The Guardian 1989
Six Frankfurt artists, linked only by geography, have mounted an exhibition in Birmingham. Sacha Craddock reports.
THE only real link between the six artists currently exhibiting at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham is that they come from Frankfurt and they are not painters. New Concepts is a iffy good mixed show — truly mixed in that the artists are saying different things in very different ways. It was organised in Frankfurt and brought over as a package, which is sensible as it is all new to us. The six seem to complement each other.
Photography is used by four of the artists, but each for such different reasons that it is possible to forget what the medium is. The least helpful artist in the show is the only woman, Irene Peschick. Her quiet pictures are printed on still slightly-curled photographic paper and loosely pinned to the wall. On one is a low contrast colour test card on a television screen; on another is a series of pictures — a blown up contact sheet. She is the least helpful because initially it is dull, but persistence will reveal a journey. Blurred drunken images taken from a moving car at night are broken in and out of focus, the city lights become scorched lines while brief pieces of clarity will reveal the ordinariness of Frankfurt without sentiment or comment.
This set of work takes time to make sense. It is so undemanding that it gives the impression of an artist still at work, just called over to Birmingham to show what she is in the middle of. Another series of photographs by Ottmar Horl is pleasingly misleading. His intention, briefly explained in the catalogue, is to fix the camera somewhere else away from the individual control of the photographer. The large series of 36 pictures shows a corner of dull fenced-in landscape, taken from outside the fence from every sort of angle. The swirling giddiness and lack of gravity encourages an elaborate interpretation. It looks as if the photographer has been attacked and hurled to the ground in the process of snapping away. The joke is that the camera has been attached to a car wheel and set to take its own pictures. Is this one of the original Greens commenting on nuclear secrets? Is this a forbidden place with all manner of nastiness to hide? Ready-mades can be tedious on their own, but in front of the photographs they seem to say much about waste, badness and a present or past that can't be swept away.
The show is elegant, clean, tidy and fresh. A wall has been built inside the Ikon Gallery by artist and film-maker Urs Breitenstein. Made from Birmingham's own breeze blocks, it makes a slight right angle with a rounded pillar off centre. On to the real wall, the artist projects slides of over 200 different surfaces photographed in and around Frankfurt. There is a rhythmic change from brick to ivy, stone to plastic. Hideous or pretty, there is not time to draw conclusions or make associations between the different textured flatnesses. This piece is lulling in its con-stancy, there is no beginning, middle, or end, so the effect is of a general pleasantness. Time is always lost in a dark slide showing room, especially when no story is being told.
The only artist in the show to tell a story of any sort is Simpfendoerfer with his set of highly perfect colour photographs. For the last three or four years artists, (especially in Germany and US) have been literally using the expensive methods of advertising. Finish, effect, uncanny perfection, has often replaced the "look" of art. A young man is the star of these photographs; he is trying to make it in the real world. In one gold-framed picture he looks in on an ordinary working man with lunch of yoghurt on his desk. The very rough translation of the title is "We are tired and I am too". This is a very plausible scene, the everyday story of a middle-class prodigal son. The Knight is of the same young man tying up his shoelaces ready to leave to work. The photographs are large and uncanny, not oozing with sentiment, but their glossiness alone gives a disquieting effect.
The tableau photograph is becoming more and more common. This genre of hyper colour portraits of the familiar but unknown deals with the present, but also the past without re-representing it. The only works that could be nostalgic in feeling are the small sculptures by Heiner Blum. Heroic figures more commonly seen on the top of sporting trophies are attached to crosses of wood. The crosses are not Christian; they resemble plus signs and come out from the wall like brackets.
The very small sporting figures are placed on top of, underneath or just in the corner of a limb of the cross. They have the rosy days look of the Fifties. Whether throwing, kicking or holding, they are triumphant in their success. Some even hold the victorious laurel wreath. This is a dolls' house reality, the success lies in the relationship with the stands props and in their covering which is a uniform soft black.
The modern Bauhaus elegance of Jakob Mattner's reflections off mirrors make him seem out of place. But the formal work complements the others in its purely visual single-mindedness. He reflects light off mirrors arranged o the floor. The reflections of curves blur and sudden detail falls perfectly within the edge of white canvas hanging on wall. This is total illusion — grid moves to black in an arabesque of circle and hoop. It is geometric drawing-board art made because the canvases are blank. Frankfurt is a city of 700 banks. Like Birmingham it suffered the stigma of being soulless industrial city with the prestige of being an artistic centre. Frankfurt is building four new museums at the moment. Birmingham too, with less financial commitment, keen to encourage its own artists as well as attract attention from outside.
Although this exhibition could be seen just as an exercise in city twinning, it is m better than that. This particular choice of artists shows that a common geography can be as good a reason for making an exhibition as theme or likemindedness. A a return from here to there being planned.
© Sacha Craddock - March 1989