Sunday, January 20, 2013

Everyone but Trockel

The Rosmarie Trockel show at the New Museum, which closed this weekend, was one of their better exhibitions in recent years.  Called "A Cosmos," the name resembles Mickalene Thomas's recent show "Origin of the Cosmos" and both include a variant of the well known Courbet painting "Origin of the World."  Trockel's version (above) shows the female anatomy replaced by a poisonous spider.

A Cosmos is a welcome overview of Trockel's art, but it is also a window onto the cosmologies of other creative individuals.  That is it's greatest virtue.  Co-curated by Trockel and Lynne Cooke of the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the exhibition showcases the work of numerous characters on the fringes of the artworld, including a team of anonymous botanists, several outsider artists, and a glass-model maker.  These are people who have inspired Trockel, and they more than earn their keep when displayed along-side her impressive and chameleonic work.  Indeed, they overshadow her contributions to the show.  As a self-curatorial effort this is an exercise in humility, and Trockel has done museum-goers a service by drawing attention to some underappreciated artists, including at least one whose work has not been exhibited before.

The net effect is a kind of Wunderkammer.  Wunderkammern came into vogue in the Renaissance hundreds of years before the invention of the modern museum.  The juxtaposed what we would consider artworks (Western paintings and sculptures) with exotic artifacts, crystals, fossils, and animal specimens, among other curiosities.  One goal was to balance human-made objects with natural objects, united by their capacity to instill a sense of wonder.  Trockel has followed in that tradition, including, for example, the exoskeleton of a giant lobster and an replica of a palm tree (suspended from the ceiling of a white tiled room--see the top).  She also includes drawings commissioned by José Celestino Mutis, a mathematician turned botanist, who went on an expedition of the New World in order to document unknown plant species.  The prints that were created under his direction are strikingly mathematical (right).  They convert vegetal forms into geometrical abstractions.  This is a category violation, like Trockel's tree.  It lies on the border between the natural and the artificial.  An even more striking example is shown above.  Leopold Blaschka was a bohemian glass artist who made stunningly beautiful models of sea creatures that are so lifelike that they almost seem to move.  A half dozen of his creations are included in the exhibition.

Trockel and Cooke also give prominent place to outsider artists.  Among them, Morton Bartlett, who has recently gained visibility, including a major show last year at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.  (The image above is from the New Museum web page.)  Mostly working in the 1950s, Bartlett was a self-taught artist who crafted exquisite clay models of children, which he painted and dressed in painstakingly sewn outfits.  He then took vaguely erotic photographs of these models, which he never shared with the outside world.  Both the sculptures and the photos were discovered in 1993, a year after Barlett's death.

The exhibition also profiles less known outsider artists.  On view for the first time (I believe) are books created by Manual Montalvo, a Spaniard who was trained as an artist before a psychological break that lead him start creating remarkable hand-drawn books.  These were, for me, the highlight of the show.  Each contains countless pages of densely packed illustrations, covering a specific class of objects, such as mammals, birds, vessels, famous monuments, famous people, and national flags.  Only one page of each was on view, unfortunately, but these suffice to indicate that Montalvo is a major talent whose books will soon be well known by connoisseurs of artists working outside the artworld.  They are like visual encyclopedias, drawn in miniature, with tiny captions that would put Medieval manuscript illuminators to shame.

Another revelation for me was Judith Scott, an artist who cannot hear or speak and suffers from Down syndrome.  When she was 40 years old, she began making sculptures of out yarn.  Sometimes monochrome and sometimes multi-colored, they are unlike anything I've ever seen.  Their forms are organic, but full of irregularities that would not exist in nature, suggesting some mysterious function.  They look, as Kant would say, both purposive and purposeless.  The curators placed these in a room with Trockel's acclaimed "yarn paintings."  Pictured in the background above, these are usually described as a feminist critique of minimalist abstraction--they are like Barnett Newman paintings only made out of a material that has been denigrated as feminine, and hence only worthy of craft.  The yarn paintings in the show are impressive.  Juxtaposed with Scott's creations, their political punch is softened, and they seem instead to serve as a bridge between the work of this isolated artist and works in the modernist canon.

The curators also included a couple of contemporary "insider" artists, whose work deserves more attention.  I was particularly taken with this wall mounter hairball by Günter Weseler, an 82-year-old who has spent decades making these things that look like the spawn of spooring shag carpets.  What's more, this one moves!  Pulsating gently, it is an animatronic fiber-art alternative to conventional paintings.   Imagine what galleries would look like if this sort of thing caught on.  Trockel pays homage in a piece that consists of a baby model in a bassinet, with a fly on her face,wearing a Snoopy outfit, and threatened by a pulsating Weseler-like form encroaching on her head (left).  The effort seems contrived next to Weseler's more understated wall-hanging.  Then again, a jackhammer would be more understated.

It would be unfair to Trockel to suggest that her contributions to the show are unsuccessful.  Quite the contrary, she confirms her reputation as one of the most interesting and versatile artists at work today.  Her yarn paintings, photographs of Styrofoam, and hand-made book and magazine covers are among the show's many highlights.  Those covers, which I haven't yet touched on, have been part of her practice for decades, and they are a charming window into Trockel's creative imagination.  Here too, we see her paying respects to other artists.  The example on the right, from an imaginary periodical called Most Need Beauty, shows a photo of Agnes Martin.  Martin is a good icon for Trockel.  She is a woman working in the male-domianted minimalist world, which Martin mocks with her yarn work, and she is an artworld insider whose own persona is more like an outsider.  Trockel herself does not come across as an outsider, but her curatorial contributions indicate that she looks regularly outside the establishment to find inspiration.  Here she has graciously shared some of the people on whose forgotten legacy she draws.