New York

Vera Lehndorff and Holger Trülzsch

In their latest show Vera Lehndorff and Holger Trülzsch confronted viewers with an installation of two dissimilar kinds of work—one that accordingly resists ready interpretation. There were the photographs for which they are best known. In these, Trülzsch paints the otherwise naked Lehndorff so that, when photographed, her body disappears—here into an amorphous backdrop of rags and cloth cuttings. This device, though obvious, has proven to be consistently effective for the artists. Opposed to the photos were a series of comparatively hermetic sculptures: tall, narrow wooden boxes which contained material resembling cast-off scraps from dress or jacket patterns. As an odd kind of finishing touch, the artists took a small reproduction of a photograph—the classic image, taken in Pompeii, of the imprint left by a dog—and taped it to the floor under a piece of Plexiglas.

Taken alone, the photographs show an obviousness that is both self-contained (in the sense of being immediately comprehensible) and self-effacing (in the sense of the background engulfing the figure). Lehndorff and Trülzsch exploit the tension between painting and photography to good effect; our gaze runs smoothly back and forth across an expanse of material until it snags on some telltale sign, and all at once a body coalesces. Now the camouflage that fooled us so well just a moment ago looks rough and choppy. Technical competence no longer daunts us once this reverse trompe l’oeil has been discovered; we revert to our seemingly secure expertise in codes of realism. The camouflage painting on the frames, which matches that within the photographs, invites firsthand examination. Out in the open, it looks comparatively hapless, indexing the fallibility of a deflated illusion.

Lehndorff and Trülzsch’s inversion of typical figure/ground organization partakes of a distinct formal tendency which runs the gamut from Jackson Pollock’s allover compositions to what Leo Steinberg called the “flat bed” paintings of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Robert Smithson’s entropic sculpture. Confronted by the work’s optical trick—or, rather, the lag time it entails—the viewer must acknowledge a generalized pictorial a priori: that the picture’s bracketed verticality must confer importance on “something to be seen,” and that this importance inevitably attaches to a figure, not a ground. The game of finding the figure is organized around scopophilic pleasure. Yet even positive identification seems tentative, uneasy at best. What’s to insure that the background won’t reclaim its prey?

Because the photographs’ formal paradigm is so strong, the differences between them seem, for the most part, unexceptional. With only subtle nuances to distinguish them, their seriality becomes naturalized. (That’s not necessarily a liability.) But one particular picture does stand out: in Sirius XV, Prato, 1988, a pair of open eyes staring straight into the camera stop us dead in our tracks. Suddenly finding these in a tangle of threads and bric-a-brac momentarily gives rise to the fear that all along we’re the ones who’ve been watched.

Unlike the photographs, the sculptures, each standing well over seven feet tall, assume an immediate corporeality. Contained inside these boxes (which are slightly reminiscent of coffins) is a maudlin assortment of pattern remnants. With their accumulated small piles of fluff or lint, these boxes recall the decay of a corpse. They have a whiff of surrealism about them, the boxes themselves recalling those of Joseph Cornell, and the cloth cutouts, articles by Marcel Duchamp. Being totemistic constructions that ultimately show the figure’s absence, the sculptures prove to be conceptually opposite to the photograph, where figures emerge from the void.

Finally, there was the unprepossessing yet peculiar picture of a dog, a seemingly offhand gesture which not only punctuated the rest of the show but also pulled it together. This dog image literally became part of the ground one walked upon. Here, the themes of the absent figure and the figure reclaimed by the ground—the earth itself—converged. But why a dog in this case? Humility, perhaps.

John Miller