Frank Dornseif

For Frank Dornseif, coming to terms with the figure is the only challenge worthy of the name of sculpture. He has deliberately chosen to work with the conventions of traditional sculpture, but he takes them to extremes and frees them of their customary associations. By inverting the proportion of mass to volume, Dornseif creates figures that are “described” by airy contours. Their corporeality is only illusory, for they consist entirely of steel tape enclosing empty space. The sense of touch is betrayed not only by the illusion of volume but also, paradoxically, by an aspect of the works' actual, material presence, for if you ran your fingers along the elegant contours of the pieces you would injure yourself. The steel tape has been welded together, producing barbed points and knife-sharp edges, and the entire surface is rusty.

In making his figures, however, Dornseif is never concerned with representing some particular reality of the visible world, only in investigating the idea of the body—as illusory volume, contour, shadow—and the sensuality of bodies full of erotic tension, bodies that entwine. His exhibition of sculpture at the Hamburger Kunstverein, entitled “Raum für einen Traum” (Space for a dream), featured an assortment of these shadow figures. As you walked around each one, its overall form dissolved into individual abstract elements. With a single step, what appeared to be a face drawn in space with Matisse-like elegance of line decomposed into a Picassoesque kaleidoscope, of facial elements.

The figures were lit in such a way as to allow their shadows to wander on the wall as you moved. In some of the works, the shadow is more important than the figure. The shadow may be transformed into a third dimension by the way the piece is lit; at other times it may become a drawing on the wall. Or a figure may meet its own shadow on the floor in the form of white lines, or wide swaths of plastic material, or even as sculpture, as a block of plaster. It was often impossible to tell what was shadow and what was figure.

The most important theme in Dornseif's work, after the shadow, is eroticism. Even when making sculptural portraits of himself and his friends, he always “draws” the faces with full, sensuous lips and eyes filled with desire. Included here was Schatten mit Sockel (Shadow with pedestal, 1987), a work that shows a couple embracing—the man with an erection, the woman wearing only panties—which Dornseif made for Berlin's 1987 sculpture boulevard. This piece, although it projects the same energy that comes through in all of his works, almost slips into the routine of a tried and true solution, whereas the early works live more on the brittle edge of experimentation.

Concurrently with this exhibition, Dornseif showed drawings at XPO Galerie Ida Kaufmann. The drawings are actually blueprints for Dornseif's welds, drawn on very large sheets of paper, that have survived the welding process. Most of the blueprints are destroyed by the flames; but sometimes the welding torch produces a network of filigree whose elegant lines are broken only here and there, leaving the drawing more or less intact. The resulting piece contains a tremendous tension between the beauty of line and the coarse traces left by the labor that produced it.

The process of making art is a corollary theme of all of Dornseif's work. Just as in the sculptural works the rough welded metal disturbs the beauty of form, so too in the drawings the burns upset the beauty of line. These traces of the working process function as a corrective to what is usually an all too smooth esthetic.

Doris von Drateln

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.