Paloma Varga Weisz

NATURAL SCIENCE IS EMBARRASSED by the question of the missing link. Worldviews informed by religion face other problems. Instead of bridging anatomical gaps, they seek psychological continuities between man and creature, consciousness and instinct. In many ways, Paloma Varga Weisz's carved wood sculptures (all works 1999–2000) suggest a religiously founded alliance between man and animal. Stylistically this religious outlook emerges in the way the figures, hewn of limewood, refer directly to predecessors from the history of sacred art. Through their garments, posture, and physiognomy, they often evoke a late-Gothic vocabulary of forms. In fact, at first glance they might easily be confused with representations of saints or biblical figures. The show's very title—“Demut” (Humility)—sets a tone of piety. And the quiet presence of these figures, their devotion to the conditions of an animal-human existence, corresponds to the idea of servitude, of willing self-subjugation.

Into this formal and spiritual context Weisz places the sign of the animal, or rather of the living creature on a tightrope walk between animal and man. This begins with animal-man symbioses, like a Hundemensch (Dog-man) walking upright, with a human face and hanging, floppy ears, and continues with the Mäusekind (Mousechild), a mouse that carries a rotund child's face within its gaping maw. In this piece, the bestial theme of swallowing whole is thus transfigured into that of the depth of a mother-child relationship. On the human head of the sculpture Frau mit Maus (Woman with mouse), a mouse stands up on its back legs. Animalistic-atavistic traces may be discerned even in such Bible-inspired figures as the Haarige Frau (Hairy woman), a woman completely covered with hair but otherwise naked. With this sculpture the figure of a hairy Mary Magdalen is apparently making a comeback on the stage of art; the “nameless sinning woman” of Luke's Gospel, whose sins are signs of her love, is associated with the wild innocence of the animal. In her drawings, Weisz depicts a mute discussion between tall humans and seemingly miniaturized animals that stand upright.

A further level of the animal asserts itself in Weisz's sculptures when the central motif is not so much the physical aspect, but rather the suggestion of animals' superior powers of perception. The Doppelkopffau (Double-headed woman) is crowned with a Janus-like head, while the Doppelaugenfrau (Double-eyed woman) stares at us with two pairs of eyes, one on top of the other; the Dog-man has three such pairs of eyes. Such doubling or tripling of the eyes produces in the viewer an effect of blurred vision—it is remarkably difficult to fix one's gaze on faces depicted this way. But on the other hand, the multiple eyes seem to equip the figures themselves with greater faculties of perception.

With all its religious references, Weisz's work is nonetheless devoid of any reference to a higher power. Instead, “lower” beings are evoked, earlier stages of evolution, which the work approaches through a quasi-religious reappraisal, as it were. In the silent dialogue between man and animal, between upright gait and animalistic garb, we are immersed in a psychologically conceived animal kingdom that is neither familiar nor strange. Somewhere, then, there dawns a search for mutual shelter, in which we realize that we are abandoned by higher powers and are born lonely into the world.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.