by Jacqueline Taylor // Dec. 17, 2020
White concrete walls and monumental high ceilings grant a clarity of mind and spirit in the gallery spaces of Sprüth Magers’ Berlin location, where two new exhibitions show works appropriate for our times. As many of us continue to discover, the forced long hours of solitude and social distancing can prompt a reckoning of self, raising questions about who we really are and how we can better coexist with the natural environment. With new works shown in Berlin for the first time, Cindy Sherman continues her decades-long concern with gender. Ten large-scale photographic portraits punctuate the expansive walls, drawing us in, challenging us to confront socially constructed images of what is considered “male.” Simultaneously, two flights up a solid concrete staircase, Andrea Zittel, an artist committed to living more simply, complicates the co-existence of untamed landscapes with the ubiquitous all-defining grid, in her ‘Works on Paper.’
Sherman’s single portraits dominate the gallery walls. Bright canvases of strong color depict the strange yet familiar backdrops of European landscapes, before which a single figure or couple stand out. Each one is an image of the photographer herself, heavily made-up to accentuate a gender non-conforming aesthetic. Curious eyes peer into the camera lens, staring at the viewer, as if to ask who is the more curious, the greater object of curiosity, and who is, in fact, being viewed? The figures in these portraits are dressed up, in bold lavish fabrics that seem to step out of the frame.
With the simple addition of accouterments—a pair of earrings here, a handbag there—the fluidity of gender becomes more defined, pointing to the ways in which small gestures can still blur the boundaries of what we understand as male and female. But it’s something in the way the figure stands, a subtle hunching of shoulders, a slight nod of the head, a tightening around the mouth, in an otherwise bold stance, that gives just the slightest hint of the socially constructed male. In one portrait, Sherman even appears to shake the figure, creating a sense of movement through multiple edges, alternatively implying an instability to the image. There is such richness to these portraits it is hard not to spend time with them, and as with all great works of art, their impact lingers long after you think you’ve left them behind.
Andrea Zittel offers a different take on reality. As an artist-activist, her singular life in the vast desert sands of southeast California, on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, prompts us to reconsider how little we really need to live well. Zittel provides a model for those of us reimagining working from home, and needing to recalibrate and reassess our priorities. Zittel uses art to interrogate the way we live, experimenting through various genres, from the sculptural and painterly, to the sartorial and the architectural. In all these forms, she probes the contradictory nature of freedom, questioning our consumption-driven society’s expectations, and exploring how constraints might in fact lead to liberty.
Twenty-six pieces of abstraction combine the painterly and architectural. Zittel takes the form of the grid: a ubiquitous shape found, she argues, in our everyday, from manufacturing, human organization, to the creative expression of urban systems. She deploys the controlling mark of this planar form to frame, divide, obscure and fracture flowing swaths of color, reflecting the landscapes of desert she inhabits. Each watercolor on paper is overlaid with precise black lines of varying widths, careful scaffolds that reduce the landscapes to the elemental. The approach is minimal, a modern architectural idiom that creates an analog to our current condition. Reduced to experiencing all our habits and relations within one confined spatial element, we are all forced to acknowledge the impact of control on our newly limited lives. For Zittel, this is the point. Yet, her ‘Works on Paper,’ with their subtle hues of sand and sunshine, provide a soothing effect, the flowing nature of watercolor and the fragility of paper finds form and stability in the architectural frame of the grid.
Presented at a time of deep self-reflection, both exhibitions prompt a set of questions that address our current moment, gently pushing us to consider the impacts of social construction, whether in relation to our (gendered) bodies or our wildly excessive, consumer-driven lifestyles.