Thomas Grunfeld

Galerie Tanja Grunert

At his fifth solo exhibition at this gallery, Thomas Grünfeld presented a group of works from 1986 and ’87 that he has described as “fragments of interior design” or “seven prototypes of form invention.” These included objects based on different kinds of furniture (including examples of what he calls “alienated furniture”) and various types of frames. He has presented similar kinds of objects at various shows over the past few years; now, gathered together in a single show—and with several additions and refinements—these were offered as a kind of repertoire. The changes are twofold. Unlike earlier examples of his “alienated furniture”—say, a fur-covered bed in the previous show—the pieces shown here were less like actual objects of interior decorating; and the materials have changed from very expensive to pointedly shabby—for example, from de luxe leather to a rubber sheet.

At first glance, some of these pieces—such as the wood-framed windows with small wooden sculptures on the sills—might look like readymades. But in fact these are “fake” readymades, carefully made reconstructions of specific historical manifestations of certain interior-design trends. Although they are accurate enough in their details to serve as actual furnishings, they are too absurd ever to perform any function. They are virtuoso in arousing false impressions that, when we take a closer look, are contradicted by a few crass details. We leap to conclusions that we are then forced to take back. For instance, a “curtain” surrounding an implausibly high glass-topped “table” appears to conceal some object underneath the glass; yet there is as little behind the curtain as there is to any of the works themselves. In a similar work, the “tabletop” is crowned with a small ornamental cactus. They are nothing but a collection of bizarre objects hung on the walls or standing in corners. Do they say something? If so, what? The artist aims at ambiguous meanings that elude us in our investigation of the formal details, such as the exquisite fabric covering the tiny buttons on the slit in the curtain. In one work, the artist placed a potted snake plant on a glass-topped yellow ottoman flanked by two plantless but otherwise identical ottomans. Compared to the more outrageous pieces in the show, this work seemed quite understated. It is neither critical nor affirmative, nor does it try to be anything but what it is. Yet it challenges us by its very ambiguousness.

The materials that Grünfeld chooses are meant to fit in with the culture in which each exhibition takes place. Here the pieces evoked the chintzy, bourgeois atmosphere of West Germany in the late ’50s and early ’60s, which the artist sees as still characteristic of the atmosphere in Cologne today. In a show in London last year he used the finest British materials, including particular products unique to that country. Despite this specificity, over and over again, we see in his work a proclivity for West German design of the ’60s—perhaps the expression of a nostalgic desire to reconstruct the environment of his childhood.

Two of the works shown here are particularly challenging. One is a ten-foot-high “curtain” made of heavy dark felt and imitation leather—the kind of curtain hung behind doors in German taverns to keep the cold out during the winter. But in this work, the curtain leads nowhere, instead forming an oval that curves senselessly toward the wall. It is divided in the middle, forming an exaggeratedly high slit that is subject to any number of misinterpretations: a gigantic slit skirt, a nun’s cloak, a monstrous vaginal fantasy, a cabinet of abortive illusions, or any other wrong track. Yet it is nothing but an extremely stylized vacuum.

The other challenging piece is a kind of impossible, two-part deconstructed “box,” entitled Display, 1987. An upholstered “lid” mounted on the wall is delicately lined with dirty pink foam rubber. Just below it, jutting out from the wall, is a flat presentation case with several unequal compartments; it looks something like a printer’s typecase, or a Mondrian-inspired vitrine. The two parts could be joined into a unit by means of a hinge; but there is no hinge—there is only emptiness. The rhetoric of dialectic, of popular philosophy in Germany, especially as vulgarized in newspaper features, always seeks “depth,” “obscure complexity.” But in Grünfeld’s oeuvre, this search is duplicitous: all the covers, curtains, and surfaces, however subtle, conceal no secrets.

Jutta Koether

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.