Joseph Zehrer

Galerie Ralph Wernicke

Joseph Zehrer is both a draftsman and a sculptor. So it seems quite consistent for his art to move back and forth between the second and third dimension. Zehrer uses transparency and immateriality to eliminate the dimensions’ boundaries. Having used silicon and iron extensively in past works, Zehrer here uses transparent plastic to create systems based on the structure of the alphabet.

26 drawings (all works Untitled, 1989) are grouped in one continuous plastic holder, which lies on the floor. Zehrer has assigned a different letter of the alphabet to each drawing, and the name of an intellectual to each letter, thereby producing a kind of visual biographical dictionary. His series begins with Atatürk and Beuys, and ends with Warhol; the Z spot remains blank, indicating a possibility of continuation. The drawings, mostly of faces, are applied to the paper with transparent oil. This highly unusual medium permits no sharp contours. The colorless faces look like apparitions. The place where the artist applies the oil to the paper soaks up the liquid fully, thereby becoming transparent. Thus, every drawing is to be seen from both front and back.

Zehrer’s second group of drawings, also arranged by letter, is raised off the ground; its theme is walking. The artist uses walking as a metaphor for advancement and progress. At the letter A, the tape is still on the ground; it then rises perpendicularly, taking on a semicircular shape before it finally loops up to the ceiling. This time, Zehrer assigns not thinkers but artworks to the individual letters: they may be archaic sculptures or modern paintings, but walking plays a crucial role in each of them. All have been reduced to the same format, unified by the immateriality of a photocopy on thin, transparent plastic sheeting.

Zehrer’s third piece crosses an entire room; it turns out to be a tribute to the artist Dieter Roth. Zehrer and Roth share a love of unusual materials; Roth sometimes used rubber, chocolate, cold cuts, and spices in his work. He also developed a personal alphabet of simple pictorial signs. In their form, some of Roth’s icons recall actual letters of the alphabet; others are less specific. The lines in a few of his pictorial signs conjure up concrete objects (a hat, lightbulb, motorbike, etc.); others elude identification. This inconsistency, this equivocality, point up the individual, artistic demand of Roth’s visual language. Zehrer has placed a set of these letters in a plastic box, so that the viewer can spell out a pictorial text on the wall. He first drew the individual letters of Roth’s pictorial alphabet on small, transparent plastic plates and designed red cardboard pedestals for displaying them against the wall. The gallery visitor can read a sentence that Roth wrote on the occasion of a memorial service at the outbreak of World War II: “And whenever anyone asks, ‘What’s this all about?’ I say, ‘I don’t know, just look at the wall, like a king in the days of yore. Perhaps something is written there?’”

Justin Hoffmann

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.