Suspension has long been a part of the language of Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture. As she says, “Horizontality is a desire to give up, to sleep. Verticality is an attempt to escape. Hanging and floating are states of ambivalence.” There are no pedestals here, and it’s all upside down. Umbilical cords descend from the ceiling holding these hybrid, sexually ambiguous, threatening sculptures in the air. Tentative, unresolved, outside time, caught in a place, these are words that could describe Louise Bourgeois’ hanging sculptures. Psyche and body are not in touch. Distended, disconnected, amorphous feelings rub onto you… Are these surrealist? They’re more perturbing and fixated than that. As sculptures they seize on the human’s condition, on unspoken issues we seldom deal with.

Spanning more than forty-five years of Louise Bourgeois’ oeuvre, Cheim & Reid’s Suspension exhibition includes the dense rubber Lair (1986) and the overtly phallic Janus series (1968). More interesting, to my mind, are the Fee Couturiere (1963), for these white painted bronze pieces resemble the bio- and totemic wood sculptures of her early years. They could be nests or shelters, but their beauty resonates with an appreciation of the primal, and the natural. While Anthony Gormley’s body sculptures are meditative, contemplative, Bourgeois’ are all about autobiography. In her early career, she had an art gallery adjacent to and in the same building as her father’s tapestry gallery. Studying at the Ecole du Louvre, and as Fernand Leger’s assistant, Bourgeois had her first apartment in the same building as the Surrealist Gradiva Gallery and visited it almost daily. Her husband, Robert Goldwater, whose excellent research and curating of primitive and African art dovetailed its way into Bourgeois’ own raw sensitivity ultimately became reflected in the new autobiographical hybrid art that was Louise Bourgeois front, back and centre.

As forbidden, as hidden, the childhood mysteries encapsulated as cues in Bourgeois’ sculptures go beyond the Freudian, or psychoanalytic. (Though after years of psychotherapy, Bourgeois did write an essay on Freud’s toys…). The current show has drawings from the 1940s that reference the suspended metaphor. One can immediately see how the sexy, close-to-surreal gutsy style she invented inspired younger generations of sculptors like Cornelia Parker and Mona Hatoum.

All of Bourgeois’ mature sculptures upset us. These are not the loveable puppies of Jeff Koons. Dark, disturbing, they are at once intimate and estranged, tactile inversions of the private that become so public and feminist. Works like Arch of Hysteria (2004) and Legs (2001), inverse, expose, twist private emotions, painfully expose them for all to see. For all this the mediums – from bronze, to fabric, to wood, to rubber – are anathema to the “subjects” they depict. Couple, 2001, for instance, is towel-like fabric, and if ever there was a parody of love this is it. Where Brancusi’s Kiss expresses affection, Bourgeois’ Couple enigmatically circumscribes confusion, distance, and blindness. Bourgeois’ compulsion and obsession with human nature came from childhood, and one that has already been written on elsewhere. She once described the source of her use of suspension to be the “sieges de bois”, wooden chairs that hung from the ceiling of her family’s attic. Something out of reach or a scaffold? The cues for Bourgeois’ incredible capacity to hit the nail on the head are the primitive, Baroque and the classical. All this and recollections of containment, entrapment, and insidious and abusive human relations, part of her childhood reality, make for what looks surreal but is actually a real, post-traumatic theatre of the not-so-absurd.

The suspension metaphor takes many forms – hyper-erotic, sensual, distant, disembodied, or distorted. The bronze Femme (1993) is as tortuous and archetypal as the torqued aluminum spiral forms made in the last years of Bourgeois’ life are resolved – embodiments of liberation, of our capacity to transcend our own experience.

Cheim & Read, New York
October 30, 2014 – January 10, 2015