Out of Context

 

Beers Contemporary presents painter Regina Nieke, sculptor Frauke Wilken, and multidisciplinary artist Heike Jobst in Out of Context, an exhibition that presents three female German artists whose work addresses the body as a site of repression/expression and metonym for fantastical and historical reference. Each of the German-born, raised, and based artists (Nieke hails from Berlin, Wilken from Cologne, and Jobst from Munich) present the body as a porous site of interpretation, but also operate artistic practices that might peripherally comment on whether there fails to exist a canon of work from Germany that historically incorporates the female artist? And if so, what this means for the contemporary, female German artist working within this context - geographically, politically, and artistically. While the exhibition is influenced by these potential oversights in the history of German art, it is equally propelled by recent developments within a contemporary art scene in Germany that attempts to include these artistic perspectives.

It is a bold – but not hyperbolic – statement to claim that the history of German art has largely excluded the female voice. Since the early 20th century, the European canon began including key – albeit marginalized – female artists. For interest, this exhibition chooses to focus on a select and microcosmic sampling (as opposed to the impossible task of attempting a survey-show) on exclusively female, exclusively German artists. A brief glance at artistic heritage in Germany proves a noted lack of recognized artists, and in fact, this setback in female-visibility can be seen as even more pronounced in Germany’s history compared to its European counterparts, perhaps in part due a socio-political unrest during and post Nazi-Germany and the greater factions of repression that were operating on a larger socio-political context. 

In a recent article (September 17, 2012) in The Guardian, German academic, author, and philosopher Bernard Schlink controversially explains that the contemporary German's reaction to the globalization of both history and contemporary existence is “symptomatic of another desire: to escape what it means to be German, including the solidarity, responsibility and guilt attached to that" [3]. One is led to question exactly how a contemporary German artist (female or not) responds to such bold claims? How have the effects of increased mobility on mental states, patriotism and partisanship (or lack thereof) become transitory and manifest in the plastic arts in other geographical locales? With this in mind, the artists selected for Out of Context were chosen for what we might consider visualizations of destabilized meaning: artworks characterized by conditions of precariousness, loss of identity, an address of restriction, fantasy, or a desire to escape… In contemporary Germany, it appears that worldwide concerns of globalization are compounded by a complicated history of “old certainties—historical, ideological, and material [concerns]” including but not exclusively affected by the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Precarious Worlds: Contemporary Art From Germany, a recent exhibition at the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis, suggests that this historical repression “unleashed decades of political and social transformations” and can – in the plastic arts – be illustrated in the use of ephemeral materials, wherein a sense of history and memory as fluid and instable is absent [1]. In Out of Context, the entire representation of “real things” is displaced, absent, even unimportant. One might consider the works of Heike Jobst, for instance: installations and displays based upon the artist’s drawings, which subvert and monumentalize ‘the domestic’. While familiar and definitively unheimlich [2], to use the Freudian term - blur and omit the important details in their environment or operate beyond recognition, thus producing transitory, fluid sensory experience within the gallery space, not unlike the recollection of (real or imagined?) memories also referred to in Freud’s primal scene. By staging showcases of a pictorial space, Jobst creates a window into reality: vignettes intended to alter our perception and question reality, history, the dream versus the factual or other polarities like presence and absence, fullness and emptiness, visibility and invisibility, front and back, artifice and authenticity, integrity and fetish.

To further the concept of fantastical space, Regina Nieke’s paintings present what appears to be a radical yet empathetic take on metamorphosing beings frozen within the ‘confines’ of the painted surface. In this instance, portraits of amorphous human-like shapes are reduced to grotesque masses, yet handled simplistic grace and technical mastery, simultaneous beauty and horror. But Nieke is quite aware of a greater historical – and painterly – context within which she hails; her works and titles candidly reference her German influences, such as Caspar David Friedrich (A Monk At the Sea, 1810, see image below), and various works of Arnold Böcklin, to name a few. Her other references are bold and marked, here one sees nods to Bacon, Guston, even Degas and most recently: Doig. Through Neike’s processes, content and technique become unified, and these entities and shadows in paint explode in ecstasy across the painted surface. Her subjects appear without place or space, failing to maintain identity and operating on the periphery of their own reality. In this regard, precision is unimportant in favor of the intensity of emotion and the response culled from the viewer.

Similarly, Frauke Wilken’s minimalist textile soft-sculptures seem a direct compliment to those figures lurking within Nieke’s paintings. Their suspended, dreamlike presence plays with any sense of confrontation, action, tactility, memory, a suggestion of (in)animation. The works seem to verge toward (art-historical ideas of ‘the feminist’) with elements of restraint and repression in place of masculine playfulness: recalling works in chocolate by Janine Antonioni or the haunting cloth-like elements in sculptures by Kiki Smith, versus the 'silly' soft sculptures of minimalists Robert Morris or Claes Oldenburg.

It is imperative to maintain while viewing these works that this exhibition does not attempt to answer any of these weighty questions, or provide a historically accurate survey; rather, it attempts to observe and consider large questions in lieu of the works of three talented artists who live, work, and operate as part of a larger historical and contemporary context that creates further complexities for the understanding of these works. Perhaps it is each of the artist's desire to suggest a new discursive space, a new reality within the abstract understanding of the object and the matter, instead of creating the illusion of reality, the works prefer (like Antonioni) aesthetic fascination with the object, the process, the understanding of a system subservient to its relationship to a greater social structure: for instance, what it means to be a female, what it means to be German, what it means to create this type of work as this type of artist? These are conclusions that draw more questions than answers…

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich, A Monk at the Sea (1810)
 

 

 


[1] Quotations taken from essay for Precarious Worlds: Contemporary Art From Germany at the Kemper Art Museum. Link at  http://kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu/exhibitions/5547

[2] German origin for uncanny

[3] "Bernard Schlink: Being German is a Huge Burden." First appeared in the Sunday Edition of The Guardian, September 16, 2012. Author Kate Connolly.