Isa Genzken Open Sesame
The Nature of the Beast
Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel High Street
April 5 – June 21, 2009
March 10 – April 19, 2009
It seems as if this spring is a moment for sculpture, and, in particular, women sculptors. Following a two-year refurbishment, the Whitechapel Gallery is back with two bold women; a stunning Isa Genzken survey and a yearlong commission by the Polish-born 2008 Turner Prize nominee, Goshka Macuga. The former fills the main galleries, while the latter inhabits a newly created space in a former library. As with her more recent ventures, Macuga explores the cultural history of the venue and melds it with recent events. Hence, The Nature of the Beast includes a bronze bust of Colin Powell, a Dr. Strangelove-like conference table, and a tapestry of Guernica, among other items. The tapestry, on loan from the Security Council chamber of the United Nations where Powell had spoken in support of the invasion of Iraq, was determined to be politically sensitive and so was covered during Powell’s speech. Picasso’s Guernica itself had visited the Whitechapel in 1939 with the help of the Stepney Trade Union Council to raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War. Hence the narrative that Macuga is tracing. Due to the nature of her approach, the atmosphere and appearance of each work is very much determined by the specifics of the situation. However, it is her heightened sense of craft that raises the work above mere social commentary. She seems to have moved from being a sculptor to being a creator of intellectual atmospheres. In this regard, like Kippenberger and Polke, Isa Genzken may well be the model for the intellectual peregrinations of today’s young contemporary.
Across two floors and three decades, we can safely say that, although the Berlin-based Genzken’s hand is entirely visible, her ideas have shifted and moved with her interests. Collage, painting, sculpture, photography, and assemblage (including wheelchairs) are treated equally as modes of thought and expression; her ideas range across subjects as diverse as minimalism, architecture, New York City, 9/11, and oil, among others.
With its tall ceilings, the Whitechapel is ideally suited for the lanky “monuments” scattered across its ground floor. Most prominent are a group of painted concrete sculptures on metal stands, which recall architectural models or archaeological fragments. They are in fact entitled Windows. Another series of painted strips of wood stand tall, like skyscrapers, totem poles, or screens. The most charming of the sculptures are her early Weltempfänger (transistor radios)—concrete casts of radios with real antennas sticking out. Their obdurate, silent non-functionality presents a pleasant riposte to Warhol’s cheery Brillo Boxes.
Like the most iconoclastic artists of her generation, Genzken does not seem to subscribe to one ideological or aesthetic orientation. Yves-Alain Bois has described her as a “bricoleur” and I believe this applies both to the work’s thrown-together physical manifestations as well as the artist’s intellectual travels. Though more specific, her approach seems very much related to Robert Rauchenberg’s idea of working between art and life.
It is Rebecca Warren’s exhibition across town at The Serpentine Gallery, however, that really stands out. It is often said that the earlier half of the 20th Century belonged to Picasso, while the latter was determined by Duchamp. Here in Kensington Gardens, it would seem that these two tangents happily find themselves moulded into Warren’s unfired clay mounds. Coming just after the YBAs, her work at first appeared to quote or appropriate certain masculine tropes—Brancusi’s plinths, the fleshiness of Rodin and de Kooning, Picasso’s surrealist biology—and to insinuate wit and humour into this very masculine gaze. Situated in a space of its own is Helmut Crumb (1998), a seminal piece in her development, one that marked her inclination toward appropriation and irony. A nice conflation of Helmut Newton and Robert Crumb—two very dick-on-sleeve, pervy artists—it reduces the sculptural figure to a tennis ball vagina attached to a pair of Crumb-favoured muscular legs towering over a smaller, skinnier pair entangled in pulled-down panties: that is, all leg and ass. Smoothly modelled and well-crafted, Helmut Crumb could be construed as a feminist statement. Certainly with pieces like Bunny (2002) or Pony (2003), both of which quote Degas’ dancer, it would seem that Warren’s attitude is to re-render these sculptural highlights roughly, and with a big smiley face.
However, this exhibition places greater emphasis on her “abstract” work—both floor-based sculptures and vitrines. Her recent creations are markedly more ambivalent, though her wit is still ever-present. For example, two metal sculptures that look as solid as any Tony Smith or Anthony Caro have, very disconcertingly, little pompoms attached; perhaps to “balance” the work out—both physically and intellectually. Another eight-part group, We are Dead I-VIII (2008), sit silently like melted Easter Island heads on pastel-coloured plinths, some coated with faint paint streaks. Let’s call these misshapen lumps of clay “zombie sculptures,” that is, not quite alive but not dead either. They seem to be created rather than appropriated, yet they also seem to spring from a readymade idea out of Warren’s re-examination of the modernist language: both charming and scary.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.