On ViewJack Hanley Gallery
Threat is often an element in Cortney Andrews’s work. Be it explicit, as in her 2016 performance Within Arm’s Reach, during which the artist was roped by her ankles off the mast of a ship and dangled over open water; or cheeky, as in her 2017 installation Play It As It Lays, in which performers balanced glass chalices atop each other’s foreheads.
In her recent solo show, I See You, at Jack Hanley Gallery, the threat, is, ironically, invisible. Like Julio Cortázar’s “Blow-Up,” the short story that serves as inspiration, about a photographer who, without permission, snaps, enlarges, and then ruminates on the story of his subjects, it is “strange how the scene”—a multimedia installation of performance video, sculpture, and photographs—takes on “a disquieting aura.”
In Exposure (2020), a two-channel video that is the centerpiece of the show, we watch as nine dancers, standing in close formation, slowly begin to remove their coats. Silent save for the rush of fabric over shoulder, a loud, shocking slap as coats hit the floor, anxiety builds as we watch the dancers repeat the gesture over and over—removing, dropping, donning, tugging—in unison, gaining speed. The dancers’ breaths of effort and competition become audible. Their movement gains urgency as they struggle to keep pace. Those who can’t hack it, exit, one by one. It is both compelling and distressing to watch—a sensory and emotional experience.
In another section, the dancers, facing various directions, drop suddenly to the floor. The camera pans across their bodies—faces down, hands braced against cement—eerily echoing an emergency situation. The presence of unseen but imminent danger. The dancers’ coats—all nine of them—hang suggestively on the gallery wall.
The human form, as in all of Andrews’s work, figures prominently. In a separate room, nine white blindfolded and disembodied heads float on top of nine white pedestals, representing the dancers. The ceramic busts (2020) grin maniacally—evoking pleasure—a disturbing nod to Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and fortune. The blindfolds are rendered in iridescent glaze, some of it still “dripping” as if hastily applied, in various colors. Surrounding the sculptures are three photographs: the reflection of a seemingly empty room in a set of full-length mirrors (2013); a woman in a black coat doing a deep backbend (2019); a naked and pale mannequin-like torso foregrounded by flowers (2019). In each, the face or body (of the artist) is partially or entirely obscured.
The show was created before the pandemic but feels particularly prescient. A current of surveillance and confinement—the windowless warehouse, the proximity of the dancers (off, off damned coat!)—ripples throughout. The headless self-portraits and blindfolded busts underscore anonymity, the degree to which we are our bodies, but also, now, the way that every body encountered is a threat. In Exposure, the dancers who exit the scene assume a place of watching and recording—iPhones up, flashlights on—as we collectively observe the final dancer, her increasingly frantic movement. They join us in our voyeurism, watching us as we watch her.
But the human form in Andrews’s work isn’t so much fetishized as empowered, subverting the fantasy of the male gaze. When the last (wo)man standing (the dancer Courtney Drasner, who’s performed in several of Andrews’s works) stares into the camera, she does so defiantly. And unlike Cortázar’s narrative of projection, it’s a woman behind the camera—with consent—deciding what to frame, how bodies are presented, the stories they tell.