November 4-December 22, 2017
Matthew Marks Gallery
523 West 24 Street New York 10011
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, JAN. 2018
Katharina Fritsch, now a mature--and highly recognized--artist based in Duesseldorf, Germany, just closed a terrific show of sculptures at Matthew Marks Gallery. Taking well-known objects and creatures--a snake, a seashell, a skull, a spinning wheel--she invests them with both a menacing aura and a moral gravitas by making them larger than they usually are. Indeed, one of the most powerful sculptures in this small show was a huge skull, completely white, that inevitably plays off everyone’s mostly unspoken fear of mortality.
As simple as they seem to be, Fritsch’s works compel us to ponder large psychological issues that arouse distaste and even fear; one of her best-known works is a circle of huge rats, which quite clearly is meant to bring about anxiety. In doing so, the art tends to move in the direction of symbolic feeling and thought--areas the German poets have been exploring since the early modernist Stefan George, as well as a contemporary artist like Anselm Kiefer. We are not so used to this approach in New York, where our formalism tends to be relentlessly cheerful and pop rather than obsessively gloomy. So it was a real pleasure--perhaps that is the incorrect word!--to experience this small trove of seven discrete objects, intended to raise questions that we may well find disquieting. It is not excessive to read a moral intelligence into Fritsch’s art, which distances us from our conventional perceptions and feelings by shifting the scale of things we know well. Enlarging the dimensions of everyday objects also increases their visual power.
But the power is not only visual. Good art tends to suggest realms in addition to the one we now occupy; those dominions can be psychological or spiritual, although they are rarely referred to directly in contemporary art. Fritsch does very interesting things by asking us to read the art we see as more than what it appears to be. A light-green, cast-bronze mussel shell becomes much greater in weight, literally and figuratively, because it attains a height that is slightly greater than nine feet. Additionally, its narrow, vertical slit, with each edge given a long row of regularly spaced teeth, looks rather absurdly like a giant vagina dentata; surely the sculpture is intended to originate some jitters at a primal level. There is a component in these works that is comic, a quality that offsets and softens the psychological edge they cause.
But, even so, the overall effect is unsettling, not least because the sculptures possess tones that are historically resonant or folk-oriented. A long, twisting snake, whose length is painted half in red, half in white lacquer, awakens primordial fears found not only in our biblical narrative but also in our genetic make-up (the result of millenia of interactions with poisonous creatures). One might easily argue that the snake is just a snake, and we are making too much of its typology. Still, we cannot free our interpretation completely from the complex associations the serpent incurs. Even though the forms are simple to the point of being childlike, Fritsch chooses her armamentarium carefully.
As a result, then, the sculptures occupy two spheres: that of appearances and that of literary or symbolic import. Kitsch’s accomplishment is to have merged the two so well that one perception cannot be separated from the other. Perhaps our unease is prompted by the simplicity of the forms, which tends to attract an archetypal memory. A bright purple spinning wheel, just short of ninety inches tall, with white wool as a contrast, is surely obsolete, so it calls into mind a resonance with fairy tales or ancient myths. The architecture of the object is remarkable for its complicated but believably accurate components; one feels the need to ask if the spinning wheel actually works. But its real power comes from our consideration of the narratives in which the wheel is used--fairy tales involving good and evil; in Greek mythology, the wheel marks the length of life in the case of Penelope in The Odyssesy as well as a reference to her method of fending off her suitors. One of the unspoken tropes these works bring up is that of time, for without the historical alliance that gives the sculptures their significance, they would likely be too simple to register as the powerful pieces of art they are. The artworks need the unseen aura of narrative implication that surrounds them. In New York, where the emphasis has been trained first and foremost on seeing alone, commenting on such invisible connotations may seem like overinterpretation. Fortuitously, Fritsch’s art refuses to be so simple.
Given the often unearthly semantics of Fritsch’s efforts, it seems best to end with her nearly five-foot-tall skull. The work can hardly be more clear: it is a deathly statement. Here the tradition of the memento mori in art takes over, becoming a literal statement even more than a metaphorical one. But the skull’s great size overpowers us symbolically as well. Hardly subtle in its appearance, the sculpture weighs in with its totality of appearance; like all of Fritsch’s art, it cannot be mistaken for anything other than it is, but in this case it is even more of an absolute quiddity. The use of the skull is so traditionally ubiquitous as to make us unmoved by Fritsch’s reiteration. Yet her audience, which by this point is accustomed to her practice, knows that her art transforms customary use of the image into something new and strange. The skull, placed on the gallery floor and the first thing visitor encountered in the show, is both a demonstration of death’s awareness and a warning: art can never completely overcome our fear of endings, in this case ghastly ones. WM
Johnathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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