Thomas Schütte

ARC Galerie Crousel-Robelin / BAMA

Thomas Schütte’s exhibition at ARC opened with a series of teller’s windows reminiscent of those found at the entrance to a theater or stadium. No transactions or exchanges occur at these openings, however, and ironically, they make the facades into which they are set appear exaggeratedly empty. Entitled Controllo, 1988, this piece is like a ghostly shell—the site of some blind inquisition. At the border between two scarcely distinguishable spaces, these windows suggest a model for the act of criticism.

Beyond this first passageway a single row of maquettes betokens an anecdotal disposition. Signs of conventional theatricality are not exactly oblique, but, rather, turn critically on the mechanisms of the art world, not so much to condemn or to mock them as to expose the process that brings the artist and his or her work into circulation. These houses, simultaneously studios and homes, are conjugations of different models: rural, industrial, or strategic. Yet none of them takes precedence; in this sense they seem like hypotheses, or empty exercises.

Their experimental quality is again underscored by their unfinished nature. Conceived as purely functional, the ordinary wood out of which these maquettes are made is painted with little concern for perfection. The tables upon which they are placed serve not simply as devices, but as an integral part of the work. The act of exhibition is turned in on itself, hence the ambiguous status of these maquettes; as they were not destined to be realized, the levels on which they operate are continuously shifting. Their theatrical, historical, and utopian dimensions interact, shift, and undo one another.

That at times these houses exhibit anthropomorphic qualities is not surprising, as the human figure, as model, is central to Schütte’s project. In Vier Schwestern im Bad (Four sisters at the bath, 1989), a piece in which busts of women surface from blue gravel and gaze absently across one another, a wordless exchange is fulfilled and at the same time thwarted. After the viewer initially recoils before these forbidding and tragic masks, there is a lingering fascination, but it is uncompromising, and the viewer soon feels excluded by this game of gazes.

Humor plays an important part in Schütte’s work. The watercolors presented here consist of still lifes, quick sketches of day-to-day objects, and references to word games that affirm realities while simultaneously dissipating them. With these watercolors, Schütte deliberately engages Modernist dogmas that determine artistic technique. Schütte’s goal is not to invest this deserted space with new meaning, but to make studies of Modern art, which are, paradoxically, works of art.

Schütte’s method succeeds in reconciling the irreconcilable and profoundly criticizing the status and institutions of Modern art with works that are fascinating and even beautiful. The casual beauty of the works prevents his irony from becoming ponderous or monotone. In the multiplicity of spaces that Schütte’s work outlines, nothing is possible and at the same time everything becomes possible.

Alain Cueff

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.