February 25–April 16, 2023
Inhale deeply and try to hold your breath. A thin trace of air propelled from the groin to the belly to the lungs to the nostrils lingers; a tight sensation suffuses the chest and head. How long can the body endure the dense emptiness that anticipates an exhale? This is the tension embodied in Shana Hoehn’s sculptures now on view at Prairie in Chicago, Illinois.
Invoking Adieu Ammenotep (1960), Leonora Carrington’s painting of a surgical theatre, Basket Toss consists of five wood and metal sculptures depicting figures in various states of disarticulation or autopsy. Hoehn's anatomical sorcery suggests an esoteric auto body shop, in which sinuous exterior shells cloak mechanical innards. Using traditional means to craft surreal forms, Hoehn employs techniques such as metal casting and wood carving in conjunction with 3D modeling software. Her work is decidedly not readymade, requiring a great deal of engineering and hand-tooling; yet, like much of twentieth-century assemblage, her sculpture places emphasis on its composite status. Her work is a bunch of parts.
Each of Hoehn’s sculptures are mounted to the wall. Four works from her “Breast Bracket” series present lithe, bodice-like silhouettes tapered at two ends. Both mechanical and sensual, the contours of these reliefs evoke the hardbody curvature of Barbara Hepworth’s work and the erotic abstractions of Louise Bourgeois. However, the sculptures appear more figurative as you move away from their edges: casts of real-life breasts protrude from the center. In contrast to their smooth supports, these appendages are incredibly tactile, dappled with fleshy eccentricities. Hoehn’s use of recognizable body parts finds greater rapport with a generation of figurative sculptors working in the sixties and seventies, such as Paul Thek and Alina Szapocznikow, who decontextualized features cast from their own bodies. These sculptors presented their dismembered bodily fragments as standalone objects—metonymic parts standing in for a whole figure.
But Hoehn’s sculptures are not free-standing. Her wall-mounted reliefs draw out moments of subordination, where one thing must rely on another. Not quite human, not quite machine, Hoehn’s use of relief encourages a single, frontal perspective on her composite objects. Unlike other modes of figurative relief, which attempt to draw out discrete movements from a fixed point of view, Hoehn’s sculptures enunciate their stasis. It’s hard to physically relate to these limbless, acephalous busts on anatomical terms because of their implied lack of movement.
But the supportive structures of Hoehn’s sculptures do imply movement: in each case, there is a directional thrust that originates from the base. The lower regions of Hoehn’s reliefs contain holes and chutes for various outward-springing objects. Three cast-aluminum breast brackets from 2023 cradle various upward-blooming artificial flora and fauna, such as painted cattails and patinated spores. They snake expressively, belying their inanimate, industrial nature. An adjacent bronze-cast work from 2019, Breast Bracket #1 with Rod, props up an arched bar—the tip exposes an internal rebar rod marked by an embossed zig-zag pattern. This material is itself a type of fortification, providing tensile strength. By driving internal structures outwards, the sculpture emphasizes the supportive mechanisms that undergird the whole. In the same vein, hardware serves to anchor the relief to the wall, but it also takes on an ornamental character. Screws of various metal tones—brass, silver, and copper—are used across the works included here; some blend in while others assert their presence. Hoehn also leaves voids where fasteners might be used, hollow redundancies asserting that the form as a whole requires parts to keep it in place.
Hoehn’s modestly-sized “Breast Brackets” hover perpendicular and parallel to a larger sculpture, Basket Toss (2023). Named for the cheerleading stunt in which two athletes—“bases”—interlock hands to propel a third teammate upwards, the work depicts a carved wood figure levitating in mid-air, buttressed by two metal rods emerging from an abstracted but vaguely maternal silhouette. The clothed sculpture—donning a tank top, skirt, and lace-up sneakers chiseled from its wooden figure—is more like a mannequin or doll than a human likeness. Her features are sparsely articulated, and her eyes, represented by two bumps, are closed. The sculpture’s carved construction articulates its own making: in lieu of a homogenous, idealized form, wood pulp infill gleaned from the carving process punctuates portions of the body. The work, like a kind of alchemy, regenerates itself.
Hoehn previously explored the motif of the airborne woman in a collaborative image board project, The Sirens: Volume 1 (2019) with Rustlana Lichtzier. Juxtaposing black-and-white pictures of female figures fainting, floating, and unfurling, the project mined themes of feminine hysteria. One page depicts tropes of madness—women with their heads in the clouds—fortified by artificial accessories. Bette Davis with a baby jane doll, the cybernetic body in Ghost in the Shell (1995), and the exposed bionic anatomy of a Stepford wife all appear. Hoehn’s present sculpture uses analog means to similarly model the discontents of existing in a world scaffolded by machines. Absent circuitry and wires, the sculptures in Basket Toss do not seriously entertain the idea that machines might replace us, nor do they attempt to hide the technological prosthetics that undergird contemporary life. Even as Hoehn’s work reinvents itself in a series of material transformations, the specter of a crutch rises out of thin air, hovering at the moment where a part becomes a whole.