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See Reverse for Care
The time of fashion, therefore, constitutively anticipates itself and consequently is always too late. It always takes the form of an ungraspable threshold between a “not yet” and a “no more.” ―Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus?(1)
To encounter a painting by Kerstin Brätsch is to enter into a space of exhibition design where images behave according to a tailored logic of distribution, mutation, and mischief. From the thick paper employed for the majority of Brätsch’s outsized oil paintings to cousin paintings the artist refers to as “ghosts” (translations of previous works onto industrial sheets of mylar), the conventional material setting for painting is repeatedly sidestepped through choices of scale and surface. Often draped or hung by magnets, the paintings curl, warp, and unfurl from intermediary supports integral to the kinesthetic demands of Brätsch’s presentation. Painting is provisional here, beta-like. Affixed to temporary freestanding walls, protruding sheets of colored plexiglass and lattice-like beam structures evocative of Minimalism, the paintings engage varying support structures to reiterate and underscore a compositional dictum of her own: “Question the wall itself.”(2)
For a recent exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich, this interrogative stance took the form of sheets of colored plexiglass inserted into the gallery wall at a perpendicular angle in order to suspend and frame Brätsch’s Stars and Stripes Series (2010)—murky void-like washes of oil paint striated with a surface geometry of American coins were countered by the stark detours of shifting, multicolored stripe compositions. While a group exhibition at SculptureCenter, New York, found works from the geometrically inclined New Images/ Unisex Series (2009), adorning three temporary walls erected close together in the middle of the exhibition space. Both installations are examples of Brätsch pushing away from a pre-existing architectural context in order to compress and moderate the viewing experience of painting, referencing in the process not only the slideshow and preview functions of contemporary screen culture but also the rotating display structures of trade fairs and showrooms.
The support becomes part of the composition in Brätsch’s design, mimicking the placement, sorting, and stand-in qualities of display products and digital imagery. As another of Brätsch’s maxims indicates, such strategies embrace “painting as performance or as performative backdrop.”(3) Indeed, her solo exhibitions often deploy a re-shuffling of the paintings themselves, as in her 2009 show “BUYBRÄTSCHWÖRST” at Galerie Balice Hertling, Paris, and “BroadwayBrätsch/ Corporate Abstraction” at ArtBasel Statements 41. Sequencing is reconsidered, juxtapositions are played with, and the perceptual status of each painting is made contingent to a series of editorial decisions and performative gestures within her restive mode of display. At Balice Hertling, for instance, each of Brätsch’s eighteen roughhewn large-scale abstractions took turns hanging suspended in the main window of the storefront alongside a title poster featuring such appropriated or collapsed phrases as “SEE REVERSE FOR CARE” printed over an image of a bandaged hand or “HEAVY MÄDEL” atop a rudimentary digital abstraction. For the ArtBasel Statements presentation (also with Balice Hertling), a new series of Brätsch’s large-scale abstractions were housed in wooden frames and plexiglass—the frames designed so as to provide a transparent margin around the paintings—that allowed the works to lean in two-deep stacks against the wall and rotate into visibility according to a pre-determined schedule.
Recalling to a certain extent the dismantling of the hierarchy of armature and support in the Support/Surfaces movement of early 1970s France, the uneasy role of abstraction in Brätsch’s exhibition design also brings to mind El Lissitzky’s “Demonstration Rooms” of the 1920s. Constructed by Lissitzky primarily with expo-type scenarios in mind, the rooms evinced a potential synthesis of architectural support and artwork via an encompassing design that took into account not only the corporeal movement and perceptual shifts of the viewer, but also the manipulation of the support structure itself. A not dissimilar emphasis upon the place of exhibition as a “transfer station,” to borrow Lissitzky’s own description of his initial PROUN ROOM (1923), is productive in considering the host of references and stylistic influences that inflect Brätsch’s fast-paced, hybrid approach.(4) Indeed, viewers are often encouraged to look through kiosk-like structures (as well as shelving units and poster racks) housing Brätsch’s far-ranging interest in comic gesture, consumer lingo, pattern, and prefab surface materials. As with BOOK SHELVING UNIT #1 (2008) and BOOK SHELVING UNIT #2 (2008), where Brätsch’s oblique humor steps forth in a vertical vitrine-like display archiving images of bratwurst and hamburgers alongside images of men hunting and practicing archery, a book on Emma Kunz’s abstraction, diagrammatic images of absurd hairstyles, and a self-help book titled Treat Your Own Neck (2008), among other items. Promoting a kind of “fair use” clause into her practice, Brätsch’s version of a transfer station brings abstraction squarely into contact and contamination with a makeshift pop iconography that resurfaces throughout her practice.
Exposure to Brätsch’s abiding interest in image-sourcing and branding strategies quickly moves an overall consideration of her work away from the endgame heritage of abstract painting or the totalizing motivations of a utopian model that would seek to envelope the viewer in a synthesis of support and surface. For Brätsch, demonstrative style has more to do with the mix and match borrowings of high fashion, DIY subculture, and the manufacturing of persona found in advertising and online viral campaigns. Which is not to say that avant-garde tropes and the spectral desire for a collective aesthetic are left entirely behind. Rather, the untethered place of painting is shifted away from its most common territorial codes and introduced into a self-fashioned, recombinant method of distribution and wry fanfare. In making visible the various modes of production, applied techniques, image sources and surface materials at play, Brätsch asserts a kind of curatorial stance by donning and trading upon multiple guises, including her role as producer, performer, persona, exhibition designer and long-time collaborator with fellow German artist Adele Röder.
Founded in New York in 2007 by Brätsch and Röder, DAS INSTITUT is the collaborative entity that receives and mediates the majority of Brätsch’s production. Often described by the artists as a fictitious “import/export” company (readily encouraging the ironic connotations of trafficking in knockoff replica products, shady deals, etc.), the loose narrative conceit of the INSTITUT seems of less importance than the structuring of a network that adopts and articulates a visibility of production while emphasizing the techniques and applied expertise of its invited participants and contributors.(5) As the attribution of a given piece indicates, works are ascribed as being for use and presentation by the INSTITUT. WHEN YOU SEE ME AGAIN IT WON’T BE ME (2010)—KERSTIN BRÄTSCH FOR DAS INSTITUT (2010) for example, evinces how authorship is simultaneously acknowledged yet displaced into the artists’ brand. And though the collaboration can and often is extended to include other artists via invitation, DAS INSTITUT is first and foremost Brätsch and Röder, who likewise contributes her own digitally designed projections, posters, textile works, advertisements and support designs to the exhibition platform that is DAS INSTITUT.
And here art historian and critic David Joselit’s recent proposition that “Painting is beside itself” precisely in “practices in which painting sutures a virtual world of images onto an actual network composed of human actors, allowing neither aspect to eclipse the other,” seems particularly resonant in considering DAS INSTITUT’s method.(6) Through allowing and promoting a transitive potential whereby the body of painting becomes a form of translation once it is extended into a specific yet mutable network, painting can begin to resist or at least delay its assumed stance as the most readily collectible, reified art form. Existing not unlike a beta test for a new line of product, a Brätsch oil painting will often enter into the DAS INSTITUT circuit by taking up motifs from a digital image of Röder’s only to be subsequently fragmented and transposed back onto a new textile design by Röder and then further corrupted and dispersed into a collaborative poster, zine, or kiosk display. Starline Necessary Couture—ADELE RÖDER FOR DAS INSTITUT (2009), for example, is an index of abstract digital imagery created by Röder for DAS INSTITUT that promotes just such a transitive dynamic. Made entirely in Adobe Photoshop without importing any source material, Röder’s series of digital abstractions recall Constructivist and Futurist paintings and typographic design even as they are imbued with the limited sense of shadow and gradient possible within the parameters of a consumer-grade digital program. The longer you look, the more the layered abstractions seem to exist only on one plane, unable to pull you in or out of a convincing experience of depth—distorted instead into the unitary false mimesis of digital abstraction. Selected by Röder from a larger pool of images as a sampling source for Brätsch’s New Image/ Unisex Series, the digital series oscillates between subtle, garish, minimal, busy, seductive, and overwrought—qualities that Brätsch then borrows freely from, translates, and often compresses into a single composition.
Brätsch’s unique style of painterly distortion is perhaps even more evident in recent compositions. THE IF (2010), for example, from BroadwayBrätsch/ Corporate Abstraction Series, appears to introduce a figurative apparition toward the top of the painting in the form of an oval, forehead-like shape that emerges only to remain incipient. Undone by what appear to be brightly-hued, overlaid cutouts, a gestural grid-work is revealed upon closer inspection of the floating fragments, just as a thick granular application of paint builds up a competing ridge of attention along the right edge of the composition. With the undulant green pattern that intervenes between as yet another potential substrata—the various motifs repeatedly mis-register, fragment, and cancel each other, failing to achieve the implication of an allover effect. Similarly, WHO’S KERSTIN BRÄTSCH? (2010), from the same series, siphons from competing modes of abstraction—a swirling Op-Art effect of flesh tones, the welling up of black, cartoonish teardrops, and the noisy centrality of a pink geometric shape—all applied as if they were transposed from a hallucinatory clip art file.
While Brätsch’s paintings constantly reference past modes of advanced abstraction, they do so within the display network of DAS INSTITUT, embodying what Giorgio Agamben recently termed the “caesura of fashion” and its perpetual attempt (and inevitable failure) to demarcate what is in and out of style, the distinctive manner in which “Fashion can therefore ‘cite,’ and in this way make relevant again, any moment from the past (the 1920s, the 1970s, but also the neoclassical or empire style). It can therefore tie together that which it has inexorably divided—recall, re-evoke, and revitalize that which it has declared dead.”(7) The tacking nature of Brätsch’s practice is under constant revision and alteration—exhibition making as studio practice—and the caesura of fashion is repeatedly claimed, occupied, and then displaced. An advertisement for a recent exhibition in 2010 (“THUS!” DAS INSTITUT at New Jerseyy, Basel featuring: La Technique de Brätsch/DI Why Relax! Raincoats & Röder Desert Capes in cooperation with a DAS INSTITUT My Favorite Artworks As Cakes Baking Workshop”) makes the DAS INSTITUT process of citation quite clear. A photo features the two artists as models—Brätsch standing, Röder seated—paintings on the wall and floor behind, a hanging textile in between, and the artists up front, each holding a small monogram insignia for DI before them. A fashion shoot stripped bare, the network is up and running, authorship is dispersed, abstraction is corrupted, and the place of painting is on the move.
(1) Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus? (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 2009), p.48.
(2) Kerstin Brätsch, “My Psychic Atlas,” artist writing (No. 66), 2008.
(3) Ibid. (No. 29).
(4) As Benjamin H. D. Buchloh traces in his excellent essay, From Faktura to Factography, the installations that Lissitzky began in the 1920s eventually gave way to large-scale photographic displays that incorporated the perceptual shifts of his earlier experiments in abstraction with an iconographic repertoire of imagery more effective in relating politicized content to mass audiences—relegating the potential for a participatory, perceptual abstraction in favor of State campaigns. “Already in 1923 in his Prounenraum for the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, Lissitzky had transformed tactility and perceptual movement still latent in Rodchenko’s Hanging Construction into a full-scale architectural relief construction. For the first time, Lissitzky’s earlier claim for his Proun-Paintings, to operate as transfer stations from art to architecture, had been fulfilled.” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography,” October, Vol. 30 (Fall 1984), p. 91.
(5) While shades of Russian Productivism’s laboratory aesthetic come to mind—along with the temporary exhibition designs of Lily Reich and Mies Van Der Rohe and the collaborative efforts of Hans Arp and Sophie Taueber-Arp, including the couple’s collaboration with Theo van Doesburg on Café de l’Aubette in Strasbourg, which opened in 1928—it should also be stated that there is an obvious response in Brätsch’s work to German Expressionism and the related response of so-called “bad painting” (from Martin Kippenberger back to Sigmar Polke and forward to Albert Oehlen, etc.), just as Brätsch’s practice is very much in dialog with a wider circle of New York artists, including the installation tactics of Seth Price, Blake Rayne, and Cheyney Thompson, among others.
(6) David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” October, No.130 (Fall 2009), p.125.
(7) Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus? (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 50.