Isa Genzken is a German artist for whom recognition has come slowly, whose work, particularly her sculptures, deal with issues of novel materials, their civic use and representation. These have strong roots in 20th century German art (see also Post 8). Genzken is regularly included in international surveys, such as this year’s Munster Sculpture Project (07) and while not to the fore in matters of fabrication, installation or digital documentation, nevertheless produces work that consistently deals in the redirection of social functions for objects and materials, rather than traditional concerns with volume or native perception of solids and their isolated formal properties.
Genzken’s work has included the ready-made and readily-made (see also Posts 25, 36 and 49), documentation (see also Posts 4 and 17) and installation and usually entails elaborate sociological and personal research. Her method is mainly concerned with displaying connections between design, often seemingly decorative elements and more underlying functions and aims. At the same time, finding the means to demonstrate these links in itself often brings surprising contrasts and comparisons.
As with much recent art concerned with underlying social and economic forces, Genzken looks to architecture for a grander design. Works from the late 80s such as Wabe (honeycomb) (1988) and Kirche (1989) offer simple models, yet crucially, materials defy scale and their placement upon a high, narrow, four-legged stand, invites considerations of the height and actual extent of the work. Each structure relies upon a contrasting structure to display it, is soon contrasted firstly with its stand as much as notions of honeycomb (Wabe]) or church (Kirche). The work accents materials including ready-made objects in this way, their use as models or reference that is in some respects literal, in others symbolic. The line between presentation and representation falters. The sense is of a playful ‘rebuilding’ of reference in this way. Fenster (1990) also echoes the crude model with its ‘framing’ stand, offers perhaps a suitable height and dimensions for a window, but then begs questions of further purpose – and material. The theme is taken up in an installation – Everyone Needs at least One Window (1992) at The Renaissance Society, Chicago, where Genzken provided large ‘free-standing’ frames in industrial materials and casual construction, this time geared to the scale of the exhibition space. Notably the installation also includes photographs of city streets and x-rays (of the artist) – linking windows here to pictures and surrounding society, allowing the architectural requirement physiological, psychological and sociological extension.
Other works from this time, such as the More Light Research paintings, spray lacquer through fabric templates and fixtures, produce pictures that again maintain a literal, 1:1 scale, yet now give design a pictorial dimension, part print, part abstraction. Amongst Genzken’s best known works is the massive Rose (1994) a rare foray into fabrication; here scale and materials (painted steel) take on an architectural scale, at odds with location and content, select and redirect what is represented.
Her concern with industrial materials, if not always finish, is sometimes reflected back onto architecture, in playful ways, but increasingly, Genzken has used greater modification and mixing to her materials and models, as in Flugzeugfenster (2003) with its vigorous yet somewhat cursory painting, indicating décor and window to the curved airliner wall panels. Again there is the window/picture motif, but as importantly, painting is not just of windows or interior, supporting panels are a model or reference in shape and scale, but not in others. The play is again between materials and their selective use as reference.
Painting and pictorial elements of course, presume reference and Genzken’s flicks and drips never quite escape art history or summon a non-pictorial application here, at best figure as knowing decoration. They are augmented in following works by various adhesive tapes and ribbons that suggest wrapping, perhaps repair even to polished metal surfaces, and where combined with photographs, recall earlier assemblage, particularly the work of Rauschenberg, although with less emphasis upon dilapidation and recycling. Here the wrapping is now part of the ‘gift’.
Many of Genzken’s more recent works approach the figure, especially the vulnerable or dependent, either through metaphor of dolls, or sometimes reading lamps that stand for heads (and ideas!) or metonym of furniture, clothing, implements or prosthetics. Where architectural works stress the compartmentalising and collectivising to civic design, her figurative works similarly imply a definition of the person from available materials. Heights, lengths and mobilities are gauged, waterproofing, shading and warmth recommended. Colours co-ordinate or integrate, startle or warn. There are still spills of coloured fluid, in prescribed doses or diets, attractive or unfortunate as prominent and permanent stains. And there are misplacements and misuses, essential to human endeavour, humane engagement.