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Book of the Week: Selected by Laura Larson

Book Review Say So Photographs by Whitney Hubbs Reviewed by Laura Larson "Whitney Hubbs’ Say So catalogs a ruminative and goofy series of self-portraits made in 2019 and 2020. Produced with a 4x5 view camera, the photographs abandon the master class mentality of large-format practice for a messy and private performance of desire and identity..."

Say So
By Whitney Hubbs.
Say So
Photographs by Whitney Hubbs

SPBH Editions, 2021. 64 pp., 24 illustrations, 9½x11½x½".

Whitney Hubbs’ Say So catalogs a ruminative and goofy series of self-portraits made in 2019 and 2020. Produced with a 4x5 view camera, the photographs abandon the master class mentality of large-format practice for a messy and private performance of desire and identity. The photographs are staged in the artist’s studio with its trappings all squarely in the frame — nothing is concealed. I’m very much aware I’m in a site of construction and contingency: plywood sawhorse, cinder blocks, buckets, vinyl drop cloths repurposed as backdrops, duct tape everywhere. In this atmosphere, Hubbs auditions the accessories and gestures of amateur pornography with an eye on how they rely on the constituent fiction of female availability. She pretends to deep throat a 2 x 4 and straddles a tall, thin houseplant. She pours water down the front of her body — a studio experiment in girls gone wild. Both a medium and a comedian, she channels and disarms porn’s conventions.

Subject and object, Hubbs is a guileless contortionist who looks back at her camera. In the first image of the book, she’s adorned in a black, lace bodysuit, her sleepy eyes peering through a gas mask. The heels of her black boots are perched on top of cinder blocks and her thighs are spread. (I want to note that Hubbs owns many pairs of black boots — workwear, not the sexy variety.) The heel of her right boot presses into the black rubber bulb of the shutter release. I like how the studio equipment becomes a sex toy in this scene, holding tension. Hubbs holds a Chipotle tin bowl lid in front of her crotch, folded slightly to impersonate a vulva — female genitalia as fast food. In Plate 15, Hubbs faces the camera, seated in a metal folding chair, and holds two fake breasts over her own. At first glance, I thought her arms were doubles too until I recognized her tattoos. It’s like she’s proliferating, growing multiple appendages. Milk pours from her tensed mouth, running down the center of her chest. It leaks from beneath the fake boobs and cascades down the length of her torso, soaking her black lace underwear and the crotch of her acid-wash jeans. Mother’s milk, wet pussy: Hubbs collapses the false divide between the maternal and sexual body and it’s LOL funny. Witness Plate 8 for emoji humor. Wearing a python print jumpsuit, Hubbs stands facing the camera, stretching the band of taupe pantyhose over her belly with two tennis balls and an eggplant held taut at her crotch. There’s a run in her stocking creeping down her leg.

Hubbs’s comic delivery is sharp, but she’s got different stakes in the game. She’s not interested in punchlines or pratfalls or the gag of substituting her real body within porn’s airbrushed tableaux. Case in point: there are no money shots in the book, no humiliations of surrender. Her performance trades the animation that fuels slapstick, which relies on making yourself the butt of the joke, for something else. Her photographs tap the energy of longing and fury meeting the relentless forces that rigidly police and punish the agency of female sexuality. I can feel this gravity in these photographs, the undertow of fatigue, a commonplace experience for women. Hubbs looks to porn for her visual language but it’s her homages to Francesca Woodman and Jo Ann Callis, artists who also tangle with female pleasure, who are her true interlocutors in Say So. In each photograph, I imagine her thinking: how does this make me feel? With a somatic sigh, Hubbs taps a vein of feeling about what it’s like to live in a female body with all its drives, vulnerabilities, and contradictions in a culture with little capacity to imagine these subjectivities. Her photographs limn the too-much-ness of this experience, holding the leaky tension between being and seeing with ambivalence and generosity.

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Laura Larson
is a photographer, writer, and teacher based in Columbus, OH. She's exhibited her work extensively, at such venues as Art in General, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Centre Pompidou, Columbus Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, SFCamerawork, and Wexner Center for the Arts and is held in the collections of Allen Memorial Art Museum, Deutsche Bank, Margulies Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Microsoft, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, New York Public Library, and Whitney Museum of American Art. Hidden Mother (Saint Lucy Books, 2017), her first book, was shortlisted for the Aperture-Paris Photo First Photo Book Prize. Larson is currently at work on a new book, City of Incurable Women (forthcoming from Saint Lucy Books) and a collaborative book with writer Christine Hume, All the                                                               Women I Know.