Galerie Christophe Gaillard presents Hannah Whitaker’s first solo exhibition in Paris, “The Fifth Hammer.” On view is a selection of new photographic works ranging from landscapes shot in Louisiana and Costa Rica, staged portraits, and still lifes of mundane objects.
Whitaker’s photographs start with organizing principles ranging from visual patterning, to repetitive motions, to number systems, to the structures of John Cage’s musical compositions. In each photograph, Whitaker presents an overt rationale—represented visually by a grid, a pattern, or repetition across several photographs—while undermining this logic with mistakes, randomness, imperfection, and messiness.
The exhibition marks Whitaker’s increasing focus on the space inside the photographic apparatus. She uses a 4×5-inch view camera, which allows for a film plane large enough to be manipulated by hand. She makes use of hand-cut paper screens to disrupt or transform the photographic process, defying the integrity of the technical image. Deploying these screens at various points in the process of exposing film, she at times shoots through them for one or multiple exposures and, at other times, uses them to leak light directly onto the film. Using these in-camera techniques, she often layers different visual languages within a single image, placing the geometric alongside the photographic, the handmade alongside the technical, and the flat alongside the dimensional. As a result, objects and spaces are articulated both through recognizable photographic means and also as artifacts of the screens themselves—spots of light leaks, or shapes defined by a cut in the paper screen.
With an emphasis on the syncopated linearity of counting, Whitaker’s photographs provide a rhythm to the action of looking at a photograph, like the motion of reading. Drawing from Gertrude Stein’s writing and Anni Albers’s textiles, she establishes patterns of repetitive strategies that are defied as quickly as they are established. Whitaker is interested in the coded and politicized histories of patterns and geometric abstraction in both fine and vernacular arts. In Water Water Water, for example, she employs the modular logic of traditional American quiltmaking. In the Limonene works, she extracts a visual language rooted in abstract painting from litter collected off the streets of Miami. The Red works are excerpted from a larger project comprised of thirty-six re-photographed photographs based on a sequence of numbers.
Unlike in previous bodies of work, the subject matter in “The Fifth Hammer” is decidedly banal. While her photographs are made via unconventional means, what they depict is in line with conventional uses of photography—they document her personal life and travels. Whitaker’s emphasis on the conditions for making these works belie the actual experience of looking at her photographs, such as in 255, which derives its strength not from the grid that obscures a woman’s gaze into the lens but in spite of it.
The exhibition takes its title from a story told by Boethius about Pythagorus. In it, Pythagorus stumbles upon a forge from which he could hear the harmonious sounds of hammers banging against rock. By comparing the weight of each hammer to the sound it produced, he deduced the principles of musical harmony—thus quantifying an aesthetic phenomenon. The fifth hammer, however, was discordant with all others, and so Pythagorus discarded it. The story points to the limits of logic rationale to explain the world, much the way that images disrupt linear thinking in favor of nonsensical or paradoxical modes of thought.