LONDON — Out there in the artistic ether is a flimsy Italian geometry notebook, its yellowing pages pasted over with a series of small, square-format photographs. Two of the photos are violently cropped images of a partially nude woman standing over a mirror, and beneath two of them is scrawled the text: “These things…make me think about where I fit in the odd geometry of time.”
The notebook is Francesca Woodman’s artist’s book, fabricated in 1981 shortly before her famed suicide. This particular caption comes across as a found artist’s statement, summarizing her oeuvre’s visual exploration of an unfixed self within the geometric scaffolding of space and time.
The solo show Francesca Woodman: Zigzag at Victoria Miro Mayfair turns its lens toward the meticulous geometry undergirding Woodman’s inscrutable images. Each of the 25 photographs in the exhibition — self-portraits, curiously cropped or blurred — employs the visual motif of the zigzag. The exhibition’s level of aesthetic coaxing is wide-ranging: sometimes the zigzag is barely detectable in the curvature of the artist’s silhouette, while one work, a string of images with a zigzag formation outlined in pen, is explicitly entitled “Zig Zag Study, New York” (1980). The gallery’s formalist approach is a deliberate move away from the wealth of more popular biographical and feminist readings of Woodman’s work. (For a historiography, see Julia Bryan-Wilson’s “Blurs: Toward a Provisional Historiography of Francesca Woodman.”)
The exhibition’s tight curation echoes the aesthetic rigor that it seeks to highlight in Woodman’s work. A careful selection of square-format silver gelatin prints commands the main space. The gallery has arranged the photos thematically, grouping them by their psychologically loaded imagery. Sometimes the Gothic-type symbolism can be a bit fussy, a heavy-handed arsenal of decrepit houses, dusty vitrines, and ghostly bodies. But, as with a good Gothic novel, the capacity for haunting is undeniable.
I was drawn to a grouping of three photographs, each featuring a different mirror. The changing mirror moves rhythmically from the charged space between Woodman’s open thighs to a dusty corner from which it largely obscures her body, to underneath her kneeling form, a hand emerging from its glassy surface like a silver-bellied fish rising to the top of a pool. The exhibition doesn’t dictate whether Woodman’s mirror alludes to making as a reflection of the self (biography) or whether it draws attention to how the self is constructed (feminism, and cue the Lacan). It just lets the representational mise en abyme gorgeously unfold.
In this way, the images at Victoria Miro are almost more choreographed than curated, a sentiment in keeping with the serial nature of Woodman’s photographs. The zigzag of one image bleeds into the next; a stripe of light turns into the pale stroke of a bent elbow. Gathering up space and then throwing it back, the zigzag endows Woodman’s photographs with an erratic energy. It acts as a spring into space, an undulation that launches the viewer headfirst into the fascinating, intimate worlds of her creation. I found myself repeatedly falling into the rabbit holes of individual images, sensorially immersed as I imagined running my fingertips down peeling wallpaper or along textured fabric. And, just as frequently, I stepped back, seeing the zigzag formation snaking through and within the series of images like a wet eel.
The exhibition’s rigorous attention to geometric form can seem to tie Woodman’s work to a masculinist modernism, to a canonized aesthetic of the hard line. It risks coming across as an attempt to somehow rectify the emotional, psychological, spiritual, or “feminine” charge that makes Woodman’s work so compelling (and that has so compelled her devotees). But the zigzag is slippery, for as it alludes to or enacts modernist tropes, it simultaneously challenges them, pushing up against the male-dominated canon and twisting the grid — the geometric form that Rosalind Krauss famously said “declare[d] the modernity of modern art” — out of shape. The exhibition text quotes George Woodman, Francesca’s artist father, saying: “Domination by a zigzag motif is very rare … It creates a world of flux without horizon.” While not referencing her more explicitly architectural projects — for example, her embedding of her artist’s book in a geometry textbook — he neatly aligns Woodman’s use of the zigzag with her work’s more postmodern concerns with a self in perpetual motion.
Zigzag shows work that is just as formally rigorous, architectural, and meticulously planned as it is open-ended, soft, and vulnerable. While the exhibition doesn’t ask some of the important questions, it does something that is lacking in the Woodman discourse, something we rarely allow in context-laden readings of female artists: it lets the work do its work.
Francesca Woodman: Zigzag continues at Victoria Miro Mayfair (14 St George Street, London) through October 4.