Tuesday, 8 April 2008



An exhibition at the Donald Young Gallery, Chicago, occasions a review of this distinguished German artist. Like many contemporary Rhineland artists, Trockel favours a diversity of materials, divides her attention between two and three dimensions, found and made work, installation and video. Moreover, such artists are often happy to collaborate, to assist or contribute to collective works, to further disperse individual and medium-specific meaning. This versatility presents special problems for interpretation, makes it difficult to give work a focus or priority, to relate themes along such variation. In much criticism, themes are typically identified without compelling explanation of how they arise from materials; seek the benefits of style without the obligations. Trockel was among the first to adopt this distinctly open approach in the late 80s and has influenced following artists, such as Cosima von Bonin. She provides a good example by which to survey the trend.

Trockel began as a Neo-Expressionist in the late 70s, a contemporary of the Mulheimer Freiheit Group in Cologne, but soon looked beyond painting for her pictures, soon looked beyond pictures for her samples. A pervasive influence to the region and era is Sigmar Polke. In particular, Trockel’s presentation of knitted patterns and pictures as ‘paintings’ and similar use of printed fabrics owes much to Polke’s use of such printing as support to paintings. Polke, perhaps more than even Richter, exploits painting as a demonstration of print properties, as a critique of depiction and the role of painting. Print is pursued from photographic processes to looser tracing and stencil, easily accommodates found textiles as a further step. Polke is rarely drawn to three-dimensional work, but the example of treating painting as the means to display or sample a wider category of picture, is a crucial prededent to Trockel’s collection and presentation of other materials.

The shift is not simply to ready-mades and installation. Ready-made material is displayed within an explicitly pictorial, ostensibly painterly category. Yet the category in turn, is obviously relaxed by such accommodation, becomes pictorial on broader terms, can be abstract or figurative, a work of sole instance, such as painting, or multiple instances, such as print or pattern, temporary or permanent. It is this two-way adjustment to category and elements that soon gives the project multiple but equal options, a strikingly unified field of activity that proves so attractive to Trockel, her contemporaries and followers, so confusing for others.

For, painting and two-dimensional work are not simply absorbed into three-dimensional concerns; ready-made material does not simply replace traditional or plain-made work. Each now serves as a phase or facet to a larger project under which categories are assessed, meaning revised. It is as easy and useful to make paintings of such material, as to make material from such paintings, to import to paintings or to export from them. The difference lies only in emphasis upon category or elements. Both are needed. This greater flexibility owes much to Conceptual Art and its attention to stages to a work (see also Posts 8, 17, 22 and 33) and performance, events and recordings or documentation to a work are similarly embraced, grant the work further stages and greater integration, as does participation of others or their work.

Beneath the themes of feminism, modesty or understatement and discursiveness, commonly detected in her work, it is important to grasp this more comprehensive framework. It accounts for the diversity to her material, urges a more expansive view of such themes, while affording comparison with similar approaches. However the jack-of-all-trades notoriously pays a price in expertise; and too many cooks tend to spoil taste. While Trockel can sustain impressive integrity across videos, installation, sculpture and pictures of various kinds, can include museum or scientific samples and sampling, furnishings, costume and prints - painting remains understandably cursory, often indifferent. The abstract motifs, for example, remain hostage to a by-gone Minimalism, in spite of importing domestic hotplates or flattened food graters, while kitchenware can seem a clichéd overture to female identity.

Yet beyond that, the person dwindles, threatens to dissolve. The theme of constraint or conformity to person – and usually woman – is common enough, but in the current show, a series of collages present a further and moving predicament. In works titled She Is Dead (2008) only a woman’s clothes remain, the rest of the picture a wooden panel scrubbed with thin colour, in others, swirling amorphous spray paint picture a person so vague or abstract, without clothes or role, she is the work of the instant, no more than seething atmosphere. In these works Trockel confronts a new paucity to painting, a more personal and disturbing one.

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