Commissioned text
Published 01/03/13

Hannah James: The outline seems indelible

Simon Bayliss

The soothing voice of the artist emanates from the corner behind the entrance, gently appointing the parameters of the space with sound.

When scanning the room, there are no immediate signs to pander to passive gazing. Instead James’ work offers subtlety encountered through a sense of intrigue as opposed to obligation.

She narrates a pair of anonymously pedestrian photographs, framed on the adjacent wall. ‘So I googled Barbara Hepworth sculpture’ reveals the artist while liberally relaying her investigation into the snapshots of an iconic piece in the St. Ives Sculpture Garden, that she recovered from the desk-draw of a female ex-school teacher. There are no revelations or conclusions in her oration; instead a confession, childlike in candour, of her unravelling mental processes sparked by the picture. The visual motif in Barbara Hepworth, Cotham School, is an already renowned artwork, a great holey sculpture, represented here, by all appearances, in an ordinary found photo; a ready-made captured within a ready-made of contrasting worldly significance. The artist’s monologue deepens the layering further, distributing the authorship, history and narrative of the piece equally between herself, the late Dame, and the ex-teacher, all bound by her seemingly inconsequential yet personal web of enquiry.

Hannah James Install 1
The Outline Seems Indelible, Hannah James (2013) Photo credit: Dom Moore

In a second audio piece from which the show’s title derives, the artist recites a passage from a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, in which a woman witnesses the squashing of a centipede in her home. The narrative viewpoint is disjointed and ambiguous and the character relations remains unclear, yet the surrounding events are described with nightmarish detail. The violence of the act is and is emphasised by the narrator’s intense anatomical scrutiny of the creature and its fate, conveying the possibility of a simultaneous spirit of cold detachment and deep empathy. This recital is wildly juxtaposed in James’ framing of the piece, read by the softly spoken artist, projecting from speakers positioned to towards the glass front of the building, overlooking a temporal scene of passers-by on a busy urban street.

Like much of James’ work it offers a rich multi-layered experience, a stack of potential authors or contributors, yet physically delivered with the unobtrusive tactics of Duchampian minimalism. The emotive themes within the show are less tangible however; the artist’s subjective disposition appears unconstrained but enigmatic, yet there are commonalities. Perhaps the most deliberate association with another work is evoked by the disjointed limb-like shapes printed directly onto the gallery wall, raising the echoed trace of a dead arthropod into the representation of an abstract-expressionist gesture. The theme of the artist is reflected again in Selected interiors, Cotham School; projections from a looping carousel of reclaimed slides of photographs of book pages, featuring many well-known paintings of domestic spaces, mainly inhabited by women. Included in the selection is a work by the prominent female impressionist Berthe Morisot. Psyche depicts a young woman dressing herself in front of a mirror.

Through all of the intentionally convoluted composites of a work’s origins and media, lapses in narrative time, scale and space, the emotive charge of James’ chosen motifs emerge nevertheless. It is possible therefore, to follow a thread on the subject of female psychic-negotiations within her environment. It seems James’ process has been partly to investigate a historically modest archetype, and to emphasise and cohere subtle, otherwise unestablished or hidden truths. These she presents in an aptly inconspicuous manner, where beyond the laconic appointment of her chosen media simmer tender and intriguing encounters.