New York

Cosima von Bonin

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

At the rate of one exhibition every dozen years, Cosima von Bonin seems to be perpetually having her first show in New York; and yet her subtlety and sophistication are unmistakably those of a mature artist who plays by her own rules. There’s a built-in sense of unfamiliarity in her work, which is compounded further by von Bonin’s chameleon-like habits as an artist. She thrives on constant variety in media and flexes the role of the artist in such performative activities as DJ, curator, and ready collaborator. An apparent lack of continuity serves strategically as a distancing device—with the effect that we have to reinvent our relationship to her art each time we encounter it.

Von Bonin amplified that sense of confrontation considerably in this exhibition, titled “Kalt Modern Teuer” (Cold modern expensive), by pointing a twenty-nine-foot-long red-and-white steel-tipped rocket (Riley, 2002) straight at the entrance to the gallery and, hence, directly at the viewer. By coincidence, her big welcoming gesture of “friendly fire” happened to be accompanied by round-the-clock media coverage of the US war in Iraq, including plenty of pictures of similar-looking missiles: the Scud, the Tomahawk, the Patriot—though, to be sure, none with a laid-back, easygoing name like Riley. Von Bonin’s humor flashes into view and ripples from a prototypical, albeit vaguely dysfunctional, weapon of war, to six craftsy, quilted fabric “paintings” hung nearby. Carefully patched, stitched, and stretched from pieces of wool, cotton, and loden cloth and embroidered with a cute cluster of mushrooms—one of von Bonin’s personal motifs—they play off feminine conventions just as her missile mocks stereotypical masculinity.

Situated in the midst of the obvious “gendericity” of beautiful, soft quilts and a giant, hard projectile was a simple, free-standing, vaguely architectural sculpture titled John James, 2002, after a character from the television series Dynasty (or Der Denver Clan, as it’s rendered in German). Fabricated from chipboard and painted white, the humble, Nauman-like structure consisted of a couple of sawed-off swinging doors reminiscent of those on bathroom stalls or changing rooms. You could walk through the doors, but there was nothing to enter, nothing to experience except the other side (demystified at last!) and perhaps a fleeting sense of imaginary exposure—as if you were caught with your pants down, inadvertently flashing your uglies.

One thing that wasn’t on view was the artist herself. Her work might well manifest the signs and/or symptoms of personal investment—her favorite forms worked by hand, the use of loden cloth as a reference to her German identity, the affinity for American pop culture—but such quasi-narrative fragments can function doubly as the fodder of absurdity, sarcasm, even irony. Often it’s difficult to get a read on von Bonin’s work; sometimes it’s impossible—and she never explains anything. I don’t find it particularly productive to seek out her motivations or intentions or the personal meanings she incorporates into her art; her work has always seemed far too open and fluid to sustain any explicit narrative focus. Nonetheless, the emphasis von Bonin places on the relational aspects of art practice is compelling, whether through forms of collaboration with fellow artists or with viewers in the production of the personal associations that round out the work.

By coincidence von Bonin’s husband and sometime collaborator, Michael Krebber, made a return exhibition in New York after a hiatus of many years, overlapping with hers (four blocks away) and featuring “paintings” that consisted of green gingham fabric and several fuzzy stretched blankets printed with prancing stallions. While he references earlier gingham works by von Bonin, her good ol’ Riley could be seen ostensibly as taking aim at Krebber—or, more benignly, as making a connection from one place and practice to another. (Either way, she blew him away.) Whether by accident or design, the prevailing “all in the family” sensibility that animates von Bonin’s funny-strange, expansive art evokes and extends the themes and qualities of Rosemarie Trockel’s practice—the fearless tread on sacred subjects, the hybridized “Conceptual feminism,” the criticality, wit, and elusiveness. Von Bonin’s own edge, humor, and critique conspire to web conceptual thinking with personal elements, to mix abstraction and needle-point, and to merrily break a bunch of other rules about what art can be.

Jan Avgikos