Hunter uses the device, common in the mass media, of the disembodied hand – Hunter’s own – to draw in the viewer. However, art critic Lucy Lippard described in 1981 how Hunter’s series turned this cliché on its head:

In the Approach to Fear series, the protagonist’s well-manicured, jewelled hands are in themselves consumer items – part of the fragmentation of the objectified female. They look the way women’s hands are supposed to look, the way they look in advertising, delicately and sensitively touching the objects … But these hands are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. There’s the catch … The aggressiveness lurking in that stylishly acceptable hand gives the image much of its tension.
(Lucy Lippard, ‘Hands On’, in Norwich Gallery 2006, unpaginated.)

Lippard went on to discuss how the narratives seem to revel in this destruction, suggesting that ‘Hunter’s photographs … [are] accompanied by an atmosphere of perversity and frustration. The frustration is that of the woman, who has been manipulated and struggles to free herself from societal conditioning; the perversity is that of the artist, who is in control and enjoying her power’ (Lippard 2006, unpaginated). In this work the movement of the shoe in different shots does not show it off as might be expected of a traditional advertisement, but makes visible its destruction and perhaps increases the reach of the flames.

Historian John Roberts has described how Hunter’s work at the time was part of what he calls an ‘opening up’ of conceptual art to the seductive pleasures of popular culture, emphasising that this tendency had a radical impact on the ways in which photography was used in conceptual art in Britain. According to Roberts, artists such as Hunter had a critical understanding of the use of photography in popular culture and appropriated its representational conventions for their own interrogation of socio-political issues. In an interview with Roberts, Hunter outlined the value of this kind of conceptual art strategy for women artists in particular:

It was the way conceptual art emphasised and utilised the perception of the viewer that was so useful to feminist artists. It was a way of connecting directly to other women without any of the prejudices they might have about an aesthetic language. And this is why artists chose distanced, popular mediums such as film, photography and performance. Conceptual art enabled us to find a gap in perception in which to situate our work within popular culture.
(Alexis Hunter, quoted in John Roberts, ‘Alexis Hunter’, in Norwich Gallery 2006, unpaginated.)

Approach to Fear XIII: Pain – Destruction of Cause has been shown in numerous exhibitions including Hayward Annual II, Hayward Gallery, London 1978; Alexis Hunter: Approaches to Fear, Bristol Arts Laboratory, Bristol 1979; Sydney Biennale II: Vision and Disbelief, Sydney Museum of Photography, Sydney 1982; Alexis Hunter, Fears, Dreams, Desires: A Survey Exhibition 1976–1988, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland 1989; and Alexis Hunter: Radical Feminism in the 1970s, Norwich Gallery, Norwich 2006.

Further reading
Alexis Hunter: Fears/Dreams/Desires, exhibition catalogue, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland 1989.
Alexis Hunter: Radical Feminism in the 1970s, exhibition catalogue, Norwich Gallery, Norwich 2006.

Helen Delaney
May 2013

Display caption

In this work Hunter refers to the advertising techniques of the 1970s whereby you would often see a hand presenting a desirable product. There is a visual conflict between the female hand with polished nails and the burning high heeled shoe it is holding in this act of destruction. The shoe can be seen to embody the woman as portrayed in the mass media; a sort of starlet offering herself for public consumption. This artwork clearly relates to Hunter’s feminist position and critique of society’s objectification of the female body.

Gallery label, September 2016

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