The history of Western art is full of women sat silently, passively, patiently. Portrayed as they were meant to appear. But what thoughts were they thinking? What was the nature of their internal climate? What might they have said if given the chance? These are questions that have long fascinated artist Hannah Wooll, and which feed into much of her work today. Work that is also dominated by silent women, yet women who palpably vibrate with all that is unsaid.
Wooll is a mother-artist and a home-studio artist; factors that not only shape, but form an integral part of her practice, which in turn holds issues of the domestic and femininity at its core. In recent years, her paintings have largely transitioned away from the primed canvas surface to the surfaces of ‘found media’; discarded objects collected from local charity shops (decorative lamps, vases and ceramic figurines, originally acquired to furnish the vision of a happy home), and the richly-illustrated pages of books from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s on subjects such as needlepoint, flower-pressing, homemaking and taste. Surfaces that carry a very loaded set of signifiers. Stimulus that Wooll responds to with her brush; allowing what’s there to suggest and feed what comes next. Placing her painted figures within the landscapes she finds.
The girls or women that inhabit her paintings all share an ancient, yet nymphish quality – as if belonging to some separate, timeless realm. Some seem defiant, petulant even, fixing the viewer with an unwavering stare. Whilst others gaze off into the distance in a trance-like state, perhaps bored, trapped or lost. They often appear incongruous with their surroundings. Out of scale. A pair of twins stand notably small and semi-transparent, adrift upon the carpet of a genteel living room. A group of three nestle together within the shade of a looming flower. The bust of a lone girl perches on the footrest of an antique bureau a cylindre. The effect is surreal and dream-like.
Wooll has been drawing and painting girls and women since as early as she can remember; experimenting with her own identity and the expression of inner feelings through the self-portraits of her youth, copying images of others from magazines, or capturing friends. Looking back, she realises that this pastime served as a method of probing. A means of seeking a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what makes ‘femininity’, both within and beyond the socially-constructed parameters that exist. Similarly, she spent much of her childhood playing with doll houses; micro-worlds of domesticity – protected, self-contained spaces that offer an outside perspective on the wider reality which we inhabit.
An interest in doll houses led to a later interest in stage sets, and spaces or images that have a notably fake or manufactured quality to them. We see the influence of this throughout Wooll’s work. In her deliberate departure from naturalism and collaging of styles. But also in pieces such as It’s a Jungle Out There (2016) and In Bloom (2016), where an almost tongue-in-cheek, ‘cut-and-paste’ aesthetic feeds into the overall sense of absurdity within both works, chiefly derived from the saccharine pink flowers and ridiculously fluffy cat, which serves as trite ‘feminine’ clichés. The girls in both paintings adopt reluctant, yet vaguely sexualised poses, as if resistant but resigned to the role or scenario in which they have been placed. Wooll studied Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University, and it was here that she became more consciously aware of the sexual politics surrounding the representation of women, through exposure to feminist artists and collectives such as Cindy Sherman, Diane Airbus, Barbara Kruger, Frida Kahlo and the Guerrilla Girls.
The power of Wooll’s work is anchored most deeply, however, in its ambiguity. Though we do not know what thoughts these girl-women are thinking, we are led by their intensity to wonder and speculate. To question their relationship to the world in which they reside. And to reflect upon what bearing they may have upon our own. Wooll’s upcoming solo exhibition at PAPER (17 February – 31 March 2018) is titled Interior World – a fitting mental springboard off which to dive into this psychologically-charged space.
Words by Sara Jaspan